The Japanese word “Chado” literally means “the way of tea,” and is commonly used in the English language to refer to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Chado is the ritual preparation, staging, and consumption of matcha, a distinct powdered green tea. An iconic representation of Japanese culture, synonymous with Zen philosophy, the ancient formal tea ceremony is a choreographed art requiring many years of study.
Centered on the concept of the host and the guest experiencing a mutually heartfelt moment over a bowl of matcha tea. The host’s aim is to serve the guest a satisfying bowl of tea, and for the guest to respond with gratitude. Both the host and guest realize that the time shared during this encounter can never be repeated. It is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to be remembered and treasured.
While the visual representation of Chado remains the simple and sincere exchange of tea between host and guest, the process of studying Chado requires an understanding of other areas of Japanese culture, including beauty, art, philosophy, architecture, respect for nature, home decor, crafts, and cuisine.
Cha no yu, ("tea hot water") involves enjoying tea in the present—fully experiencing the taste, scent, and beauty of the tea and all of its implements—and appreciating the moment. Through fastidious attention to every detail of preparing and drinking tea, the participants of the tea ceremony enter into a shared, intimate, spiritual experience.
A consecrated practice taking place in a well-designed space with meticulous procedures, Chado arrived in Japan from China over 900 years ago. Tea had long been valued by Ch'an monks in China to keep them awake during meditation. According to legend, when Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, struggled to stay awake during meditation, he ripped off his eyelids and tea leaves sprang from his discarded eyelids.
In the 9th century, Japanese Buddhist monks who traveled to China would return with tea. But it wasn’t until the 12th century that Eisai, the first Zen master in Japan, returned from China bringing Rinzai Zen along with a new way to make tea. Mixing matcha powder and hot water in a bowl using a whisk, Chado is much more than preparing and drinking a hot beverage. It is a ritual that involves scrupulous attention to the present moment, enjoying the tea, its implements, and those participating in the ceremony.
Japanese Tea Room
An essential component to Zen practice, Chado requires complete attention to detail. From the placement of oryoki bowls to the composition of floral arrangements, and from the folding of the cloth to placement of the mats, each element follows a precise form.
Over time, monks incorporated tea into Zen practice, paying attention to every detail of its preparation and consumption. The earliest tea ceremony has been credited to Zen monk Murata Shuko. Though he worked for a wealthy and powerful man and lived within palatial surroundings, chose to serve tea in a tiny, simple room that he discovered inside his master's massive villa. Believing that the practice of tea should be a minimalistic and spiritual experience, and one to appreciate, he replaced the ornate porcelain teacups with basic earthen bowls.
Shuko, who created the aesthetic concept of wabi, which means simple, unrelenting beauty, introduced the form of tea ceremony called wabi-cha. Shuko began the tradition of hanging a scroll of Zen calligraphy in a tearoom and partitioning a large room into small and intimate “four-and-a-half” foot tatami mat areas.
The intimate setting of the tearoom, which is usually only large enough to accommodate four or five people, is modeled from a hermit’s hut. In this space, often surrounded by a garden, the participants temporarily withdraw from the outside world.
There are several variables in a traditional tea ceremony, but in most cases, it is common for guests to wash their mouths and hands and remove their shoes before entering the room. The door is low, so visitors have to bow as they walk in.
In the tearoom, the emphasis is on the interaction between the host, guests, and tea utensils. The host selects an assemblage of objects specific to each gathering and uses those utensils to perform the tea preparations in front of the guests. Each tea gathering is a unique experience, so a particular assemblage of objects is never repeated.
The host normally lights a charcoal fire to heat water in a kettle and cleans the tea tools, then mixes the powdered tea and water with a bamboo whisk. Each movement is ritualized, and guests are expected to pay careful attention to every detail.
According to ritual, guests sip tea from a single bowl which is passed around and shared with each other. When to bow, when to speak, and how to handle the bowl all follow precise forms. When participants are fully engaged, the ritual evokes great peace and clarity, a non-dualistic consciousness, and a deep intimacy with self and the others present.
Each Chado or Chano-yu tea ritual is an iconic representation of the tea master's culture and beliefs.
Japanese Tea Room Etiquette
Guests are expected to abide by tearoom etiquette. When presented with a bowl of tea, a guest will notice and reflect upon the warmth of the bowl and the color of the bright green matcha against the clay before partaking in the beverage. The ceramics used—tea bowls, water jars, flower vases, and tea caddies—are functional tools valued for their practicality and admired for their aesthetic qualities.
In addition to the acquisition of a collection of objects, and the ability to choose which objects will be selected and used in a particular gathering, a key element in this practice is the host’s connoisseurial skills.
- Guests are advised not to wear strong perfumes, flashy jewelry or statement pieces that can distract from the ceremony.
- Guests are asked to remove their shoes before the ceremony and enter the teahouse barefooted.
- Small talk is frowned upon since it can distract from the ritual.
- Since guests are expected to drink from the same cup, it is advised to rotate the cup a bit before taking a sip.
Many of the Japanese-made ceramics used in the ceremony are unglazed stonewares first intended as utilitarian vessels for farmers.
Such wares were made at a variety of kilns, including Shigaraki and Bizen. The clay originating in various locations resulted in specific colors and textures when the piece was fired. Rustic Shigaraki ware (above,) for example, is characterized by a fiery orange color and a speckled, bumpy surface caused by the feldspar in the clay.
Bizen ware, on the other hand, (above) is known for its deep green to blackish brown color.
Since their purpose was not decorative, these vessels were not necessarily made with aesthetic considerations in mind. Large jars would usually be shaped using a method of coiling bands of clay, instead of the more precise potter’s wheel. This often resulted in asymmetrical vessels. When fired in the kiln, ash would settle on the shoulders of jars, melt, and drip down the sides, resulting in natural ash glazes.
The appearance of these rustic pieces was unpredictable, shaped more by the forces of fire and the natural characteristics of the clay than by a careful hand.
Soon after tea practitioners began to take an interest in the utilitarian vessels from sites like Shigaraki and Bizen, these kilns began changing their approach to ceramic production, introducing new shapes into their repertoire that were specifically designed for use in the tea ceremony.
The establishment of the tea ceremony led to the creation of new types of Japanese wares, such as Raku, Shino, and Oribe.
Handmade bowls are thought to reflect the spirit of the maker. As opposed to agrarian vessels that were created by unknown potters, this type of ceramic puts more emphasis on the creator’s role in the process.
Shino (above) and Oribe wares emerged slightly later than Raku. Both produced at kilns in Mino province, Oribe ware was named for Furuta Oribe, a tea master and disciple of Rikyû. Glazed in eye-catching colors such as copper green, Oribe ware is easily recognizable.
Shino ware, the first variety of Japanese pottery to which pictorial designs are applied, is identifiable by its milky white glaze. The designs on Shino ware are simple motifs of the natural world done with an unrestrained hand in keeping with wabi sensibility.
Although tea wares were highly valued, it was not until much later that potters began to sign their work. Ninsei, whose work was brighter, colorful, and much more lavish and far removed from wabi tradition, was the first potter to do so.
Although the notion of wabi is useful in helping us to understand the high value placed on certain wares, ceramics used in the tea ceremony came in a variety of styles. From unglazed Shigaraki jars to the brilliantly enameled incense containers of Ninsei, a spirit of eclecticism can now be found in the Japanese tearoom.