Today Japanese tea is seen as an inseparable part of Japanese culture. In Japan tea production and consumption started centuries ago. Through time tea enjoyment here changed and transformed, but it has adamantly continued to the present day. And today Japanese tea ceremony – one of the cultural symbols of Japan, has become widely known around the world. This section will look into both the traditional and current tea culture in Japan.
Traditional Tea Culture in Japan
Tea in Japan has a long history and deep culture around it. The traditional Japanese tea culture has taken form of a predefined ritual, where every item and every movement matter. There are several different rituals (that use either matcha or sencha), as well as several different schools teaching about them. Some of theirr precepts were developed centuries ago and with almost no change continue to be observed today. The rigidity and longevity of Japanese tea tradition is often very fascinating to foreign observers.
What we know as Sado – Japanese tea ritual with Matcha, started forming in 15th-16th centuries. While tea entered Japan along with Zen, soon it spilled across the higher layers of society. In those days it was used for entertainment and was consumed by aristocrats in lavish reception rooms.
A few influential tea persons of that time, such as Murata Junko and Takeno Joo started to recognize a need for a more modest and composed way of consuming tea. And so they brought focus to wabi sabi – the appreciation of natural beauty and imperfection. With that tea rooms got smaller and the number of distracting decorations was reduced. Later on smaller designated tea rooms were created too. The attention also shifted away from rare imported items (karamono) to locally produced items (wamono). It all culminated with Sen no Rikyu – the godfather of Sado, who codified the practices and set a standard.
Today Sado is practiced by several different schools. Most of them fall into either a merchant style tea, that was started by Sen no Rikyu and continued through his bloodline; or into warrior style tea, that were started by Sen no Rikyu’s students. In terms of the number of practitioners, merchant style schools, especially Urasenke, are more populous. Most schools appear similar in their philosophies and the differences mostly lie in the execution.
As for the rituals themselves, there appear to be thousands of variations. That is because the enactment of the ritual depends on so many factors, such as the season, the time of the day, the level of the guests, the kind of space used, the kind items used and so on. In most cases they can be divided into two: a more formal ritual – koicha and a less formal ritual – usucha. Koicha is a thick tea, when Matcha becomes nearly a paste; and it is shared from one bowl among all the guests. The lights are dimmed and sounds are lessened when koicha ritual is performed.
Usucha is a lighter way of serving Matcha. Sounds return to the tea room and more colorful utensils are used for this service. In case of usucha, an individual bowl of whisked foamy Matcha is served to each guest.
But Sado is more than tea! It also accompanied by other arts such as Shodo – Japanese calligraphy, and Kado – Japanese flower arrangement. To be a tea person, means to be cultured and well versed. And we haven’t even mentioned pottery (yakimono), insense (ko), clothing (kimono). Tea is truly a part of culture.
Only few know that besides Sado with matcha there is another ritual with sencha – Senchado. It believed that Senchado started as resistance to the rigidity of Sado. The artist layer in Japan looked for alternatives and discovered loose leaf tea in China. However, the sought freedom of expression in tea preparation soon gave way to defined precepts, as Senchado gradually assimilated to Sado. Visually, on the other hand, it managed to keep some differences, as it tends to use brighter more shiny colors typical in China. Compared to Sado, Senchado also allows a bit more freedom in the movements and conversations during the ritual.
Tea Culture in the Present Day
While tea rituals continue to be practiced and preserved, only a small part of the population is involved in them today. In general tea became a more casual beverage. Until not so long ago you could find tea and teaware in almost every home. These days, that has also changed – tea making at home has given way to ready to drink bottled teas and a teapot is no longer common at young people’s homes. Likely this has inspired the development of a few trendy teahouses in some major cities, that give an opportunity to go out and enjoy tea. The focus in most cases is on creating a cozy, welcoming environment and providing some special tea experience (be it some interesting rare teas, or some unique ways to brew and serve them).
Another big trend with Japanese tea in the past few years is to use it more as an ingredient in food and sweets production. You will quickly notice this visiting any teashop or café in Japan. Tea flavored sweets and snacks are also sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.
There have been several transformations before and only the future holds how Japanese tea culture will develop and change from here on.