When we booked our Japanese Tea Ceremony in Kyoto, I did not expect it to be one of my favourite experiences on our holiday to Japan. I did know that it was a ritualistic way of preparing and drinking tea, and I had heard that guests of the ceremony had to follow certain rules – but I didn’t know why these rules existed, the purpose of the tea ceremony or what to expect as a tourist. I left the tea ceremony totally mesmerised by what I saw, learnt and experienced and those rules, or more eloquently put – Japanese tea ceremony etiquette – all served a purpose, and stand to teach us many principles that we could apply to our everyday lives.
Naturally, I am no expert in Japanese tea ceremonies and I learnt that one could easily write books on the subject. I even felt a little overwhelmed when writing this article as there is no way a single blog post can give it the justice it deserves. More than anything though, this article aims to lift the curtain on this mythical practice and highlight both what you will experience as a tourist, the Japanese tea drinking etiquette that one should follow, and how I believe the four principles of a Japanese tea ceremony could help everyone in day-to-day modern life.
- What is a Tea Ceremony?
- Why Experience a Tea Ceremony in Kyoto?
- What to Expect at a Japanese Tea Ceremony as a Tourist?
- Japanese Tea Ceremony Etiquette
- What Can We Learn from the 4 Principles?
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What is a Tea Ceremony?
Japanese tea ceremonies are engulfed in tradition and history; they offer a wonderful introduction to the Japanese way of life and the art of zen. In short, they are matcha tea rituals – a ceremonial and traditional way of drinking green tea leaves. They can be both informal, with light Japanese sweets and a small group that lasts up to 1 hour (chakai), or a more formal tea with a Kaiseki meal that can last up to 4 hours (chaji). The Japanese ceremony is defined by its principles and precise rules around the way the water is boiled, the way the tea is poured and the interaction between the host and guests.
For those that are interested in learning more, there are plenty of resources online that you can refer to to learn more about it. I recommend starting with good old Wikipedia, but if that’s not enough, here are some books you might enjoy reading.
What is the Purpose of a Tea Ceremony?
Tea ceremonies are held for a variety of reasons including the celebration of seasonal changes, a reason to meet with friends or business acquaintances or to celebrate the harvest of fresh tea leaves.
At the heart of it, the Japanese tea ceremony is for the guests to enjoy the hospitality of the host in a peaceful atmosphere that is very much cut-off from the fast pace of everyday life. I personally found it to be quite therapeutic; it offered peace of mind and was very much a form of meditating.
Why Experience a Tea Ceremony in Kyoto?
If travelling to Japan, no doubt your itinerary will include various cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – and you can absolutely experience a tea ceremony in any one of these locations. If your schedule allows it though, it’s worth booking a traditional ceremony in the place where it all started – the city of Kyoto. In fact, the three most common tea ceremony schools were established there. If you haven’t yet planned out your Kyoto itinerary just yet, I’ve got you covered! My super packed 2-day Kyoto itinerary features all the best places to see and includes the tea ceremony.
Where To Buy Tickets for a Tea Ceremony
Our tickets were booked from Maikoya in Kyoto, but they also offer tea ceremonies in both Tokyo and Osaka. We opted for the Kimono and Tea Ceremony and were joined by two other tourists. You can also book private tea ceremonies if you prefer, as well as geisha tea ceremonies that are hosted by maiko (apprentice geishas) and casual clothes ceremonies. Oh, and kimono etiquette is a whole other topic, but you can read about that here.
Tickets for 2 cost a total of around £100 and the experience lasted about an hour and a half. It began by our host helping me put on the kimono I had picked out from their selection and she styled my hair in a complementary bun. Once dressed, we were led to the tea room, where we were joined by two other guests.
The tea ceremony then began, and our English-speaking host talked us through the steps and symbolism of a traditional tea ceremony, as well as Japanese tea ceremony etiquette. We were offered light Japanese sweets before the tea, as is customary, and after watching our host prepare the tea, we were given the opportunity to use the utensils and make our own.
I would recommend Maikoya for a few reasons – not only was our host fluent in English and patient in explaining the various steps, but the main teahouse is located near Gion-Shijo train station between the Kamo River and Nishiki Market. Your ticket also gives you free access to Maikoya’s tea ceremony museum, with artefacts dating back to the 1600s.
What to Expect at a Japanese Tea Ceremony as a Tourist?
