Happy Matcha Monday everyone! Today I’m going to be starting a whole new series here on my blog which will be completely centred around the schools of Japanese tea and their origins, practices, concepts and more. They say to write the content you would look for and want to read the most and for years now I have wished their was more content on the internet based on the schools of Japanese tea. I have always wanted to learn about them and because I couldn’t really find what I was looking for I thought I’d write those posts myself, in the hopes of helping myself learn more and helping you all learn more as well. This series is going to start with the Urasenke School Of Japanese Tea which I actually hope to be able to study under at some point in the future.
I thought I would start off with this one because selfishly it’s the one I am the most interested in learning more about and It’s also probably the most well known and popular of the three main schools, so I thought it best to cover this one first and then move onto the others as they will take me longer to learn about as there is very little information about them online right now.
Sometimes refereed to as the Japanese tea ceremony, Chado or “the way of tea” is most simply stated as the ritualized preparation of tea, often made by a single host and offered to guests.
It’s origins can be linked to when monks came back from China, bringing with them a kind of tea that was different from the teas that Japan was already used to, which was of course green tea. This type of tea was picked between the end of April and the beginning of May and then steamed, dried and packed away into earthenware jars that are sealed and kept in cool dark places for six months. The jars were then opened and the tea extracted, which was then ground in a mill and turned into a powder. This is what we now know of course as Matcha. Once this green tea arrived the monks overlooked the black tea they had been drinking and exclusively drank this tea.
Later when the tea moved out of the monasteries into the world, the nobility were the first to learn how to prepare this tea, followed by the samurai, all learning the ritualized process of preparing this tea. Samurai had one role and for that they had to be focused and concentrated and the philosophy was that in learning how to prepare the tea, that would make them better warriors. As it spread into the wider world it became a much more elaborate celebration lasting sometimes days, with arts, food and things like that and it focused on the use and the exchange of expensive utensils.
Not everyone however agreed with the practice and a number of tea masters were not happy with the way that tea was being practiced and they wanted to pull back and return somewhat to the style of the monasteries, going back to a quieter more meditative process. the man most famously known for bringing tea back to its routes was Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591) Rikyu preferred a style of tea preparation reflective of simple quiet tastes called Wabicha. This is the most common style of tea ceremony that is practiced today.
Rikyu wanted to erase artificial barriers between people and believed that we are all humans first and as such we all deserve the same kind of respect, he didn’t like the idea of the tremendous social distinction between people. He introduced most of the native tools into the tearoom, often made out of bamboo and simple utilitarian Japanese pottery including rice bowls were used in place of the expensive items from China and Korea.
Other items were incorporated into the practice of tea as Wabicha was further developed. Tea ceremonies were moved out of big houses and into small tea houses, taking the guests on a journey through a garden and down a path that meandered and caused you to stop at various locations to admire your surroundings, you were moving from the city to the country and the path you took led you to a serene distant location, though you were still close by.
Most tea rooms were made of only two tatami mats, each around 3 x 6ft square making for a very intimate setting. The entrances are small, called a Nigiriguchi which was 36 inch wide and 30 inch tall, meaning everyone had to get down on their knees including the samurai, who never took their swords off, had to remove them to enter the tearoom, stripping everyone who entered of grandeur and social distinction making everyone the same.
Hoping to gain insight into what Rikyu thought was most fundamental to studying Chado, a disciple asked ”what are the most important things that must be understood and foremost in the mind at a tea gathering? Rikyu responded saying ”Make a delicious bowl of tea: lay the charcoal so it heats the water, arrange the followers as they are in the field, in summer suggest coolness, in the winter warmth, do everything ahead of time. Prepare for rain and give those with whom you find yourself consideration.”
Rikyu identified four main concepts / principals, each of which have both a physical and spiritual level:
Wa – Harmony | Physical – seek harmony between and among the guest, between the hosts and the guest and even between the utensils, never using matching sets of anything. Separate utensils are selected that do not match and the aim is to create a harmonious picture even though they do not match.
