Chanoyu: A Guide to Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Chanoyu is an event steeped in Japanese etiquette and history. Ant shares his top 5 tips for enjoying the ritual properly.


Japanese Tea Ceremony Photo © iStock/DavorLovincic

"It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa". Etched onto the pages of The Book of Tea, this endearing opinion is a ready-made motto for the world’s most popular beverage.

Inhale each gap within this article, as if it were a given pause, before you calmly, yet purposefully exhale. You need not rush, nor feign an expertise, for this is chanoyu, or the "Way of Tea".

The Japanese were introduced to tea in the early 9th century, though its real success followed the return of Zen priest, Eisai Zenji in 1191 from China. He brought back a bag of seeds and a head full of ideas and promptly sowed the seeds in three places; including the Uji district near Kyoto, which continues to produce some of the world’s best tea. Japan embraced the stimulating beverage, and thus came Teaism: a philosophy that politely reveres the simple things in life.

As a traveler, this excites me. In a world where ordering a coffee requires well-rehearsed lyrics ("could I get an extra hot piccolo trim chai latte with one sugar please?" deep breath, "Is that to takeaway, or have here?"), it’s a refreshing alternative.

Like most Englishmen, I love a good cuppa. A moment of a Me Time on the ascent to nirvana. Morning tea is doused in clues; afternoon tea is spiced with creative energy; while an evening brew is awash in wayward thoughts. In Japan however, the calmest elements of tea have been styled and stretched into one of the strictest, and elegantly complicated versions of ‘understated’ in the world today.

The Way of Tea

Chanoyu ("Way of Tea") is an event sprinkled in etiquette and steeped in history. A demo in daintiness, once embraced by the most fearsome of Japanese samurai (some prizing their tea utensils as much as their swords). It can be a gathering of appreciative personas, or an ensemble of taut experts.

The main event takes place within a modest complex, at the end of a manicured roji (garden path) where a modest tearoom (sukiya) is constructed with materials that suggest refined poverty. This spirit of wabi (often described as "rustic simplicity") pervades throughout chanoyu, and is orchestrated by the revered tea-master. Only the napkins and bamboo dipper are new, everything else is mellowed with age, while each guest should dress and behave in an appropriate manner.

The tearoom is the abode of asymmetry. For instance, if it contains a living flower, it may not contain a painted one. If the kettle is round, the water jug must not be.

Top Five Tips for Chanoyu

  • Eat it all, or none at all.
  • Compliment the utensils.
  • Dress modestly: "Until one has made himself beautiful, he has no right to approach beauty".
  • Mentally complete the incomplete. As well as verbally praising the surrounding beauty, take time to complete the effect in relation to yourself.
  • Research — at least a small amount — before committing to the fragile event.

Many travellers exploring the Far East are seeking out the high-rises of high-tech, or sniffing out nooks of irresistible nibbles. Visitors to Japan — a country oft curtailed by travellers due to its cost of living — are offered the same, but are increasingly seeking out the pine-scented abodes of the ancient traditions. While the Japanese themselves are hurtling toward the fabled culture of the West, a few have stopped to observe the critic’s cries: that Japan’s future is behind us.

The tea ceremony is streamlined respect. After entering the tearoom in the appropriate order and manner, the guests admire the tokonoma (alcove) and scrutinise the hearth before taking their seat. The ceremony itself begins with a light meal and sake; following a short interval a thick tea (koi-cha) is served in pottery vessels, typically followed by a thin tea (usu-cha) served in lacquered wooden vessels. The guests then scrutinise the tokonoma and enquire about the utensils and associated paraphernalia, before politely taking their leave.

Hot Spots for Teatime in Japan

  • Takasugi-an ("a tea house [built] too high") is — literally — a highlight of Japanese contemporary architecture. Perched atop two slain chestnut trees in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, Terunobu Fujimori’s wonky, cubic tree house combines traditional elements with modern interpretation. Something tells me you won’t need to whisk your matcha, simply hand it to the nerviest guest and let them shake it up.
  • The Kaboku tearoom is neatly hooked onto the Ippodo store in Kyoto, one of the leading names in Japanese tea. The tearoom is designed to deliver a hands on, educational and interactive introduction to tea, and its endless possibilities. From choosing the tealeaves, through to brewing and tasting.
  • Hirano-ya is a 400 year old tearoom, located in autumnal woodlands near Kyoto. Its existence is owed to the pilgrimages that ascend Mt. Atago, and the stop can be nothing short of refreshing. These days, Hirano-ya serves tea to travellers of all kinds, as well as tasty Japanese cuisine such as ayu (sweet fish) and yudofu (hot tofu).
  • The Jo-an teahouse is officially a National Treasure: nestled within Inuyama’s revered Japanese garden, Urakuen, Jo-an is a freckled of history. Built in 1618 by Oda Uraku, a disciple of Sen Rikyu its allure has survived the test of time, and Jo-an remains one of Japan’s premier tearooms.
  • Not technically a tearoom, the World Heritage site, Kozanji Temple in Kyoto attains kudos, because it was here that some of the first tea seeds brought from China by the Zen priest, Eisai were planted.

Teaspoons & Trinkets

Tea-masters are the epitome of vogue — from Japan’s earliest tea-master, Sen no Riky­­ū (1522–91), these influential artisans have encouraged fashions which are followed throughout architecture, fabric, and ceramics. They've made ever-lasting contributions to art, and their influence on food (and the way it’s served) is prevalent.

When the ceremony is complete, the sukiya (tea room) is stripped of all instruments, and the tasteful adornments of the tokonoma are removed. The Japanese believe the Western practise of permanently displaying paintings and ornaments is needlessly ostentatious. Even the finest paintings cannot be constantly appreciated, even by the wealthiest.

The purism of the tea ceremony is derived from minimalist Zen monasteries. All the great tea-masters were students of Zen, and many of Japan’s great gardens were designed by tea-masters.

Tea is one of the West’s earliest, and only acceptances of Eastern culture. It’s a "medicine that grew into a beverage". Across the planet, backpackers are discovering teabags discretely scrunched into their bags by doting mothers.

As far back as 1610 that the Dutch East India Co. brought the first tea to Europe. By 1636 France was enlightened, a couple of years later the Russians cottoned on, and in 1650 the English accepted the stimulating cuppa. As with all of the greatest imports, it was the early travellers that spread the word. The travellers Giovanni Batista Ramusio (1559), L.Almeida (1576), Maffeno (1588) and Tareira (1610) all mentioned tea.

As travellers, we are students of Teaism by default. We travel with what we consider to be a minimum of belongings, while we smile at all the small things and share a distaste for the beautiful black spots that scourge our journeys. We strive to be courteous, polite and respectful in the face of contempt and chaos. Plus, there’s a central theme that binds us together; sometimes, we like nothing more than to gather in a small group, and regale our finest tales around a table of tea mugs (and soggy biscuits).

About the Author

Written by the footloose Englishman, Ant; World Nomads very own guest blogger and the solo scribe of the charismatic travel blog Trail of Ant's currently drenching a thirst for travel during his third year of dragging a smudged and odorous backpack around the world.  You can occasionally track Ant down via his Twitter feed.

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1 Comment

  • Nancy in San Francisco said

    good article! i've only been to a tea ceremony here in SF, not yet in Japan - hope i remember your tips for full appreciation, when that day comes!

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