Ichii-go, ichi-e. This time we spend together may be the first and last, so let us treasure it.
Maybe “washoku” Japanese food, or “wagashi” (Japanese style sweets). Perhaps “washi,” Japanese paper, or “wafuku,” traditional Japanese clothes. “Wa” means–among other things–Japanese, and if you want to make a “wafuu” or Japanese-style lifestyle right where you are, there is one thing you can’t miss out on. Japanese tea, or “ocha,” (which does not begin with “wa, funnily enough).
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The History Of Tea In Japan
The history of “ocha,” (お茶) or green tea, in Japan goes way back, with roots in China. This pale green beverage is tied up with the history of Buddhism, as well as the rise and fall of shogun and samurai. In the beginning, ocha was only available to religious monks and noblemen who could afford it, then it became the beverage of choice for socializing samurai, then the focus of lavish tea tasting parties, then a humble cup expressing a host’s hospitality. A simple timeline might help you understand the many transformations.
710 Buddhist monks bring tea from China. Expensive and rare, it is drunk only by the religious, or by nobles.
1191 Myoan Eisai, founder of Zen Buddhism, recommends tea as a cure for illness and to help monks stay awake for chanting and meditation.
Matcha (powdered tea used for tea ceremony) is introduced.
1211 Eisai writes a health manual called “kissa yokiji,” in which he declares, “Tea is the elixir of life,” proven by his curing the shogun of his hangover.
1467 Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa builds the famous Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto to host tea parties and show off the power of the samurai.
1488 Murata Shuko, a Buddhist monk, makes the tea ceremony less about power and more about spirituality.
1568 The infamous Oda Nobunaga forbids the holding of tea ceremonies, except by his permission. Also, he collects fancy tea utensils as tribute.
1582 Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591), tea master to Hideyoshi Toyotomi, redefines the tea ceremony, builds many tea houses, and establishes many of the tea aesthetics of today.
1858 Naosuke Ii, chief minister of Edo, writes “Chanoyu Ichie-Shu,” from which comes the proverb, “Ichi-go, ichi-e.”
1868 The Meiji Era begins, the samurai age ends, and finally, women and common people can enjoy the tea ceremony.
What is the Way of Tea?
History finally produced what we have today, the Way of Tea, “chado” or “sado” in Japanese (茶道). It is nowhere near as lavish as the tea parties of the past, where noblemen showed off their teaware and savvy through tea-tasting games. Neither is it as minimalistic as what Sen no Rikyu described when he said, “Tea is nought but this: first you heat the water, then you make the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know.” Source
An official tea ceremony is a refined, ritualistic event with choreographed actions, proper etiquette, and a script, held in a tea house. It involves painstaking preparation, formal invitations, kimono attire, and unspoken etiquette. Guests enter the tea house through a tiny door called a “nijiri-guchi” (にじり口). Because the opening is so small, guests have to bow to enter, and anybody carrying a sword would have to remove their weapons to enter. In a tea house there are no enemies. Everyone is equal.
…in a tea house there are no enemies. Everyone is equal.
Although much fancier than Rikyu’s living room tea time, the tea ceremony does emphasize purity of mind, and on breaking away from ordinary life. Also, chado is all about wabi-sabi and omotenashi, two core values of Japanese society.
Wabi-sabi is the Japanese love of fleeting, artistically imperfect beauty, expressed in the plain looks of the tea implements and the tranquil silence between host and guest.
Omotenashi is the Japanese heart of hospitality, where every tiny detail and gesture is designed specifically with the purpose of pleasing the recipient.
How Can I Try A Japanese Tea Ceremony?
If you are visiting Japan and want to try a more casual tea ceremony, you can try a low-key, abbreviated event called “ochakai” (お茶会). These are held at tea schools or community centers. A tea master will prepare the matcha and serve it to you, or you can try preparing it yourself. Don’t worry, they will give you step-by-step guidance!
What To Do At Ochakai
Because the level of formality differs from place to place and teacher to teacher, and because there are many different tea “schools,” (the major ones being “ura-senke,” (裏千家)
“omote-senke,” (表千家) and “mushakōji-senke,” (武者小路千家), the steps of the Japanese ceremony vary. However, here is a sample guideline:
Step One: Enter the tea room, sit “seiza” style, with your knees folded under you.
Step Two: Before the tea-making starts, look at the fancy kanji calligraphy on the “kakejiku,” (掛軸) or hanging scroll. Next, admire the tea-making implements.
Step Three: The teacher or teacher’s assistant says, “Douzo, okashi wo otorikudasai” or “Here you are. Please try this.” You are offered either a “sembei,” (煎餅) rice cracker, or “wagashi,” (和菓子) an azuki bean-based sweet. The wagashi is usually in the shape of a beautiful flower and presented on a paper napkin called “kaishi.”
Step Four: Do not eat the sembei or wagashi immediately. Wait until your host has finished the ceremonial cleaning of the tea making utensils and starts to prepare your tea. The subtle flavors make a nice contrast with the bitterness of the matcha.
As a guest, your role is to show humble gratitude, so it is polite to bow each time you receive something.
Step Four: Your host offers you a bowl of perfectly whipped tea. Politely say, “Otemae choudai itashimasu.” Basically, “Thank you for all your hard work. I’m going to have a taste now!”
Step Five: Rotate the bowl 90° clockwise, so the beautiful design faces to your left. This comes from the samurai tea ceremony, where drinking from the same bowl built comradeship. Rotating it ensures nobody is drinking from the same spot.
Step Six: Slurp (yes, with sound!) away all the bubbles, and wipe the rim of your bowl with the kaishi paper from your sweet.
Step Seven: Admire the design on the bowl. It was picked out especially for you!
There is no dress code at ochakai per say, but if it is being held in a real tea house, it’s a good idea to bring white socks or “tabi,” split-toe socks worn with kimono. Also, refrain from wearing jewelry. This is to avoid damaging the delicate tea bowl. If you want a more authentic experience, take a “sensu,” folding fan, and when you first enter the tea room, place it in front of you and bow to make a greeting.
Depending on how casual your ochakai is, talking may be permitted during the event. Still, it is polite to keep chit-chat to a minimum while the host is actually preparing your tea.
How To Make Matcha Tea
Actually preparing the matcha is a complex ritual that takes years to perfect, but according to Rikyu’s thinking, it can really be done quite simply. If you want to make matcha at home, follow these three steps:
Step one: Add high-quality matcha powder to a beautiful tea bowl.
Step two: Add hot water.
Step three: Using a bamboo whisk, stir tea into a froth. Serve to someone special.
Whether you are having tea, coffee, or wine, you can practice the way of tea by remembering to serve with omotenashi and receive with humble gratitude. Finally, don’t forget “ichi-go, ichi-e.”
“This time we spend together, you and I, may be the first and last, so let us treasure it.”
Items to Help You Get Started
For your perfect bowl of matcha–
Affordable, quality matcha green tea powder
Highest grade matcha green tea powder
Beginner Matcha Set
(Includes: tea whisk, tea scoop, tea spoon, and tea strainer)
Matcha Tea Bowl
(Handcrafted in Japan)
Premium matcha set
(Includes: wabi-sabi tea bowl, whisk, whisk holder, strainer, bamboo scoop made in Nara, duck figurine, handkerchief)
For your authentic ochakai experience–
Sources and Related Articles
About tea ceremony (by the culturetrip.com)
Beginner’s guide to tea ceremony (Japanese)
Relax and unwind by watching this tranquil Japanese tea ceremony Youtube video by TEALEAVES (~30 minutes)