How To Follow The Japanese 'Way Of Tea' Like A Connoisseur
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TO those who wait / only for flowers / show them spring / grass amid the snow / in a mountain village. — Fujiwara Ietaka (1158–1237)

The word “tea” may not be part of the verse above, but the Fujiwara Ietaka poem is considered to be deeply resonant with the art and practice of the Japanese tea ceremony. A true disciple of the form would say that “tea ceremony” is perhaps a misnomer; what the Japanese tradition should actually be called is chado — the “Way of Tea”.

For many, the “Way of Tea” is not merely a ritual but rather, a creative and artistic expression that unfolds the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, art, language, etiquette and history. For some, it may also be a type of meditative practice: the idea is to engage so wholly and consciously in a mundane act, like preparing a simple cup of tea, that you are transported to a state of extraordinary awareness.

It’s easy to imagine that the etiquette surrounding a tea ceremony is overwhelming, formalised somewhat arbitrarily, or too whimsical to heed in entirety. For instance, the details of the tea ceremony — what type of fire is used, what sorts of cups/bowls the tea is served in, what flowers or other decorations may be placed around the room, what sort of motif would feature in the scroll that is considered the centrepiece of such ceremonies, even the pattern or shape of the incense containers that are part of the proceedings — change depending on the season. 

Then there are rules governing specific actions too: for instance, the way a host offers a tea cup to the guest (prettiest side forward) and the way the guest accepts and drinks from it (turning the prettier side away so that their lips do not touch it). Or take the focus on treating each utensil or element involved in the ceremony as a distinct work of art, worthy of admiration and critique in itself: often, you’ll find that the bowls used for tea have been baptised with charismatic names (for eg. Nintokusai, the Grand Master of the Urasenke tradition of tea who was active in the early 19th Century, granted a bowl the moniker of ‘Summer Festival Music’) in a bid to infuse the object with a living history.

But these aspects are in a sense window dressing. Sen no Rikyū, an artist and historical figure who is considered to have had the most profound influence on the “Way of Tea”, emphasised that an authentic tea ceremony was really about observing seven rules. These were: 

1. Make a satisfying bowl of tea. 

2. Lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently. 

3. Provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer. 

4. Arrange the flowers as though they were in the field. 

5. Be ready ahead of time. 

6. Be prepared in case it should rain. 

7. Act with utmost consideration toward your guests. 

Read in a certain way, these seven rules may guide our approach towards life itself, towards a way of being and doing.


Whether or not a Japanese tea ceremony is in your immediate future (or past), knowing a bit of the language around it is always pleasant. And the Japanese masters might say that in itself is reason enough. Here’s a glossary:

1. Chaji (CHA-jee): A full-length tea ceremony, including a meal and two servings of tea. It's the most formal style, combining art, ritual and hospitality into a transformative experience.

2. Chakai (CHA-kai): A relatively simple tea gathering, often involving only the serving of sweets and a bowl of tea. It's a casual version of a chaji.

3. Chawan (CHA-wan): The tea bowl. This is a key item in the ceremony, chosen carefully by the host to fit the season, occasion, and theme. It’s held and admired for its beauty and craftsmanship.

4. Chasen (CHA-sen): The bamboo whisk used to mix the powdered tea with hot water. It's a tool essential for achieving the perfect frothy consistency of matcha.

5. Chashitsu (CHA-shi-tsu): The tea room or tea house where the ceremony takes place. These spaces are designed with simplicity and natural beauty in mind, encouraging mindfulness and tranquility.

6. Furo (FU-ro): The portable brazier used in the warmer months for heating the water for tea. Its use varies seasonally with the ‘ro’, which is used in colder months.

7. Kaiseki (KAI-se-ki): A traditional multi-course Japanese meal served during a chaji. It emphasises seasonal ingredients and harmonises with the tea being served.

8. Matcha (MA-cha): The powdered green tea used in the ceremony. Known for its vibrant colour and rich flavour, matcha is the heart of the Japanese Way of Tea.

9. Natsume (NA-tsu-me): The container for the powdered tea during the less formal tea gatherings. It's typically made of lacquered bamboo and is beautifully decorated.

10. Ro (RO): The hearth used in the colder months for heating water. It's sunk into the floor of the tea room and covered with a square grate when not in use.

11. Senke (SEN-ke): Refers to the three main schools of Japanese tea ceremony — Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushakojisenke. Each has its own practices and traditions but shares the same underlying principles.

12. Tokonoma (TO-ko-no-ma): An alcove in the tea room where special art objects or scrolls are displayed. It sets the theme and tone of the tea gathering and is a focal point for guests' contemplation.

13. Wabi-sabi (WA-bi SA-bi): A central aesthetic concept in the tea ceremony emphasising the beauty of imperfection, transience, and simplicity.


As is sometimes the case with exquisite things, the Japanese tea ceremony is not without traces of violence and bloodshed. During Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s second invasion of Korea, in 1596, his troops abducted over 300 skilled artisans. These Korean artisans went on to establish new and acclaimed pottery types in Japan. Hideyoshi’s invasion is referred to as “the ceramic war” by historians because of this large-scale, forced movement of Korean art and artists. Now that’s a story to ponder on as you savour a cup of tea!