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Traditional Tea Ceremony in Japan: Our Experience in Tokyo

a person scooping out ceremonial matcha during a traditional tea ceremony in japan

 

  Written & scientifically reviewed by Isabella Truong

Key Takeaways

  • The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, Chado, is based on Zen principles.
  • Chado emerged during civil unrest to promote inner peace.
  • Refined by tea master Sen no Rikyu in the 15th century.
  • Focuses on harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity.
  • Emphasizes etiquette and mindfulness.
  • Remains relevant in modern Japan, integrating with contemporary lifestyles.
  • Matcha, central to the ceremony, is a finely ground powder from the Camellia sinensis plant.
  • Ceremonial matcha is carefully harvested and processed.
  • Offers health benefits like antioxidants and L-theanine.
  • Traditional matcha preparation involves sifting, whisking, and savouring.

During our recent trip to Tokyo, Anita and I eagerly sought to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. What we did not expect was that we would come out learning so much more there was to drinking green tea. What we encountered from the ceremony was a time-honoured Japanese tradition of Chado, or the Way of Tea. With "Cha" meaning "tea" and "Do" signifying "the way of," Chado encapsulates a profound philosophy dating back five centuries. Rooted in Zen principles, it's not just about indulging in tea but about a journey towards enlightenment through the act of sipping tea.

Importance and Cultural Significance of the Tea Ceremony

In an era of civil unrest, Chado emerged as a sanctuary for the Japanese people, offering solace and spiritual cleansing amidst the chaos. Its enduring significance lies in its ability to cultivate perceptiveness and inner peace, making it a cherished aspect of Japanese culture even in modern times. This authentic tea tradition continues to influence Japanese society deeply.

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History of the Tea Ceremony

Origins of the Tea Ceremony in Japan

Our exploration of Chado led us to discover its origins, dating back to the 9th century when tea was first introduced to Japan from China. However, it wasn't until the 15th century, under the guidance of tea master Sen no Rikyu, that Chado evolved into the structured ceremony we know today. The development of Chado in the 16th century brought profound philosophical and aesthetic refinements.

Over the centuries, the tea ceremony underwent significant evolution, influenced by various philosophical and aesthetic movements. Each era contributed to its refinement, resulting in the diverse practices observed across different schools of Chado.

The Tea Ceremony Experience in Tokyo

Tea hostess Mika demonstrating the traditional tea ceremony process

Our tea hostess Mika from Shizu-Kokoro Chado School in Asakusa, is a Chado master with 27 years of experience shared the beautiful rich history of this tradition and walked us through each meticulous step which we will share with you in this reflection.

Mika's expertise extended to every aspect, from how to prepare the tea bowl to the significance of traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) served during the ceremony.

Preparation and steps in performing the Ceremony

As we stepped into the serene setting of the tea ceremony, we were struck by the meticulous preparation that preceded each ritual. From arranging the tatami mats to selecting the perfect tea bowl and other utensils, every detail contributed to the ambience of tranquillity.

Experiencing the ceremony firsthand allowed us to appreciate the profound symbolism behind each step. From the cleansing of utensils to the graceful serving of tea, every movement was imbued with intention and reverence, fostering an atmosphere of calm and mindfulness in preparing and drinking the tea.

Symbolism and Meaning Behind Each Step of the Ceremony

As Mika guided us deeper into the ceremony, we uncovered the rich symbolism embedded in every gesture and action. Concepts like harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity—represented by "Wa," "Kei," "Sei," and "Jaku" respectively—guided each aspect of the ceremony, creating a profound spiritual experience. These values are seamlessly integrated into the practices of a traditional tea house and the act of tea drinking.

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isabella truong of the bircher bar

Tea Ceremony Etiquette

Rules and Manners to Follow During the Ceremony

Guided by the principles of respect and mindfulness, Mika drew our attention to the etiquette expected of guests during the tea ceremony. From the placement of the cup in which the matcha was to be served and how to manoeuvre the cup before drinking the tea, to bowing with the tea host, as well as when to maintain silence. Mika also spoke about what topics of conversation are to be had during a traditional tea ceremony especially refraining from topics of negativity, what was very clear was every aspect of etiquette contributed to the solemnity of the occasion.

