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.)

TokonomaThe first guest crawls into the chashitsu and sizes up the room, looking to find the temaeza 点前座, the mat where the host makes the tea, and the tokonoma 床の間 or alcove, where the scroll should be hanging. Then, the first guest will crawl further, remove his or her zori and arrange them against the tearoom foundation wall. The first guest will then walk toward the alcove, sit seiza style, or kneel in front of the scroll and bow in a formal style, called shin. He or she will study and enjoy the beauty of the writing, then bow again. One bows in respect to the writer of the scroll, generally a Buddhist priest.

Kakemono 掛け物 , or hanging scroll, can be by laymen, priest and men or women of the cloth of any religion.  The writing is generally one or two lines by today’s standard, and will set the theme of the tea if that is the intention of the host. I found this strange when I first started to study tea as the scroll seemed very important. I did not understand why it was displayed during the meal and the flowers during the tea. Like many things in Japan, there are contradictions to my thinking patterns.

If there is any other object in the alcove, the guest will appreciate the object, then stand and go to the temaeza area where the host makes the tea and look at the utensils displayed; usually the brazier, kettle or furokama 風炉釜, ( May to Oct.) or sunken hearth or ro 炉 ( Nov. to April ). The guest will sit  as before and look at the object. The first guest then stands and returns to a temporary space to sit as the other guests look or haiken 拝見 the tokonoma and temaeza.

One by one the guests enter the tearoom and follow the same procedure. The last guest after entering the tearoom will turn to the nijiriguchi and close the door with some noise to let the host know that all have entered.

All the guests after haiken have found their sitting positions and have taken them. This is a very orderly process and requires study of part of the guests before being invited to tea.

A standard tea room is four and half tatami, or about 10 feet by 10 feet. It will have maybe two or three small  paper windows. For the first part of the tea, the windows will have a reed mat over the paper. The room is dark with shadows made by the small amount of light being allowed to enter the room. There is something magical  and intimate about being in a small dark room.

After allowing time for the guests to haiken and sit, the host will enter the tearoom. The host will slide into the room and then a series of aisatsu 挨拶, or greetings, will begin. The host will alway begin with first guest and then greet the other guests. He or she will then return to the first guest, where the first guest will ask about the painting in the machiai (if there was a painting), the hot water utensils (if hot water was offered), then the gardens and how beautiful they are and how well cared for. This conversation, of course, has no standard form and will vary depending on the host and first guest’s relationship.

KaisekiThe host will then slide out of the room and then will tell the guests that he /she will bring out some “scraps” that he or she has prepared after looking through the kitchen. This of course, is far from the truth and the host has been preparing for the last week to make the most wonderful meal for the guests.

The meal is called kaiseki 懐石and comes from the Buddhist meals at temples. It is said that the idea came from the warm stones that some Buddhists would use during long seshin they take part in.  The warm stone, wrapped in a cotton cloth would be placed in the kai or front opening of the samue (Monks work clothes) or kimono to warm the body and trick the stomach into thinking that it was full. The characters used for kaiseki are 懐石, meaning the kai of the kimono and stone. The other characters used today for kaiseki at restaurants in Japan uses the characters for meet and sit 会席.

The host and his or her assistants are now busy preparing the trays to be brought out to the guests. The tray will have two covered  lacquer bowls, usually black, but red and other color combinations could be used,  and a ceramic food container. In addition, there is a pair of cedar chopsticks on the tray. The lacquer bowl will hold miso soup 味噌汁; red miso in the warm summer months and changes over the months to a sweet white miso in winter. The soup will have a small vegetable of the season and usually topped with some Japanese mustard. The other covered bowl will have rice, which is usually a bit under cooked for the first serving and will be a moist. In the Urasenke tradition, it is shaped  in the form of ichimonji 一文字, or the Japanese number one. Other traditions use different shapes.  The ceramic dish called mukosuke, which literally means “over there”, as the dish is in the center of tray behind the two covered bowls. A typical mukosuke for the standard tea is a raw fish (sashimi) 刺身 with a garnish of greens.

