An account of a formal Japanese tea ceremony by Elliot Mitchnick, who holds the rank of Junkyoju (Associate Professorship) of Urasenke, the 400 year old tradition of Tea headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.
(If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most tea terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word.)
Let me start with a very short history of the development of tea in Japan. In early days, tea was made in the preparation room and brought into large banquet style rooms by servants. Later, tea was made in front of the guests by a servant. A Buddhist priest and tea master named Murata Shuko (or Juko) was troubled by how Tea had lost its spiritual compass and he tried to change things. He wanted to see the use of smaller rooms as well as a tea person to make tea in front of the guests. Both of these ideas do not sound important, but they really changed tea and gave it back a spiritual course, or at least I believe so.
The host and assistant are ready and as the guests entered the tearoom, they refill the water basin at the tsukubai. The guests are quietly sitting in the tearoom. There is a stillness and dreamlike quality to the space. As the guests have partaken in the meal and the sake, they are a bit tired and there is bit of sleepiness working. This for me is a wonderful part of the tea and the dream like mind is important.
The host opens the door and picks up the tea bowl in front of him or her.
The host assistant is now outside the tearoom, ready to remove the reed mats that are over the paper windows. Timing is everything, so the assistant listens for a sign to start.
The host comes in and places the tea bowl to the left next to wall, picks up the chaire and moves it to the right, judging the space needed to balance the tea caddy and tea bowl in front the mizusashi. The host picks up the tea bowl and moves it to a position forming a triangle of the three objects. The host returns to the preparation room, picks up the kensui, enters the room, turns and sits facing the door. He or she then puts the kensui down to close the door, picks it back up, stands and walks to the tamaeza area. He or she then sits with the kensui to the left side. Carefully picking up the ladle and holding toward the heart in a position called kagami bishaku, mirror position. The host then picks up the bamboo lid rest and places it to the left of the brazier’ wooden board, then places the ladle on top of the bamboo. The host and guests make a formal bow and the tea now begins. Koicha, or thick tea is the reason for coming to a tea and this is a spiritual time for all attending. A dinner party is where the meal is most important and the beverage and desert are secondary. In a chaji, the meal is secondary and the thick tea is the essence of the event with the thin tea second.
Various set adjustments are made and the basic thick tea procedure is begun. At the same time, depending on the host and assistant’s prior arrangement, the assistant will begin to remove all the reed mats that cover the paper windows. Light starts to pour in the tearoom which is magical in this same dark room. A dream like world is now on stage. According to tradition, Sen Rikyu invited guests to tea and this teahouse had a number of windows along the host side of the room and as Rikyu carried in the tea bowl, the mats were removed almost like spotlights in the theatre. Even in the 16th Century, there was performance art.
Even with the light flowing into the room, there is a stillness. The host will start to purify the tea caddy and the tea scoop, the two utensils the come into contact with the tea. The host takes from his / her obi, kimono belt, a silk cloth and folds it into a set form, varying by the “tea school”. Traditionally in the Urasenke tradition, men use purple and women red. It is thought that these silk cloths, called fukusa,袱紗 come from the Mass in Japan in the mid 16th Century when the Jesuits visited Japan. The purple color is a priestly color and it is thought that it was picked for that reason. The red color’s origin is not known, but from what I could unearth, no one knows for sure. Women did not really start to study tea until the early 20th Century and red is thought to come from the idea that women’s under kimono and kimono linings were often red. Not a clear answer, but all I could find. Today tea students use the entire color palette for their fukusa.
The host moves the tea bowl in front of him or herself, then takes the chaire and places it in front of the tea bowl. The host takes the folded fukusa and wipes the tea caddy, after removing the shifuku(silk bag). After wiping the chaire, it is placed to the left in front of the mizusashi. The host refolds the cloth and wipes the tea scoop and places the scoop on the lid of the chaire, then removes the chasen (tea whisk) and places it to the right of the chaire. Next, the chakin (tea cloth) is removed and placed on the lid of the mizusashi. Hot water is poured into the tea bowl from the kettle and the host takes the chasen and places it in the tea bowl and inspects the whisk in a set procedure. The reason for doing this is twofold. First, you make sure that none of the tines of the whisk have broken off or are broken and might wind up in a bowl of tea. Second, you are able to warm the bowl.
