By Yoshikuri Nagayori
One thing that is synonymous with Japanese culture is the Tea Ceremony; the centuries old ritual of drinking tea. How like the Japanese to turn a simple thing such as sipping a cup of tea into a highly elaborate and elegant tradition. We will explore some of the inner workings of the ceremony itself, but where did the Japanese get the idea in the first place?
During the Kamakura period (1192-1333) in Japan, China was a hotspot for religious and educational study, thus attracting many travelers to its temples. One such student was Myoan Eisai. It was he that founded Zen Buddhism in Japan. It was also he that started the idea of making tea from powdered leaves and was instrumental in spreading the idea across Japan. At first, it was drunk for medicinal purposes, but slowly took off as a popular pastime. By the thirteenth century, drinking tea was a sign of the upper class. It was particularly popular with the upstart samurai class was beginning to surface. After 1333, political turmoil spread across Japan with the fall of the shogun. As new nobility arose and new classes emerged, drinking tea became an elaborate diversion. There would be tea-tasting contests known as Tocha. In this game, different varieties of tea were served and guests had to guess the regions and plantations in which the tea was grown. As time went on, there were more and more types of tea to drink and prizes became more and more opulent. It became a show of wealth as much as a pastime. Tea drinking became so popular in Japan, that it was no longer for the upper crust of society. Commoners were enjoying Tocha just as much as the High Class.
During the Ashikaga Shogunate, (early Muromachi period 1392-1573) Japanese architecture was greatly influenced by that of Sung Dynasty China. In fact, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had his house built entirely based on Chinese design. One feature of his house was a moon-viewing room in the garden. The room contained hanging scrolls and floral arrangements meant to accompany looking at the moon. Yoshimitsu also incorporated tea drinking into his moon-viewing room, having around five bowls of tea per guest when he was entertaining. This is the forerunner to the Tea House. As the Muromachi period went on, the formal style of the Heian era shifted to the simplified style of the samurai. Noble houses began to have specific tea rooms in them and decorating those rooms became quite a hobby. By the early 1400s, an entire tea ceremony had been established.
Overview of the Ceremony
There is not one specific tea ceremony. They vary according to time of day and time of year. Depending on different combinations, the ceremonies also differ. For example: A noon ceremony in winter will be drastically different from a morning ceremony in the summer. The following are the various types of tea ceremony.
Noon Ceremony ~
Most formal of ceremonies. Guests are met in the garden by a servant and ritually wash before entering the teahouse. Both guest and host perform subtle rituals before the actual ceremony begins. A main feature of this type of ceremony is the kaiseki meal. This is not a full meal, more a light lunch to take the edge off ones hunger. Also, the sharing of sake occurs before the tea is served.
Dawn Ceremony ~
Most often held in the winter months. Guests arrive between 3 and 4 in the morning and are offered a kaiseki meal, as well as a thin tea as a prelude to the actual ceremony. The approaching dawn plays a vital role in the success of this type or ceremony so experience is quite necessary.
Evening Ceremony ~
These are for the long wintry nights in order for the host and guests to enjoy leisurely conversation. The tea is served first and the kaiseki meal follows. Another ceremony known as tomezumi occurs also. This is the art of building a warm fire with a pleasant crackle by adding fuel at precise times. It is important to not make the fire too big or loud that it would distract from the talking. Paper and wooden lanterns light the room, so flowers are not used.
Early Morning Ceremony ~
Held before the heat of a summer day sets in, (usually between 5 and 6 am) the host moves quickly and the ceremony ends in half the time.
After Meal Ceremony ~
In this case, a meal has already been eaten before the ceremony begins, so only sweets and sake are served before the tea. The kaiseki is completely bypassed. After the sake and before the tea, guests retire to the garden for a wash and a brief relaxation period.
The Tea Room
It almost goes without saying that the tearoom itself is the most important tool the host has in entertaining his guests. The rooms are generally quite small; a cozy fit for about 5 people. They also feature a few common attractions. There are shelves racks and carts used to contain the different utensils for the ceremony. These are always as simple and elegant as they can be. No ornamentation or fancy working can be seen. The utensils themselves can tend to be somewhat elaborate. The various jugs, jars and bowls generally have striking markings and paintings on them. The other tools are other examples of simple beauty. Most important to any tearoom is the alcove. It contains a scroll and a floral arrangement. The scroll is often a poem or Zen influenced comment appropriate for the type of ceremony, time of year, or social situation the ceremony takes place in. The floral arrangement and vase evolved into an art form all their own known as Ikebana. Obviously, a lot of thought and effort goes into creating the perfect atmosphere for guests to appreciate tea.