Kei- Respect | Physical – We are all humans and we are all deserving of a respect for each other. A lot of bowing is done, not to sow lower or high rank but it is a sign of respect and each person is honoured.
Sei – Purity | Physical – All utensils are purified, not that they are not clean but it must be ensured that guests know it is happening for them and only them at that time but has many levels.
Jaku – Tranquility | It can be very difficult to practice tranquillity these days because of so many distractions. But this step is there to just help guests to let go. You stop at a basin of water before you enter the tea house to symbolically wash your hands and mouth to get rid of the dust of the world before you enter a space of tranquillity. Getting there means you have to go down the aforementioned path and the further along you get the more abstract it gets, nothing showy and only simple plants around you. Water is often sprinkled on the path before guests arrive.
Elements of the tea garden
Gateway through which they pass.
Pathway that is often paved with flat stones that are places with specific intervals so that you can easily step from one to the other.
Wash basin and often a lantern.
When you enter the tea house everyone crawls in and directly in front of them is an alcove (Tokonoma) in which there is a scroll and a flower. During winter there is a Ro (a sunken hearth that the kettle sits in) in the tea house that keep it warm. Urasenke tradition means that tea can be presented in different ways. Depending on season and occasion the appearance would vary.
For guests most tea houses will follow these steps
– Sit in the waiting area.
– Proceed towards the tea house.
– Stop at the wash basin.
– Remove shoes.
– Kneel to enter the tea house.
– Examine the scroll and floral arrangement.
– Examine the kettle and utensils.
– Return to their original place.
– The host lays the charcoal to heat the water.
– The utensils are purified.
– Sweets are served.
– Tea is prepared for guests.
A full gathering lasts 3 to 4 hour and the first part is food. This is usually 7-8 courses with intermittent cups of Sake.
Then you come back and two types of tea are prepared.
Thin tea Usucha.
Thick tea Koicha.
I’ll going to as much detail as I can with the process but I won’t be including descriptions of all of the specific movements done by the host.
Purify teaware – A small silk cloth used to clean the container first (men use purple – women use red) and tea scoop second (Chasaku). Then a small amount of water is taken using a bamboo ladle and placed into the bowl which is then discarded. This not only cleans the bowl, it also warms the bowl as well. The whisk is also soaked in this water to help it become more malleable and stop the prongs breaking.
A scoop of tea is placed into the bowl, tapping the scoop on the side afterwards and placing it a top the tea canister. A small amount of water is then added to the bowl and whisked with the Chasen. This is done in a “W” or “M” formation to create a froth on top of the tea, doing 1 full circle with the Chasen (whisk) last before serving the tea. The bowl is spun twice fully clockwise and then served the the guest. One bowl is made at a time.
Sweets are eaten before you drink the Matcha served to you. You drink from the bowl with one hand under the bowl and one hand on the side; it is spun twice clockwise and then sips can be taken, bringing the bowl to you rather than you going to the bowl. The bowl is then passed to the next guest once empty. Before you drink, you bow and thank the guest before you for letting you join, you bow to the next guest and excuse yourself for going before them and then lastly you bow to and thank the host for preparing the tea for you.
Slurping is encouraged as it is a sign to the person that served you that you enjoyed the tea they prepared. The tea is suspended in water and you have to drink it one sip after another not taking too long at all as the tea will start to settle so you can’t stop for too long while you drink your tea.
When all guest have been served cleaning up takes place using cold water. The bowl is filled. The whisk is cleaned, using a circular motion. Then using the same cloth used before the tea scoop and canister is cleaned. The idea with this is that everything returns to the way it was before the ceremony began.
I hope you’ll all enjoy reading this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together, I’m so excited to continue with this series and help you to learn more about the schools of Japanese teas and how they differ when it comes down to their origins and practises. If you are studying under the Urasenke School please let me know in the comments if I missed out anything important in this post and I’ll make sure I add it in.
If you have any questions at all about any of the content in this post either stick them in the comments or send them or me on Instagram @kimberleyskyusu and I’ll do my best to answer them all as quickly as I can. You can find out more about the Urasenke school of tea here.
Until next time, Happy Steeping – Kimberley