Importance of Mindfulness and Presence in the Tea Ceremony

Central to the tea ceremony is the cultivation of mindfulness and presence, fostering a deep connection with oneself and the present moment. Through the practice of Chado, we learned the value of quieting the mind and embracing the serenity of the tea room.

Anita and Isabella in a traditional tea ceremony in Tokyo

Modern-Day Tea Ceremony

Continued Relevance and Popularity of the Traditional Tea Ceremony in Japan

Despite the rapid pace of modern life, the traditional tea ceremony continues to hold sway in Japanese culture, offering a timeless retreat from the bustle of everyday life. In cities like Kyoto and Osaka, you can still find tea houses that preserve the ancient rituals, creating a bridge between the past and present.

In contemporary Japan, we witnessed the integration of Chado into modern lifestyles, from tea appreciation workshops to incorporating tea ceremony principles into daily rituals. This adaptive quality speaks to the enduring appeal and relevance of Chado in the modern world.

Not only this, but we also got to experience modern-day matcha and its different forms, you may have seen our clips on social media where we went to The Matcha Tokyo Cafe. It was extremely popular amongst locals and tourists alike. It’s no wonder that we are seeing matcha now so prominent in many facets across so many continents.

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The Art and Science of Matcha: From Plant to Powder

As we sipped on 2 different types of matcha (koicha - "thicker tea" served first followed by usucha - "thin tea") served by Mika, we dove into the intricate process of cultivating and harvesting the tea leaves that form the heart of this revered tradition. Mika explained how each matcha tea type has its own unique preparation method, reflecting centuries-old practices of Chanoyu, the formal tea ceremony.

What was a huge learning for us was that all teas originate from one plant, Camellia sinensis. It is how the plant is harvested and processed that makes the several types of teas we see today. What makes matcha so special, is the meticulous care and attention it takes to produce it, which defines the pinnacle of this tea’s craftsmanship.

Benefits and Reverence for Matcha

Matcha's unparalleled health benefits stem from its unique production process. Harvested two to four weeks before maturity, the leaves are shielded from sunlight to preserve their vibrant green colour and nutrient content, including potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Because the entire tea leaf is consumed in matcha, you receive a concentrated dose of its healthful compounds.

Buddhist monks historically used matcha to stay awake and alert during long meditation sessions, further highlighting its esteemed status.

Beyond its exquisite flavour and tranquil essence, matcha offers a myriad of health benefits backed by scientific evidence. Rich in antioxidants, matcha has been linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Its high concentration of catechins, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), provides potent anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Additionally, matcha contains L-theanine, an amino acid known for its calming effects on the mind and body, promoting relaxation and focus.

Cultivation and Harvesting

a man picking fresh tea leaves

The journey of matcha begins with the careful selection of the youngest tea leaves, chosen for their tenderness and flavour profile. These leaves are handpicked with precision and care, gathering only the finest specimens for further processing. Once harvested, the leaves undergo a meticulous steaming process to halt oxidation and preserve their freshness. This process ensures the chlorophyll content remains high as well as providing the highest caffeine content at this early stage of harvest.

What was interesting is because these leaves are prevented from oxidation the matcha is not bitter. So, note to self, if you are drinking tea that tastes bitter, you may not be drinking a good quality “ceremonial grade”. You can read more from our article to understand the difference between matcha and green tea.

Stone Grinding and Preparation

Following steaming, the leaves are dried and meticulously ground into a fine powder using traditional stone mortars, a process that can take several hours to achieve the desired consistency.

This labour-intensive method, still practised in Urasenke schools, ensures the preservation of matcha's delicate flavours and aromas, resulting in a product of unparalleled quality and richness.

The matcha is stored and aged for 6 months to allow for the flavours and aromas to develop, much like a good bottle of wine! Harvest usually happens at the end of April or early May so it wouldn’t be until November until you can begin to purchase this exquisite green powder.

How to Do It Yourself

Creating your own matcha tea ceremony at home can be a rewarding experience. Begin by gathering the essential tools: a bamboo whisk (chasen), a tea bowl (chawan), a tea scoop (chashaku), and, of course, high-quality ceremonial matcha.

Start by sifting 1-2 teaspoons of matcha powder into the bowl to remove any clumps. Add hot water (not boiling) to the bowl, about 2 ounces. Whisk the mixture vigorously in a zigzag motion until a frothy layer forms on the surface. Take a moment to appreciate the aroma before sipping the tea slowly, savoring its rich, umami flavor.

