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.)
Chaji 茶事, the term used for a formal tea, has changed over the history of tea in Japan, and what I write about is the Urasenke tradition of tea. There are many other traditions, and although they all have slight variations, the main idea is to offer a guest a great tasting bowl of tea.
The term Chaji translates as “Tea thing”, and is the term used today for a formal tea gathering. But it is thought that the term Chakai茶 会 was used 400 years ago. Chakai, which translates to “tea gathering”, is used today for an informal tea gathering, usually a sweet and bowl of thin tea.
Before I begin, let me clarify that I am writing as if we are living in a perfect tea world and that we have a beautiful tea garden and tearooms. Today, even in Japan, very few people have the facilities to offer this kind of tea. I have attended teas in Japan in many unusual locations over the years and all were wonderful. There is a wonderful Japanese phrase used in Tea, ichi go ichi e 一期一会, or “One chance, one opportunity”. It teaches us that this time together is a one time opportunity, so make the best of it. Wikipedia explains the term as “linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience. The term is particularly associated with the Japanese tea ceremony, and is often brushed onto scrolls which are hung in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique.”
So, let’s begin. Our tea will be a standard tea called Shogochaji 正午茶事 , a noon tea. It is October and the days are beginning to become colder and the leaves are starting to change and the Host decides to host a formal tea. A week or so before, he or she gets out the ink, ink stone and some paper and writes the first guest, or maybe all the guests, an invitation for the tea. The invitation will start with a greeting about the season and will give details about the tea. It may be sent to the first guest and the first guest would take care of inviting the others. The first guest will then write to the host with a list of who will attend. The first guest may also visit the host the day before with a gift of the season. Maybe now a small box of matsutake mushrooms would be nice. The host would then use the mushrooms in the tea, maybe as matsutake gohan (rice with mushrooms), or if they are large, grilled matsutake as a yakimono, or grilled dish.
During this period, the host is busy preparing for the tea; picking out utensils for the meal and for the thick and thin tea, preparing a menu for the guests, remembering if there are certain dietary restrictions. For the host, many changes may occur as he/she shops, as the vegetables may not be available, or may not be up to standard. Much written about Japanese kaiseki 懐石 cooking is based on the lunar calendar, which is about a month later than the calendar used today. The fish would be picked up the morning of the tea from the fish monger. The host wants to make sure all the utensils picked for the meal work together, that the selection is not boring because of repeated dishes from a particular kiln. For example, if you used the pottery called shinoyaki for the mukosuke, (a raw fish course), you should not also use shinoyaki for the yakimono (a grilled dish) course. So the host will spread out the utensils on the tatami mats and look to see how they work together. This is called toriawase 取り合わせ.
The day before, the host would clean the roji 露地 and the tsukubai つくばい . If the basin was dirty, he would clean it with salt and wash it out and cover it. On the day of the tea, the host will be out going over the roji and also preparing the tearoom for the tea. The room is cleaned and the scroll will be hung in the alcove or tokonoma 床の間. The brazier or ro 炉 (sunken hearth) is prepared and the charcoal is prepared to be lit as well as the small charcoal for the tabakobon 煙草盆 or smoking trays.
The host has a great deal to do before the guests arrive and more than likely, he or she has an assistant to help. Timing is of utmost importance, so help is always appreciated. I have seen a host do it on his or her own, including all the cooking. I wish I was that organized!
Just before the guests are to arrive (for a noon tea 10-15 minutes before), the host will sprinkle the garden path with water, even in mid winter, but will make sure that not too much is on the plants that border the path and that there are no puddles that may wet the bottom of the guests’ kimono. The host will go to the main gate and sprinkle water around the gate to let the guests know that all is ready. The gate will be left ajar and the guests know that they may enter. Please be aware that there seem to be many rules and the guests must be well versed in Tea before attending as a guest. If one does not know enough, then he or she might be paired with another guest who can assist.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. I remember doing a tea for a friend who was a writer who invited 10 guests to tea in a one and 3/4 mat entranceway. Most of the guest sat in the attached living room. The first guest, a friend and professor of Japanese classics, was chosen by the writer. He went to his tea teacher for special lessons and she told him that it was impossible for him to learn what to do within a week. He told me about this and I told him it would be OK and it would all work out. The tea was fine, luckily all the other guests knew even less. Even as I tried to explain everything in my poor Japanese, all went well. I think this is because the kaiseki was prepared by one of the great kaiseki chefs of Kyoto. The first guest brought some live sweetfish as a gift and without blinking an eye, the chef just took a tin from the truck, put in charcoal and grilled up the 15 sweet fish.
Now, back to tea. As they arrive, all the guests enter through the main gate (you can see a main gate in my photo section) and walk along the stone path to the main building where they can leave their packages and change their tabi 足袋 (split toe socks) to a clean pair. They then enter the waiting room while the other guests arrive. In the waiting room, there may be a scroll hanging with a seasonal feel; perhaps a landscape of the Arashiyama mountain in its fall glory. When the last guest arrives, he or she will close the sliding door with a bit of noise to advise the host all the guests are there.
The host will enter the room and greet all the guests, who will be sitting in their proper positions. The host may offer the guests some hot water in small cups to quench their thirst from the trip. The host will then ask the guest to go to the koshikake machiai 腰掛待合 in the roji. As the guests have left their zori sandals at the main door, the host will usually provide the them with garden zori for their use in the roji. The guest of honor, or shokyaku 正客, will leave the room first and will be followed by each in the proper order. The entering of the inner roji is an escape for the guests.