Whether you are a tourist or Japanese, you should know the Japanese tea etiquette when attending any tea ceremony. The etiquette does not apply in Japan only. It applies in other nations outside Japan where people follow the code of conduct – but they do not follow it strictly. As an outsider, you will have to learn the standard protocol before you attend any authentic Japanese tea ceremony. Matcha tea is the centre of all rituals and it holds many keys to mysteries unique to Japanese social events.
The practise sessions are for both the Japanese and the non-Japanese. By attending them, you will know what to expect in the modern-day formal tea ceremonies intended for the non-Japanese guests. In some of the tea ceremonies, you will find translators but some Japanese will also speak French, English and other languages. The rituals represent much about Japan – both the social restraint and formality. You will learn more about the Japanese culture by observing the basic rules. Tea ceremonies are built around the serving and drinking of tea, particularly matcha green tea. This guide will help you observe the basic tea etiquette.
Who are the guests and what should they do
Generally, a Japanese tea ceremony will have 4-5 guests – each guest must have a title. A quick example, the first guest is the shokyaku while the second one is jikyaku. The last one is known as tsume. Of course, the host will have arranged the seating and every guest has to sit in the right place according to the direction of the person serving the tea and directing the ceremony – known as teishu.
The shokyaku has an important responsibility in the ceremony, meaning that the host is unlikely to designate you the position if you are a first-timer. The role of the shokyaku is to communicate with the teishu. All social interactions will take place in a room known as chashitsu. The role of every guest and the teishu will be known.
In the ceremony, you will find sweets in addition to the tea. Do not eat or even say anything, which is not part of that tea ceremony. The shokyaku will assist you to know your main role as a first-time attendee. Follow the direction of either the shokyatu or the interpreter.
Basic Japanese Tea Ceremony Etiquette
Before you attend any Japanese tea ceremony, you will have to familiarize yourself with several things. First participation in the tea rite calls for relaxation, tranquillity and peace. To achieve that, show respect and deeper-felt appreciation for every effort of your hosts, the occasion and the presence of other individuals. You do not have to be Japanese or an expert to express such feelings. By understanding the basic tea ceremony etiquette applicable in every situation, you will set yourself apart from the other participants. Apart from memorizing the rules, understand the underlying messages and feelings in the actions they convey and why they bear meaning. Here are some of the basic etiquettes.
1. Bring white socks
A pair of white socks will prove to your host that you are respectful and thoughtful. So, you should bring a pair to change into after entering the venue. Some years ago, people would wear open sandals when moving about outside. Unfortunately, that allowed dirt and dust to catch onto their socks easily. So, they would carry a clean pair of white socks to change into when entering another person’s home.
Even though shoes protect white socks from dirt and dust, the Japanese still carry a pair of white socks to change into when entering other people’s home. But unlike it was when the Japanese wore sandals, today the white socks are more about showing respect. White stands as the purest colour and it will show its stains. Each time you change into white socks, you will convey your appreciation for the service you receive. Your host will have cleaned and tidied his/her home to receive you.
2. Carry a fan
One of the objects well-prepared tea people do not forget is their fan. Unlike the other types of fans that people use to cool themselves during summer, fans used in Japanese tea ceremonies are smaller. Moreover, people only use them ceremoniously. If you have one, do not open it unless it is a prescribed ceremonial action. Tea people use their fans to designate their boundary and to connect themselves with the people they are addressing.
People use their fan when exchanging greetings with others. That is among the commonest Japanese tea etiquettes. All the parties had to hold their fans on the hands in front when standing or place them in front of the knees in matting after seating. You will need enough practice to start using the fan properly. All you need to do is return a gesture when the other person addresses you and brings their fan out – do that.
3. Pay respect to the scroll and flowers
The two important things in tea chambers are scrolls and flowers. People display them in the alcove. You have to remember that Japanese tea etiquettes dictate the guests to sit down in front of that alcove, place the fan down, bow to the scroll and appreciate it. They should do the same for the flowers. The scroll is an embodiment of the individual who wrote it.
By paying respect to the scroll, you will be paying respect to the spirit of the person and his indirect presence in that room. The scroll will set the theme for the tea occasion. It is the work of the host to select the paintings and calligraphy in line with his/her thought or seasonal trait. Therefore, if you can read what the scroll says at the stage, you will get a glimpse of what to expect.
Flowers in the room are the purest element. The host will have cut them from their roots and they will not propagate their species anymore. So, they will be free from desire and intention. Your host will have selected the flowers as an offering to the guests and as a way of purifying the atmosphere. Fundamentally, flowers are an offering to the individual who wrote the scroll and some Japanese use them to represent the universe.
After you have observed both the flowers and the scroll, move to your seat. If there is anyone else accompanying you, sit as the first guest. If there is someone more experienced than you, allow him/her to sit near the host but avoid sitting as the last person. The person who sits last will have more work to do. Allow someone with enough training in the rite of tea to seat last.
4. Eat your sweet completely
Before you receive a bowl of tea, your host will serve you with handmade sweet. You will have to eat it completely before they serve you with the tea. Use the provided wooden pick to cut a third of the sweet and to stab. After eating the one-third piece, cut the remainder into two halves and eat them in succession. Receiving something in three mouthfuls is correct because it concords with how people receive ceremonial servings of sake. You will have to drink Japanese tea similarly.
The Japanese consider receiving something swiftly and consuming it immediately after its serving good manners, including when you are in a restaurant. The Japanese cuisine is delicate and the chefs have to pay close attention to the temperature when serving dishes. Whenever the host serves the tea or anything else hot, you will have to consume it hot. Also, you do not have to wait if it is served cold – consume it immediately. The chef or host will consider letting hot tea cool down or the addition of spices to dishes rude.
5. Receive the tea properly
The host will always ensure that the front of the Japanese tea bowl is facing you when presenting it. So, the most important side of the bowl is that one pointing you. They present it that way so that the guests can receive the best treatment possible. However, that does not mean you should just lift the tea bowl and consume the content. To prove that you respect the universe for providing tea and to acknowledge the care of your host, you have to show humility. So, here is what to do when receiving the tea.
Before you lift the tea bowl, direct your attention to any guest ahead of you and request their permission to start drinking. Address the guest after you and apologize to them for drinking first. They will see that as politeness and you will also acknowledge others – the moment cannot be special without other people. After that pick up the bowl and raise it to the universe. That will show that you are thankful to the universe for providing the tea.
After you are through with that, turn the bowl around 90 degrees clockwise to avoid drinking from the front. The humble gesture will prove to the host that you have appreciated his/her attention. You will also prove that you possess an adequate common sense to avoid defiling the utensil unnecessarily. When anyone bows to you, bow back.
It is hard to know in advance what to expect in your first Japanese tea ceremony. All you have to remember is doing anything you are asked to do and sit quietly throughout the session. Japanese tea ceremonies have been happening for many centuries and they are more like a cross between social ritual and religious rituals. Respect them and be thankful whenever you are allowed to attend. Make the best out of every opportunity because you will cherish the experience in your whole life. After you have attended several of them, you might understand the deeper meaning.