If you want to find ceremonial matcha, just click on the button below for our recommended brand that's ideal for ceremonial tea drinking.

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For more information if you want to pick a brand on your own, check our post about how to find pure and quality matcha.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the difference between pure matcha and ceremonial matcha?

Ceremonial matcha is the highest and purest form of matcha where the entire tea leaf is ground to a powder and consumed, it differentiates in how it is harvested and produced. More importantly, is the nutritional content of ceremonial grade matcha, it contains more catechins than your regular green tea, which is where the health benefits arise from.

Whereas pure matcha or culinary matcha is used and consumed differently such as in cooking and can be mixed with sugar or cream to make desserts, but when consumed as tea is bitter. You can also get them in the tea leaves which are steeped in hot water and consumed the traditional tea bag method.

Ceremonial matcha is also often enjoyed with traditional sweets (wagashi) to open up the palate, and balance the flavour profiles of the matcha

Q2. Why is ceremonial matcha so expensive?

Ceremonial matcha is expensive due to many factors, time taken to produce and the limited amount of harvest produced as ceremonial matcha is only harvested once a year in spring. The process involved in ensuring the quality of produce to retain its nutritional content as well as taste is why the cost of ceremonial matcha is significantly higher than your average green tea or matcha derivatives.

After attending the tea ceremony to understand the history and process we can appreciate this and personally believe that you can really taste and feel the difference. So if you were to ask us if ceremonial matcha is worth it? The answer is YES!

Q3. Is matcha healthier than coffee?

Matcha and coffee each have their own health benefits but from reading the data and personal experiences matcha seems to have fewer side effects and have other additional nutritional and medicinal properties when compared to coffee.

Both have caffeine and antioxidants, coffee wins in caffeine content but matcha has the added benefit of L-theanine which works well with caffeine to help with alertness whilst also promoting relaxation.

The added benefit is matcha doesn’t stain your teeth like coffee can for some people!

Q4. What does matcha taste like?

Ceremonial matcha can vary in taste depending on where the tea is sourced, how it has been produced and how much you use to make your cup of matcha. However, 3 types of flavour notes can be described from consuming this grade of matcha. 1. Savoury/umami flavour, this is due to the amino acid component also known as L-theanine. 2. A grassy vegetal or sea-weedy flavour, which can be attributed to the chlorophyll content and 3. The creamy matcha flavour. This is due to the whisking of the matcha using a chasen that whips air into the tea to produce a rich creamy mouth feel when consuming.

What really sets apart if you are consuming a good quality matcha is that there should be absolutely NO BITTER taste!

Q5. Do you need to wear a kimono when in the teahouse?

Traditionally, kimono and hakama are worn during a Japanese tea ceremony. However, in modern-day tea ceremonies, any clothing is allowed as long as it remains respectful. So, while wearing a kimono enhances the experience, it’s not mandatory.

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Conclusion

Our journey into the world of Chado not only unveiled the profound spiritual significance of the tea ceremony but also deepened our appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that underpin its core elements. From the meticulous preparation to the serene ambience of the tearoom, every aspect of Chado reflects a reverence for tradition and a commitment to mindfulness and harmony.

As we reflect on our experiences, we are reminded of the enduring legacy of Chado and its ability to transcend time and culture. In a world marked by constant change, the tea ceremony stands as a testament to the timeless pursuit of inner peace and connection—a legacy that continues to inspire and enrich lives around the world.

Thank you to our host Mika who was able to take us on this amazing journey. We highly recommend, when visiting Japan, to make sure you treat yourself to a Chado workshop. It’s truly a well-worth experience.

Now, as we go on this journey of taste and wellness, we invite you to join us in savouring the healthful delights of matcha. Take a sip and immerse yourself in the tranquillity and vitality that each cup offers.

Are you ready to unlock the full potential of matcha and elevate your well-being?

Isabella Truong

Isabella Truong has a Master of Pharmacy degree from The University of Canberra and her experience in health includes practicing in community pharmacy and working in the health and supplements industry for over 15 years. She’s worked with some of Australia’s largest supplement brands in Australia such as Blackmores, Bioceuticals and Thompson’s herbal.

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