The host picks up the tea scoop in the right hand and with the left hand picks up the tea caddy, removes the lid with the right hand and takes three scoops of tea from the caddy and places it in the bowl, then puts the scoop with scoop side up on the tea bowl and pours in the balance of the tea. The lid is replaced and put back in front of the water container. The scoop is then used to spread out the tea on the bottom of the bowl. It is lightly tapped to loosen the remaining tea on the scoop and then put back on the lid of the caddy. The host will then take the lid off the water container and place it on the water container’s left side. He or she then uses the ladle to takes a scoop of cold water, pours it into the kettle. Another scoop of water is drawn and part of it is poured into the tea bowl. Experience will tell the host how much is needed for this bowl. The cold water is added when using the brazier because the tea, which is picked in May, is allowed to age until November. At that time it is made available to tea people, as the furo (brazier) season is May to October, the tea is a year old and the lower temperature allows for better taste.
The host picks up the whisk and places it in the bowl, and with a light tapping, will try to incorporate the tea and water. The host then using a slow deliberate kneading motion starts to make the tea, When the host feels it is mixed, he or she will rest the whisk in the bowl and take another scoop of water, pick the whisk and as the room is light, is now able to see the thickness or thinness of the tea and will judge how much water to pour into the bowl. The host will then finish the tea. The first guest will slide forward to take the bowl and bring it back to his or her position. It is placed between the first and second guest and all the guests will bow together. One by one, the guests will partake of the tea, usually three sips. The guest puts down the bowl and takes out a damp small tea cloth, ko chakin 小茶巾, and uses it to wipe that area of the rim from which they drank. The guest replaces the tea cloth in a special waterproof pack and places it into the left kimono sleeve.
As another aside, the use of the ko chakin to wipe the tea bowl that we use today is a white open weave linen cloth. During the mid Meiji period, Japan saw more women showing interest in tea and starting to go to tea. The 11th generation Urasenke Tea Master, Gengensai, found that women used bright red lipstick which stained the chakin red when used. Gengensai started to have kochakin dyed red so that the lipstick would not distract guests during teas. This has died out and today we use a plain white kochakin or piece of paper called kaishi 懐紙, which means paper that fits in the kai of the kimono.( The kaishi is an all purpose wad of paper to be used as a napkin, tray for foods, a writing pad as well as any other use that came up, that is folded to resemble the chakin. For tea, this would only be use during practice and with my teachers, never allowed during real tea ceremonies.)
Up to this point in the tea, there is almost total silence and for me it is a very reflective time that allows us to go deep within ourselves as we share a bowl of tea together. The first words are between the first guest and the host as they discuss the tea sweets that were eaten before the guest left the tearoom for nakadachi. The guest asks the poetic name and the maker of the sweets, then asks the poetic name of the tea and the tsume, or name of the tea packer.
After all the guests have partaken in the tea, the first guest will ask to see the bowl. The last guest will bring the bowl to the first guest. The guest will place the bowl between themselves and the second guest and says “Osaki ni”, or “please excuse me for going before you”, and this will be repeated by all the guests before they haiken the tea bowl. The guest places the bowl in front, then places his or her hands on the tatami, palms down, and takes a look at the bowl. Then, with their elbows drawn close, they will pick up the bowl, most carefully, whether the bowl is a $1.00 thrift shop item or a many thousand dollar bowl. One must respect the utensil! As the guest picks up the bowl he or she will cover the lip so that when it is overturned none of the excess tea will fall on the tatami. Some guests will take kaishi paper and wipe out the bowl so that all the other guests will have no problems viewing the bowl.
