How Japanese Tea Ceremony Schools Keep the “Art of Tea” Alive

Dubai: In Japan, tea ceremony schools have tea masters who teach “the art of tea”. This four-hour ritual is based on philosophical principles, where matcha tea is ceremonially prepared, served and drunk. Every step, from how the host and guests enter, sit down, greet and drink tea, is choreographed.

The Gulf News Food team sat down with Sora Muratova Aivera, Japanese language teacher and Mariko Dedousi, tea ceremony, sogetsu flower arranging and language teacher, both based in Dubai, for a step-by-step understanding of the tea ceremony, its importance and why every action counts.

An overview of the Japanese tea ceremony
Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Dedousi explained that the Japanese tea ceremony is based on the principles of Wa, Ke, Sei and Jaku, and it takes decades of study – philosophy, art, calligraphy – to master the art of serving tea. Rooted in the principles of Zen Buddhism, Washington means being in harmony with Nature so that the same quality transcends the tea room among the guests and the host or teishu. Ke stands for respect, which means that guests must respect their surroundings, regardless of their status. They must kneel, sit in the to input position (kneeling, keeping the back straight and sitting on the heels turned outwards) on the tatami and carefully handle and observe the tea bowl from which they drink their tea. Towards the end, the guests watch the chawan or a decorated teacup, beautifully designed with seasonal designs and often reflecting, “When will I see you next?”

The third principle of sei, represents purity. Upon entering the tea room, it is ideally suited to leave behind all the thoughts and worries of everyday life and enjoy the company of the guests present. It also involves cleaning the utensils in front of the diners for more transparency. The fourth and final principle of Jakuor tranquility, is achieved after embracing the first three principles.

Unlike modern teahouses, in a traditional Japanese teahouse or cha-shitsu, matters of daily and personal life are not addressed. Rather the taste of the prepared tea, the seasons and Nature are privileged topics of conversation.

The ceremony and the stages

On the day of the tea ceremony, the host gets up early to prepare tea and snacks for his guest. The tea room is sparsely decorated with tatami mats and a flower arrangement for guests ranging from two to three. The host and guests are dressed in traditional Japanese attire called Kimonos – a long, wide-sleeved robe traditionally worn with a wide belt as the outer garment.

Guests and host seated on tatami mats for the tea ceremony. Image used for illustrative purposes only
Image credit: Pexels

The ceremony begins with the host entering with the utensils, putting the right foot first, making a sliding noise to suggest their arrival. The host gracefully enters, places the utensils, kneels and bows to greet the guests. Next, a silk fabric called fukusa is removed from the kimono’s waistband, folded, and inspected to handle the hot water kettle. The utensils are cleaned gently with lukewarm water – by pouring water from a ladle called hishaku, in front of the guests and wiped down with the fukusa, which is then folded up in the same way and placed in the Kimono. Next, the host scoops the matcha powder using a spoon or chashaku into a chawan or tea bowl to whisk well with lukewarm water.

The ceremony takes place in silence, for the most part, amplifying delicate sounds – walking in and out, using a bamboo whip, muffled voices, nodding, walking, bowing and boiling water. So much so that you can hear people holding their breath in anticipation of something big that is about to happen.

The matcha bowl is then passed to the first diner, who rotates it 180 degrees to avoid drinking from the decorative side. The exact process is repeated for the rest of the guests. Traditionally sweet and savory snacks called wagashi (traditional Japanese candy made from rice flour, beans and agar or jelly-like substance) and azuki are served to complement the bitter taste of matcha. Once everyone has had tea, the utensils are wiped clean with the dry cloth, marking the end of the ceremony.

A Look at the History of Tea Ceremonies in Japan

According to Dedousi, influential tea masters – Murata Juko also known as the father of tea ceremony and Sen no Rikyu introduced the concept and formed the modern Japanese tea ritual. At first, the ruling elite and samurai of Japan loved teas, but later, making and drinking tea became popular with all social classes. Over time, schools have been formed to preserve and transmit this tradition. It took Dedousi more than 15 years of practice to become a 2nd grade instructor or teacher at Urasenke (one of Japan’s leading tea ceremony schools), just one step away from becoming a master.

Both Dedousi and Aivera practice the tea ceremony in Dubai, and they often involve guests of different nationalities. Although it is not possible to respect all the traditional rules, certain cardinal rules are based on mutual respect which should be kept in mind. For example, when attending a tea ceremony, dress conservatively if not a kimono, arrive on time or before time, take off your shoes at the entrance, walk on the sides of the tatami, avoid chatter and gossip, enjoy and be grateful for tea, host and space.

Sora Muratova Aivera and Maria Mariko Dedousi

Sora Muratova Aivera and Maria Mariko Dedousi introduce us to the Japanese tea ceremony
Image credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

chawan: Decorated tea bowl

Hishaku: Ladle used to pour water into bamboo

Kaiseki: Delicate meal sometimes eaten during a tea ceremony

Kama: Iron pot used for hot water

Matcha: Bitter green tea prepared in powder form

Natsume: The decorated tea pot in which the green tea goes

Shokyaku: The main guest or guest of honor at the tea ceremony

Tatami : The type of rug found in a tea house

Teishu: The host of the tea ceremony

Here is a matcha tea recipe

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