Admittedly, a tea ceremony that was organised for tourists to understand more about the culture is a lot more relaxed than I would imagine a real life ceremony to be. For example, we did not have to bring our own socks or fan like most websites suggest. These are provided for you and you are allowed to keep the socks as a memento of your tea ceremony.
At the end of the ceremony, you are given the opportunity to take pictures and ask your host further questions. There is also the chance to take even more pictures outside the tea room. In a traditional tea ceremony, each of the guests are assigned seating positions and titles – this was not the case for our tea ceremony, but more on this below.
What to Wear to A Japanese Tea Ceremony
For tourists who want to attend a ceremony purely to learn more about this mystical tradition, there is no specific dress code, especially if you go for the kimono experience as you will be changing out of your clothes regardless.
If, however, you have opted to attend the casual clothes ceremony or have indeed been invited to one as a guest, just make sure that whatever you wear doesn’t distract from the tea experience. That means no loud clothes emblazoned with big labels or gaudy colours. Your fragrance should also not be strong or overpowering as this would detract from the tea ceremony. This was something I wish I had known before hand as I make no secret that I love my strong fragrances. In summary, everything should be modest – your clothing, your perfume and your jewellery.
Japanese Tea Ceremony Room
A Japanese tea ceremony room typically has a tatami floor – a type of mat that is traditionally made from rice straw. You may see from the image below that there is a small wooden door to the bottom right hand side of the picture. This is where, traditionally, guests would enter the tea room. It forces guests to bend over to enter, symbolising humility. This tea room set up was designed for tourists visiting Kyoto to learn about traditional tea ceremonies, so don’t worry – the small door is not in use and you walk in from a normal door.
You’ll also find an alcove where a hanging scroll or seasonal tea flowers (chabana) are displayed. In the centre of the tatami sits a sunken hearth that holds the hot water and guests are sat around. During your tea ceremony, you’ll also get to use traditional tea ceremony utensils. You can read up on the utensils used here.
Gifts for Japanese Tea Lovers
Japanese Tea Ceremony Etiquette
Whether you are invited to attend a tea ceremony in Japan, or whether you book a tea ceremony, tea room etiquette remains the same and should be followed as a sign of respect to your hosts. Here are the main points to note.
Punctuality is considered a sign of respect and politeness amongst the Japanese and it is advisable to arrive 10 minutes early. This is particularly true if invited to a tea ceremony by a friend or business acquaintance.
Refer to what to wear to a Japanese ceremony. If purchasing a ticket to a tea ceremony like Maikoya, you will likely be provided with the white Japanese socks (known as tabi), but if invited to one, you will need to bring your own. Be sure to remove your shoes before entering the tea room or stepping on the tatami mat as a sign of respect – your host will have cleaned their home to receive you so it is only polite to do so. You may also want to bring a fan and place it in front of your knees after sitting. Reciprocate or return any gestures done by local guests by performing the same actions.
Pay Respect to the Hanging Scroll and Flowers
The calligraphy on the hanging scroll typically alludes to a theme which is selected for the occasion. It could feature well-known Buddhist sayings, poems or famous phrases associated with tea. They may also express the four principles of the Way of Tea – harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity – as was the case for the hanging scroll present in our tea room. Along with the hanging scroll, guests will also find a single blossom (or tea flower, chabana) in the alcove, which will lean towards or face the guests.
The flowers and the hanging scroll would have been carefully selected by your tea host, be sure to pay respect to them by complimenting your host on their beauty.
Follow the Seating Plan
Guests should follow the seating plan that has been organised by the host. After being invited in and complimenting the hanging scroll and flowers, find the seat that has been allocated to you and be seated. Remember to avoid stepping in the middle of the tatami and use closed fists when touching the mats.
Each of the seats have titles and the guests seated have a specific role to play. The tea ceremony host and teacher is known as teishu, the principle or the first guest is known as shokyaku, the second most important guest is known as jikyaku and the last guest is known as tsume. If you get stuck at any point, just follow the lead of the principle guest! It’s highly unlikely that you will be placed as the skokyaku at your very first ceremony.
Eating and Drinking
Before drinking the tea, your host will offer you some traditional Japanese tea ceremony food – typically a handmade sweet. You should consume the sweets completely, as leaving any thing on your plate would be considered impolite. Once you have consumed the food, your host will prepare and serve the tea. If you have bought tickets to a tea ceremony, your host will guide you on how to correctly hold the tea bowl and how to drink the tea.