So what do you look for when viewing the bowl? First, with the tea in the bowl, you get to see the skill of the host and the beautiful glistening of the thick tea against the tea bowl. This is especially true with a classic black Raku bowl. When you view the kodai or bottom of the bowl, it gives the opportunity to see the skill of the potter as they can not hide lack of
skill, if any, in this area of the bowl. There is something special in holding the bowl and viewing it. As the bowl works its way to the last guest to view, they will meet the first guest near the host, receive the bowl and then return it to the position where they first received it.
The host will pick up the bowl and place it front. All will bow in the formal shin style. The host’s bow will seem to be informal, due to the lack of space between host and bowl, but the bow is a true formal bow within the heart of the host. The host will add hot water to the bowl, empty it, and then tell the guests “Ichio oshimae itashimasu”, or, “For now I will finish.” The host will follow a set pattern in finishing up and when the host adds cold water to the kettle and closes the mizusashi lid, the first guest will ask to view the tea caddy, tea scoop, and shifuku, cloth bag. During koicha, you will always ask to view the utensils. It would be rude to the host, if guest did not and in most cases, the host would ask if he or she thought that the first guest might have forgotten. As with the viewing of the tea bowl, the guests have the wonderful opportunity to hold each of the utensils up close. The tea scoop is a difficult utensil for some to appreciate as it is “just” a piece of carved bamboo in the shape of a narrow spoon. The more chashaku I hold, the more I appreciate them as most are usually carved by Buddhist priest. For me, their presence is transmitted through this most humble and utilitarian piece of bamboo.
As with the tea bowl, the last guest starts to bring the utensils back and the first guest will join them and will place the utensils in their proper place, then return to his or her position.
The host reenters the room and the first guest and the host will answer questions about the utensils. There is a set of standard questions within the Urasenke Tradition that are used for practice class, but with a Chaji, the first guest can ask anything about the pieces. A set of standard questions might be:
“What is the shape of the chaire? What is the kiln? What is the maker?” The first guest might instead just ask, “What can you tell me about the chaire?” giving the host some leeway and answering only what they would like to. In class, we are trained to ask questions for learning and since the utensils are all practice utensils asking questions about the maker etc is not important, but at a tea asking some questions can be embarrassing to the host. The chaire may not be more than a practice utensil.
After the host answers the questions, he or she leaves the room, and at the door, will sit with the utensils to his or her side and bow. The host will then close the door.
The host will then bring the utensils to the preparation room and the assistant will bring the charcoal utensils to the entrance area for the procedure gozumi, or “2nd charcoal”.
The host will open the door and bow and tell the guests that he or she will do gozumi. The host enters the room sits in front of the tamaeza area and follows the procedure set for the 2nd charcoal. The host after removing the kettle takes a look at the charcoal and decides how much of the charcoal pieces in the basket are necessary to make fire burn for the balance of the tea. Some of the charcoal or all will be added, as needed. The kettle is replaced and the host leaves the room.
The host re-enters the room with tobacco tray, as used in the roji at the koshikake machiai. This is to allow the guests the opportunity to smoke, if they want. Some host will only bring in the hiire (lit charcoal container) and haifuki ( bamboo cylinder) and no tobacco. It is the host’s choice.
The host again reenters with a tray of dry tea sweets for the usucha 薄茶 or thin tea. The tea sweets are generally two types in the Urasenke tradition. The more formal is placed at the top right and the less formal at the bottom left. Today, we take one each for each bowl of tea, but in the past it is said that you would only take one sweet per bowl of tea. These dry sweets are seasonal and are most beautiful, almost to the point of not wanting to eat them, although, I do not think I have ever put them in a piece of kaishi for later or to give to a friend .(Here in the United states, these sweets are not readily available and when they are, the price is high. You can substitute many other candies for these tea sweets. I like jellies in multi stripes for the Spanish / Latin markets as well as guava jelly candies. Simple cookies are good, as are dried fruits. All work well if some thought about the seasons are taken into consideration.)
