Kyoto in the Fall. The maple trees have turned to every shade of color imaginable between green and brown. You sit patiently on your tatami mat. Legs crossed. Mind still. The gentle rustling of the leaves outside is only eclipsed by the sound of a gentle stream near the tea house. The water boils. The steam wafts into the air like miniature clouds rising from a freshly rained upon mountain peak. Experiencing the Way of Tea. The tranquil and profound art of the chanoyu. Or. You are sitting at home. And after a long, stressful and hectic day at the office you can finally sit down for more than 3 seconds. Long enough to enjoy some tea, finally! These two scenarios sound worlds apart, but with the matcha tea starter set, the differences quickly fade away.
What is Chanoyu?
And what is chanoyu? Also known as chado or “Way of Tea”, the chanoyu is the formal Japanese tea ceremony. The roots of the tea ceremony can be traced back to China and Korea where tea was consumed for medicinal, ritual and leisurely purposes. Tea was first introduced to Japan by returning Buddhist monks who had travelled to Tang and Song China to study Buddhism more in depth. From this early introduction of tea by Buddhist monks, mostly of the Zen sect of Buddhism which was developing at this time, an indelible mark was left on the philosophy and appreciation of tea as found in the chanoyu. Zen’s philosophy of the impermanent and transient nature of life allowed the chanoyu and the various masters who would adapt and perfect the ceremony over time to create a whole range of ritual and aesthetic beliefs and functions to the practice. One particular master of superb note was Sen no Rikyu.
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The History of Chanoyu
Sen no Rikyu lived during Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku or “Warring States” period. Despite his humble beginnings as the son of a fish merchant, he eventually became the personal tea master for the Warring States warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Credited in Japanese history as helping to unify the land, alongside the third unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were both men of great stature and power. Despite the military and political magnitude of his patrons, Sen no Rikyu established the etiquette and aesthetic for tea ceremonies today focusing on the rustic, the humble and the transient. Instead of Massive teahouses with expensive lacquer and lavish tea ware imported from Ming China, Rikyu preferred weathered and rugged tea ware made in the style of Korean potters. He preferred small thatched huts, with a doorway intentionally too small, so all guests, even the mighty warlords, would have to bow. The smaller doorway also disallowed guests from entering armed with swords, further establishing the space of the tea ceremony as one of harmony, gentility and tranquility. Rikyu would also establish what utensils and materials to use during the ceremony and what the proper etiquette and customs were. Unfortunately, Hideyoshi and Rikyu would have a falling out following differing political and personal beliefs. Hideyoshi ordered the tea master to commit ritual suicide or seppuku. Thus ending the tea master’s life, but certainly not his legacy and certainly not the already time honored tradition of the tea ceremony.
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The ceremony is carried on even today. The full ceremony is very austere and requires determined patience and resolute attention to detail. The items and utensils in the inventory when performing the ritual include multiple pots and kettles, rice cakes for after the initial tea drinking, as well as straw mats and perhaps calligraphy scrolls and flower arrangements. The décor of the space also often follows aesthetics based on the season of the year. The experience of the ceremony in all its full trappings is peerless and something not to be forgotten. However, we just so happen to be so lucky today to be able to perform our own, very much improvised version of the ceremony at home. With the starter tea set we can extract a small kernel of the full ceremony and apply it to our own daily lives, and enjoy our matcha just the same!
What are the Tea ceremony utensils to practice Chanoyu?
For utensils, we need a bowl, a bamboo tea whisk, a bamboo matcha scooper and a kettle for hot water. A strainer for sifting the matcha is ideal but not necessarily imperative. First, use the bamboo scooper to scoop some matcha. Matcha of course is green tea that has been dried and ground into a fine powder. It has a deep and earthy flavor as it is made from the entire camellia sinensis leaf. Use the bamboo scooper to flatten out and smash any lumps of matcha for a more even and smooth result. Next, boil the water. It is okay to wait a few minutes until the water is just slightly below boiling. Pour some water into the bowl with your matcha. Try not to fill the bowl completely, matcha is easier to whisk when thick. Once it has been whisked it is okay to then add more water or use your matcha for other drinks or confections suiting your personal tastes. Which brings me to my favorite part, whisking. I like to absorb myself completely in the whisking process. Letting my stress melt away as I focus only on tea. To whisk your matcha, flick your wrist in a zig-zag motion all across the surface of the bowl until the surface is covered in a light green froth of bubbles. For best results try to whisk until the bubbles have been broken down into more of a foam consistency. It is okay to try to scrape the bottom of the bowl a little to make sure to dislodge any powder that may be stuck to the bottom. From here is my second favorite part of matcha preparation; enjoying your tea. For utensil maintenance make sure to not put any of your bamboo tools into the dish washer or use detergent to clean them. Both your whisk and matcha scoop can be cleaned by being rinsed with hot water. If any of the whisk’s follicles become bent, you can pull and bend them gently back into place.
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So whether you are observing the poetry of a Zen master written artfully on a scroll in a Kyoto teahouse, or if you are preparing for a long day filing reports, the matcha set has the fundamental tools and materials you need. This has only been a brief introduction of chanoyu and the Way of Tea. The sheer wealth of majesty and wisdom concerning Sen no Rikyu, chado, Zen Buddhism and their role and pertinence in daily life is truly boundless. No matter how or when or why you choose to use your matcha set, try to be mindful and reflect on the transient and imperfect nature of life. The impermanence makes every little interaction, every small detail special and exciting because they can never be fully replicated again. The sense of imperfectability gives every act or experience a peerless character. If things cannot be completely perfect, then there is nothing wrong with a small mistake here and there. Each flaw, no matter how small, sets items, people, places, interactions apart and different. It gives them all an endearing and matchless uniqueness. The practice and philosophy of chanoyu is centuries old, but the teachings of the Way of Tea are timeless. Its origins are found in India, China, Korea and Japan, but they are applicable anywhere. With the humble and dignified matcha set, the elegance of chanoyu is personally yours.