The combination and types of mukosuke are limitless. Just before bringing in the tray some water is “sprayed” on the lacquer bowls using the chasen 茶筅, or tea whisk and this is called tsuyu, or dew,  the same character as is used for the ro of roji. There are some very fine books on the subject of kaiseki and a wonderful book on just vegetarian dishes. During the meal, the host will stand and sit serving his or her guests, which is hard work and tiring, but  for me, this is a wonderful time for the host and it humbles one with service to others.The host returns with a container called a hanki 飯器, which contains rice in individual portions for each guest. On top of the hanki is a round lacquer tray and the host will ask the guest if they want a refill of the soup, if the guest would like a refill the host leaves with  the bowl, and the guests will pass the hanki along to each guest to take some rice. The host will be serving a second soup to all who want and when finished will leave the room with the hanki and the tray.Nomono dish & coverThe host then returns with the nimono 煮物, the main course. This is usually a clear broth with a steamed fish paste with shrimp, as an example. Of course, only seasonal ingredients are used to make this. It is served in a decorated covered lacquer bowl, wider than the rice or soup bowls.  The host will return with more sake and then start with additional dishes. A yakimono焼き物, a grilled dish, usually a seasonal fish that is grilled over charcoal, followed by azukibachi, which is usually materials from other dishes that are skillfully combined, as not to waste any of the food. The last rice in the hanki is brought in and the host will ask the guests if they want a refill, but traditionally, the guest will pass. The guests now start to enjoy the food. The host and his or her assistant eat in the preparation room  to give them an idea of timing. During this time, the guests are hopefully having a wonderful time enjoying the food and good conversation. The room is dark, so it is not always easy to see the food, so the guests converse on what they think the different dishes are. The guests are also drinking sake so they are happy!

When finished, the guests will drop their chopsticks on their trays at the same time to let the host know they are finished. The host will clear out the large dishes which will be at the door entrance. The host will return and take out the Nimono bowls and bring in a small lacquer bowl called kozuimono 小吸物, this is a palate cleanser of sorts, usually a clear broth with a small delicate item of the season.

The host returns with the hasun 八寸, a small wooden cedar tray which is 8 sun (about 8 inches) in size and hence the name hasun. The tray has food from the mountains and food from the ocean. The host also comes in with a container of sake and through a rather elaborate serving method will serve all the guests the foods and sake and the guests in turn will serve the host sake. The host returns with a bowl of pickles and a ewer of hot salted water. The guests take some pickles including the takuan 沢庵(daikon pickles) and use the water and takuan to clean the bowls on the tray, like Buddhist priest and monk do today.  The host takes the trays from the room.

CharcoalAfter the kaiseki is finished, the host will do shozumi 初炭, or charcoal procedure. I am describing the furo season, which has just ended. If we were to discuss the ro season, this would take place before the meal to help warm the room.

The host will enter with the charcoal in a basket and a container of fujibai 藤灰 or wisteria ash. In the basket will be a set number of charcoals in different sizes, a pair of metal chopsticks, a feather and an incense container called kogo 香合 with sandalwood chips. The feather purifies the area, then the charcoal is placed in a set pattern. Afterwards, some ash is added with some chips of sandalwood  and the kettle is replaced. The guests are allowed to view the kogo close up, with each guest handling it.

The host removes the utensils and comes into the room with a large feather called a zaboki 座箒 and uses it as a broom to clean the tea making mat.

The host returns and will speak about the kogo to the guests, with the first guest only asking the questions.

The host now brings in the sweets in stacked lacquered boxes with kuromoji sticks on top. If there were three guests, then three boxes would be brought in. These sweets  are usually of the season and deserve a forum of their own. The host will tell the guests to enjoy, then return to the roji and the koshikake machiai. The guests will have their sweets and the last guest will place the stacked boxes at host’s door. Each guest will take a final look at the scroll and other objects before leaving the tearoom for the garden.

Back to Part 2.

Proceed to Part 4.


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