At this time, the host may bring in zabuton, cushions, for the guest to sit on and help relieve the pain of sitting seiza for the last 3 to 4 hours. In general, the guests will refuse, especially the younger guests, but the option is that of the guests.
The host when ready, opens the host’s door with the mizusashi to the right (but can vary depending on tearoom setup ) and bows. He or she brings in the mizusashi and places it in tamaeza area and returns to the preparation area and gets the tea bowl and natsume, brings them into the tearoom and returns for the kensui stands and enters the tearoom turns to the door and places the kensui on the tatami and closes the door. The host stands and goes to the tamaeza and sits. He or she picks up the ladle and then the futaoki, places it to the left of the brazier board, places the ladle on it and moves the kensui to one’s knee level. As with thick tea, the host will purify all utensils that come into contact with the tea (in the case of thin tea, the natsume, lacquered tea container and the chashaku or tea scoop).
When the host gets to the point of picking up the chashaku to take tea from the natsume, he or she will ask the first guest to have a sweet. The first guest will put the sweet tray between him or herself and the 2nd guest and say “Osaki ni”, move the tray in front and pick up to offer thanks. They will take out their kaishi papers and take two sweets, first from the upper right and then lower left. The guest will then pass the sweet tray to the next guest. The 2nd guest will wait until the host picks up the chashaku to follow the same procedure. The host will generally not tell the guest to take a sweet and will presume the guest knows. If the host feels the guest does not, he or she will tell them to take a sweet. This form will continue until all the guests have sweets.
After preparing the first bowl, the host will place it outside of his or her tatami mat, so that the guest can slide to the area and get the bowl. In some cases, in a big room, or if the host decides to have a hanto or assistant in the room, the assistant will take the bowl to the guests.
The guest will take the bowl and place it between him or herself and the next guest and say “Osaki ni”, place the bowl in front and say to the host “ Otemae chodai itashimasu”, pick up the bowl offer thanks ( kansha suru 感謝する) and enjoy the bowl of tea. The bowl is inspected by the guest and returned to the host who will make another bowl for the 2nd guest who will place it between the first guest and him or herself and say, “Oshoban itashimasu”, “I will join you”, and then between the 2nd and 3rd guest and say “Osaki ni”, and follow the form I described above. After all the guests have enjoyed tea, the host will continue to make tea until asked by the first guest to stop. In a formal tea the guest will usually have at least two bowls of tea, no matter how much their feet hurt. The first guest will ask the other guests if they would like more tea and when all have had enough, the first guest will tell the host, “Dozo oshimae kudasai.” Please finish and the host will respond with, ” “Oshimae itashimasu””.
The host will continue to “ clean up” and guests will continue to enjoy themselves. The thin tea part is when the guests will laugh a bit more and let go a bit, unlike the thick tea part. This is the end and all during the thin tea part, the guests are relaxed. The feet may be “killing” the guests, but they know that the tea is coming to an end and a feeling of melancholy has started to enter the psyche. You just want it to never end, leg pains and all. At the proper point, the first guest will ask to view the natsume and the chashaku, and the host will comply. As before, each guest will haiken the two items and they will be returned as before. The host returns to the door, bows with the guests and closes the door. The guests will take a final look at the tokonoma flowers and the tamaeza, then leave the tearoom. Just outside the tearoom they wait for the door to open and the host will look out to the guests. All will have a final bow and then close the door. The guests will walk along the path to the waiting room area and retrieve their possessions and return home.
The host will now begin the clean up.
When I was a guest, I would try to find an excuse to walk around to the kitchen to see if I could extend my stay by offering help. Depending on the host and our relationship, I would be allowed and I would tie up my kimono sleeves and put on an apron and help clean. And after cleaning, might spend some time snacking on leftovers and sake.
I hope this offers an oversight on the standard tea. At Urasenke, there are many other styles of Chaji. I can give overview of the teas if there is any interest.
Elliot Mitchnick holds the tea license rank of Junkyoju. His tea name (chamei) is Soei.