Friday, 4 January 2008

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism
in which green tea known as matcha is prepared and ceremoniously served by a
skilled practitioner to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting such as
a garden tea house. Chanoyu which means “hot water for tea” refers to a single
ceremony that involves only tea, while the longer version known as Chaji “tea
meeting” entails a full tea ceremony in which a light meal is also served, and
can last up to four hours. Mastering the art of the tea ceremony includes
years of study that can last a lifetime, as the student must be familiar with
several interrelated disciplines such as flower arranging, calligraphy,
ceramics, incense, and the proper technique for wearing kimono. Guests who
participate in the ritual must also be aware of the proper conduct in regard
to utilizing certain phrases and gestures required to maintain the integrity
of the ceremony.

If tea is to be served in a tea house guests will initially be shown to a
waiting room called a machiai, which is usually a separate structure such as a
simple gazebo. After being summoned by the host they purify themselves by
rinsing their mouths and hands with water from a small stone basin known as
tsukubai, and then continue through the garden to the tea house. Removing
their shoes they proceed through a small sliding door that is only thirty six
inches high, thus symbolizing that all who enter are equal in stature
irrespective of status or social position. The roomis not decorated save for a
scroll painting called kakemono, which has been selected by the host and
reveals the theme of the ceremony. The Buddhist scripture on the scroll is
called bokuseki (ink traces) and is admired by each guest in turn before being
seated seiza style on the tatami mat floor.

If a meal is not served the host will present each guest with small sweets
eaten from special paper known as kaishi, which each person carries in a
decorative wallet tucked in the breast of the kimono. All utensils to be used
in the ceremony such as tea bowl, tea scoop, and whisk, are ritualistically
cleansed in the presence of the guests in a precise manner and order before
being fastidiously arranged according to the ceremony being performed. Upon
completion of cleaning and preparing the utensils, the host will place a carefully
measured proportion of green tea powder in a bowl along with the appropriate
amount of hot water, and then whisk the tea using a precise set of movements.
Guests relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the simple surroundings and
conversation is kept to a minimum. The host then serves the bowl to the guest
of honor, bows are exchanged, and the bowl is raised to the host in a gesture
of respect. The bowl in then rotated by the guest to avoid drinking from it's
front, a sip is taken followed by a prescribed phrase, the bowl's rim is wiped
and rotated back to its original position, and is then passed on to the next
guest with a bow. The protocol is repeated until all guests have tasted the tea
from the same bowl, and it is then returned to the host who rinses it. The
scoop and tea container are then offered to the guests for examination, each
item being treated with extreme care and reverence as they may be
irreplaceable handmade antiques passed down for generations. The host then
collects the utensils, and as the guests leave the tea house bows as a sign
that the ceremony has officially come to an end.

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