Refined and adjusted to its current form, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is one of the more difficult art forms for westerners to understand. The regimented movements and actions seem to fly in the face of the intention behind the ceremony, which is to foster a feeling of harmony and calm. But once examined as a discipline, it can be translated into something that non Japanese people can absorb.
The f irst thing that must be considered is the setting. Small rooms that are constructed specifically for tea ceremonies between the host and a single guest are often placed with a view of a well maintained garden or a natural setting free from distractions. Larger settings can be done, but the overriding concern is that there be a simple setting where the guests can focus on the moment. Most tea ceremonies will have a small alcove with an artistic piece, such as a scroll, flower arrangement or bonsai is placed. Otherwise, the room should be comfortable, simple and clear of things that draw attention away from the participants and the tea. Once the setting is established, the host makes sure that the area and the approach to it are as clean as possible. In settings that have a stone walk way or path, even the stones will be rinsed free of dust.
When the guests arrive, they remove their footwear, much like any proper Japanese setting. They are also wash their hands and rinse their mouths from a small stone basin. If this is not available, hot steamed towels are offered instead to at least wash their hands. There is no implications that anyone is not hygienic meant by this. It is actually a symbolic gesture towards leaving the dust of everyday life behind for a short time and approach the tea with a clear mind.
If a traditional charcoal fire is being used to heat the water, the host will wait until everyone is seated before laying the fire. Then a light meal of several courses is presented, with each dish being individually brought to a guest. The food should already be plated and ready to be eaten. The guests should not have to serve or cut anything as this is considered a lack of preparation on the host’s part. Sake is served, but only a single small cup to cleanse the palette. A single sweet that each guests carries is the end of the meal. This is to indicate that each person brings something unique to the event.
After the meal, guests are invited to the waiting area or garden while the room is cleared of dishes. There should be no work done in the presence of guests. When the room is again ready, the host invites the guests back for their tea. In the presence of the other participants, the host will then clean each utensils with a cloth, using prescribed motions. The practice needed to do this is much like a dance. It should be done privately so often that the host need not struggle to remember any steps. This is one of the true indicators of mastery of the tea ceremony.
The tea itself is made using a thicker ratio of the powdered green tea than is usual. The measuring and mixing is all done in a specifically made bowl and even the number of turns made while whisking is decided by tradition. Once the tea is ready, the guest will receive it form the host or an assistant. Before drinking, the guest will bow to the host as a sign of respect. The bowl is then lifted and turned back towards the host. The guest then inhales to experience the aroma, takes a sip and gives a bow of the head to the bowl. That person then wipes the place they sipped from and will either offer the bowl to the next guest or back to the host, depending on the number of participants. This continues until everyone present has sampled the stronger tea.
The host then removes the bowl from the room and when returning, will bring more confections and begins making individual cups of tea that follows a more usual ratio of tea to water. This is the less formal stage fo the ceremony, and afterward the host wipes all the utensils clean. The guest of honor will then ask to examine the artistry of the utensils used and the host will allow them to be passed around. These items are often handed down from generation to generation and many are works of art in their own right. Once all this is done, the host will escort the guests to the door and once the host bows to them as they leave, the ceremony is complete.
These steps are not done as a sign of opulence on the host’s part. They are done as a sign of respect for the guests. All of the ritual and practice are used to remove any discomfort or unexpected incidents that usually happen during a less formal occasion. The tea ceremony is one of the few situations where the entire practice, from start to finish, is meant to calm the people present and give them a refuge from the usual chaos of life. The tea being central to this shows that it is more than a beverage, it can be a strong symbol of