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The Way of Tea: About Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Picture this: a small house with a low door surrounded by a tranquil garden. The inside of the house is sparsely decorated. The walls are a plain, neutral color, and an alcove towards the back of the room showcases a scroll hanging from the wall, a careful flower arrangement sitting in a small vase in front of it. The floor, except for a small, slightly depressed square, is covered with tatami mats. Within the square is a brazier and an iron kettle.

Guests begin to enter the tea house, removing their shoes and then bowing to step through the low doorway. They are greeted by the host, who wears a kimono and sits near the brazier. The guests take their seats, quietly kneeling on cushions in seiza while the host prepares tea. Everything about the host’s movements is carefully measured, and practiced to the point of perfection. Water boils, and is spooned out of the kettle and into a cup along with fresh matcha powder. The host whisks the contents of the cup until they are smooth, and carefully hands the cup to the first guest. The guest turns the cup around, 180 degrees and drinks the tea-- measured, graceful and appreciative. The guest then wipes the rim of the cup with a cloth before passing it along. Some wagashi sweets are served to the guests as a counterpart to the bitterness of the tea.

The atmosphere is tranquil, focused, and still, providing a moment of pause away from the busyness of the world outside of the tea room. A second cup of matcha is served to the guests, this one thinner than the first. Once the tea is finished, the cup is handed back to the host, who then washes it and the other utensils. The guests leave, being politely sent off by the host, concluding the tea ceremony.

The guests in the tea ceremony are more than just passive participants. There is ritual and etiquette involved in attending a tea ceremony as well. Guests are encouraged to dress somewhat conservatively and to remove jewelry that may damage tea cups. Arriving a little early, so that the host may invite guests in at their leisure is recommended. Guests must be careful when entering, and make sure to touch the tatami mats with closed fists if they need to use their hands to move around at all. Small talk is also discouraged, as the tea, the serving utensils and the decor of the tea room itself is meant to be the center of the experience. Guests are expected to show appreciation to the host by complimenting them on what is there-- the tea, sweets, and aesthetic of the room.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a ritual largely concerned with pause, appreciation, and meditation in the now. Tea ceremonies can take place in designated tea houses, like the one described above, tea rooms, or even in ordinary residential homes. The purpose of the tea ceremony, like most zen practices, is to take a moment to contemplate emptiness through carefully measured, intentional movements and stillness. Depending on the level of formality, tea ceremonies can be very short, or take several hours to complete. A barebones tea ceremony can be conducted at home with just a few key pieces: a tea bowl, whisk, matcha scoop, matcha powder, hot water, and most importantly, a full presence of mind.


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