Unlike a Western tea party, at a Japanese tea ceremony there is a time for conversation and time for quiet. This phase of silence would occur during the preparation of the tea; watch as your host prepares the utensils, hear the sounds of the water being poured and the whisk being stirred in silence. Enjoy the silence and harmony, appreciate the sounds and your surroundings – it’s all part of the ceremony. There should be no talking or use of smart phones during this time and even at the tea ceremony for tourists, you will be asked to leave if you do not follow these rules.
Compliment the host or teishu on your surroundings, yet address any questions to the shokyaku or main guest – questions that are sincere, genuine and show your interest in being part of the ceremony. Tea ceremonies are not the place for small talk and typically it is the shokyaku that will do most of the talking.
What Can We Learn from the 4 Principles?
There is much to be said about what can be learnt from Japanese tea ceremony etiquette and the Japanese culture in general, especially now as the whole world is living through a challenging time. We are forced to find that inner peace of mind and tranquillity when the future seems so uncertain. There are many things we could take away from this article to help us do just that, and they all revolve around the four principles of a Japanese tea ceremony: harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity.
Tranquillity (Jaku) & Zen
One of these principles is the art of zen, as tea ceremonies and zen are very much intertwined. It refers to the concept of awakening by doing simpler things, and I feel as though we all need to find happiness in simpler things as we have no option but to isolate and stay at home.
Respect (Kei) & Discipline
Tea ceremonies elevate hospitality into an art form, through the discipline required for a complex series of movements that must follow a certain order. It is this same discipline that we must find in ourselves to respect the rules that are being imposed on us during this current time, for the benefit of the wider community. Tea ceremonies themselves are a way of enjoying oneself by respecting values and we must do the same.
Harmony (Wa) & Wabi-Sabi
What I have yet to mention is wabi-sabi, a concept that has its roots embedded in traditional tea ceremonies. It is a concept that prizes authenticity and can be easily translated to ‘old and asymmetrical things are more beautiful’. In modern life, it almost feels as though we often invite stress, anxiety and depression in our relentless quest for perfection. Perhaps we should use this time to slow things down a little and appreciate what we have, just like one would do in a tea ceremony.
Wabi-sabi encourages us to focus on the blessings in our daily lives by celebrating the way things are as opposed to what we think they should be. As Maikoya explains it – when tea bowls are broken, we use gold paste to fix them – and thus beauty is found in the imperfection.
And as simple the concept of a tea ceremony may sound, it is considered one of the three classical arts of Japanese refinements, along with kado flower arranging and kodo incense appreciation. There is beauty in simplicity, as much as the imperfection. Think about how little utensils are used in the tea ceremony itself – not much is needed to fulfil the wider goal. If we were to translate that to our own life, think of how much our lives have become cluttered with things that we deem absolutely necessary, but in fact add nothing to our wider purpose.
Purity (Sei) & Mindfulness
And last but not least, remember that you can still practise mindfulness, even when the situation is far from ideal or when you are suffering. This was probably the lesson I learnt most. You see when attending a tea ceremony and wearing a kimono, one of the traditional ways of sitting is known as seiza, which involves sitting on the heels of your feet in a kneeling position. It was not imposed, but I wanted to feel fully immersed in the experience and sat in seiza for an hour. I did not notice the pain until the end when I stood up, but my knees were in absolute agony.
I have huge respect for our host, who explained that the most she had endured was five hours in this position. Throughout our tea ceremony, she remained calm and composed, without showing any sign of distress. Now, I am not saying deliberately go out and cause yourself pain, but we can definitely learn something from this. That mindfulness can be found in uncomfortable situations if we just focus on the good that surrounds us rather than the negative. I should also say that our host has been studying tea ceremonies for 10 years, and still has another decade to go before reaching the highest position she can achieve.
I hope that through understanding the ritual of a tea ceremony and the four principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity, readers can find the strength needed to keep persevering through these difficult circumstances. They are trying times for everyone, but I believe that with the right mindset, we can pull through.
For reference, this article was published during the pandemic of 2020. I’ve written a few articles that may be useful during this time, like 10 rewarding things that you could do at home and why it’s not too late to start a blog in 2020.
And for future readers, if you are planning a trip to Kyoto, you may want to have a look at my super packed Kyoto 2 day itinerary to make the most out of your time in this beautiful city!