Tea ceremonies are much more than just ordinary tea gatherings. They have a strong cultural, traditional and spiritual importance, and offer an opportunity to reconnect with nature, others and yourself, all while drinking skillfully prepared cup of high-quality tea.
What is a tea ceremony?
Tea ceremonies and tea traditions are present in all big tea producing countries. Tea ceremony is a tea drinking occasion based on a set of rules and organized for the purpose of either appreciating tea, showing hospitality or finding peace and beauty in simplicity. Some tea ceremonies are more formal than the others and require adhering to a strict protocol and tearoom etiquette. There are many tea ceremonies, but the most popular one may be the Japanese tea ceremony or Chado – the way of tea. Other important tea ceremonies are the Gongfu tea ceremony, Sencha-do tea ceremony and Wu Wo tea ceremony. Other ceremonies, such as Moroccan tea ceremony may be less formal and practiced on a daily base, either as a part of tradition or showing hospitality.
Japanese tea ceremony
There are two main types of Japanese ceremonies – Chado and Sencha-do. Tea was first introduced to Japan from China, in the 8th century by Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks had an enormous importance in bringing both tea seeds to Japan and establishing tea culture. Eisai, a Zen Buddhist monk from the 12th century is considered a founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. The modern Japanese tea ceremony was redefined by Sen no Rikyu in the 16th century . Even now, the traditional Chado cannot be separated from Zen Buddhism. The other type of Japanese tea ceremony, Sencha-do, is less formal than Chado.
Japanese Chado tea ceremony is very likely the most popular tea ceremony in the world. The other names for this ceremony are Sado and Chanoyu. While other tea ceremonies can include different types of tea, matcha is the only tea that can be used for Chado. Only the highest grade or “ceremonial grade# matcha is used. It should always be intense, sweet and vibrant. Tea is usually prepared as thick tea or koicha and served with traditional seasonal sweets. Koicha is served from only one bowl that all guests share and it’s the most important part of the ceremony. Usucha, on the other hand, is served to each guest from a separate bowl.
However, Chado is not only about tea. In fact, tea in the Japanese tea ceremony is about everything else – from mindfulness and simplicity to harmony and appreciating beauty in simple, usually old objects. In a way, tea is only a means to achieve the purpose. Although simplicity and modesty are important, the quality and artistic value of tea and tea utensils is always high. The list of utensils for having a proper formal tea ceremony is extensive, and many pieces are very expensive and rare. While simplicity is appreciated, art is too, and so are the antique, even repaired items. Those will always be more valuable than new products.
Japanese tea ceremony is based on 4 principles – “Wa Kei Sei Jaku or harmony, respect, purity and tranquility” . They were defined by Sen no Rikyu, and 400 years later, they still hold the same importance. Modesty and humility are important too.
Special Japanese tea rooms will have a very low door. Guests should wash their hands before entering the tearoom. To enter through low door, all guests will need to bend, regardless of their status.
Traditional tea rooms were usually built in a tea garden, detached from living spaces. They have tatami mat floors and very simple interior that may be decorated with a carefully chosen calligraphy hanging scrolls or a flower arrangement called chabana – tea flowers . The host is only preparing the tea, not drinking it. Conversation during Chado is very limited and should be related to the tea ceremony only .
Even though simplicity is an important aspect of Chado, it takes years of practice to achieve and master a strict set of rules and movements. Performing Chado may be compared to a ballet, which takes years to master and where aesthetics is highly important too. Only when the movements are perfected, tranquility can take place.
Chado and mindfulness are strongly connected. Being mindful about the surrounding space, about nature, about others, about the season, and about the history and beauty of tea ware is all what makes Chado beautiful and important, especially today where distraction is all around us. Even the clothes guests are wearing should be modest, rather than lavish .
However, Chado may be less formal too. The less formal ceremony may be organized in larger tea rooms and will usually be short. Sometimes, green tea powder will be prepared as thin tea, rather than thick tea. More conversation is allowed too. The formal tea ceremony may last several hours. It may include a special meal, a bowl of thick tea and a bowl of thin tea after .
Unlike chado, sencha-do or “the way of sencha” is always less formal. This tea ceremony is dedicated to preparing and drinking high quality sencha or gyokuro tea. Sencha is the most popular type of tea in Japan, and the most consumed and produced one too. There are several grades and styles of sencha tea. During Sencha-do, high-quality tea should be used. Interestingly, sencha was not the first tea in Japan. First teas were powdered, and first loose leaf green tea was kamairicha – a pan fired tea. Today, most Japanese teas are steamed, not pan-fired.
Gyokuro, on the other hand, is a shaded green tea famous for its intense umami flavor. It’s usually prepared with cool water, sometimes even less than 122°F, and a high leaf to water ratio. It’s served from smaller cups, similar to Chinese gong-fu tea cups.
High-quality sencha may have a similar flavor to gyokuro tea. It may sometimes be shaded for a couple of days, and when brewed with cooler water, it may also have a savory umami flavor. Sencha-do will never include tea bags – only loose leaf tea is permitted.
Chinese tea ceremony
Unlike Japanese tea ceremony, Chinese tea ceremony is usually less formal. It’s often performed in tea shops and tea houses. Only unflavored, pure high quality loose leaf tea should be used. Chinese tea ceremony or gong-fu or kung-fu ceremony is based on an extensive set of rules too, and may take years to master. Conversations during tea ceremony are allowed, as the ceremony is both the sign of hospitality, appreciating tea leaves and skills and elegance of tea making.
There’s a wide set of utensils you will need for a proper Chinese tea ceremony, and some pieces of teaware may be very expensive. Tea is served in very small cups, and each guest will have its own cup. Leaves are re-steeped multiple times. Chinese way of brewing tea is a preferred way of many tea specialists. A high leaf to water ratio and small cups make it possible o experience even the most subtle flavors.
Learn more about gongfu tea brewing here.