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Happo-En garden in Tokyo

Greetings, readers!  I have just returned from a two-week adventure in beautiful East Asia.  And since it’s almost 11pm, and I am not even close to feeling tired (jet-lag is a beast), I’m going to write a post.

One of the time-honored traditions in Japan is the tea ceremony.  Green tea was originally imported from China in the 8th century for its medicinal properties.  The preparation and drinking of tea was ritualized in the late 1400’s, and the ritual adopted and propagated by samurai during the Edo Period.  This is no English afternoon cup of tea, though.  Like many attributes of Japanese culture, the tea ceremony is a spiritual and ritualistic act, with every action taken by the partakers having some purpose or meaning.  You can’t just show up, dunk a biscuit, and call it a day.  The Japanese tea ceremony requires a special set of tools, and participants go through a very specific set of actions in order to perform the ritual correctly.

On our trip, I was fortunate enough to participate in a tea ceremony, and I was given some instruction beforehand on how to perform the ceremony correctly.  Tea ceremony is typically performed in a tea house, like the one shown below.


The tea served at the tea ceremony is called “matcha,” a powdered green tea that has a strong, bitter flavor, and this must be prepared by a trained person.  She will use a number of different tools to do this.  She will have to heat water in the kettle or “kama” shown below.

Artifact from the Tokyo National Museum

Tea is scooped from a tea jar into the tea bowl using a very particular type of bamboo utensil, shown below.

Artifact from the Tokyo National Museum

Tea and water are then combined in the tea bowl (chawan), shown below.  

Artifact from the Tokyo National Museum

The maker then uses a bamboo whisk to whip the tea into a froth.

Now the tea is ready to drink, but here comes the tricky part.  This is where the ignorant Westerners have to correctly pull off the consumption of the tea.  The bitter tea is (mercifully) served with some kind of sweet in order to counteract some of the bitterness.  I’ve got to be honest, this tea did not taste good.  It’s not something you whip up to relax before “Sherlock.”  But remember, medicinal properties.IMG_2401

Once the tea is served to you, you may start the drinking process.  Hold the bowl with your left hand under it and your right hand around it, front facing you.  Turn the bowl with your right hand clockwise twice to move the front of the bowl away from you (you don’t drink from the front).  Then, lift the bowl into the air as a sign of thanks before taking your first sip.  The hostess will ask you how it tastes, and you are to reply, “kekkodesu,” which means something like, “This tastes terrible, but I have to lie and say I love it because them’s the rules.”  You are then free to drink the tea.  I have heard other sources insist you have to drink the tea in three gulps, but I was not taught that specifically, so maybe only certain schools teach that.  You drink the tea until it is all gone and slurp the last sip as a sign of appreciation.  Then, you take your right hand thumb and forefinger and wipe the rim of the bowl where you placed your mouth.  Turn the bowl counterclockwise twice so that the front faces you again, and then you may set the tea bowl back down on the table.

The Japanese tea ceremony may be complicated, but the focus should be on enjoying and appreciating the moment, and I think that is what drinking tea of all kinds should be about.

Stay tuned for Korean tea next!