Tea ceremony 101 in Japan


WHEN YOU hail from a country where using a saucer is all too often considered a formality, the splendour of the Japanese tea ceremony can be dazzling to watch. A choreographed ritual of preparing, serving and drinking matcha (a powdered green tea) that in its current form dates back to the 16th century, the ceremony works to instil tranquillity and mindfulness by bringing together the mind and body in a series of pre-determined movements. Curious? Make the most of your first ceremony by getting to know the basics. HISTORY Tea has been a fixture in Japan since it made its way into the country via China in the 800s; however, ritualistic drinking didn’t begin until the 13th century when tea-tasting parties became popular under Kamakura Shogunate rule.

 VENUE Although tea ceremony can be performed anywhere, a tatami-floored room is considered the ideal venue. In Kyoto, try En, a small teahouse with plenty of atmosphere, or the elegant Club Okitsu. In Tokyo, head straight to the gardens of Hotel Chinzanso. DETAILS It’s not as simple as booking into any old ceremony; gatherings are either chakai – a simple event that includes thin tea, a light meal and confectionery – or chaji, which is a far more formal (and time-consuming) affair with a full-course kaiseki meal, thick tea, confectionery, and thin tea. Seasonality is also important, with variations in the temae (serving methods) performed and equipment used.

 TIMELINE Beginning with a quick ritual cleanse, guests can expect to spend some time viewing and appreciating the tea-making items before the meal is served in small courses. Once finished, the host will ritually cleanse each tea-making utensil before preparing the tea. Bows are exchanged as each guest receives their tea bowl in turn, rotating it slightly to avoid drinking from the ‘front’ of the bowl and wearing away the design. In some variations of tea ceremony, all guests may share the same bowl and rotate it as it is passed along. ETIQUETTE Taking time to show appreciation is essential, and it is also considered polite to enter the room on your knees and let the host seat you. Be sure to also eat and drink everything the way it is served – no requests for sugar!

1 Sake is a rice wine made by fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the husk or bran. The brewing of the clear liquor is similar to beer in that it involves converting starch into sugar and alcohol. Unlike beer, sake packs a punch: beer usually contains up to 9 per cent alcohol while sake can contain up to 20 per cent, but can be diluted with water to end up at 15 per cent. 

2 Sake has evolved over millennia, with mention of a brewing department being established in the Imperial Palace in Nara in 689. But it was during the Edo period (17th to 19th century) that it started to be produced on a wider industrial scale. 

3 There are various sake-producing regions where you can visit a brewery, take a tour, and taste the wares: try Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery (fukumitsuya. co.jp) in Kanazawa, founded in 1625; Shirataki Brewery in Echigo Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, where the winter snow provides ample clear mineral water for the brewing process; or Fukuju Brewery (enjoyfukuju.com), located near Kobe.

4 Sake can be served hot or cold, although high-grade tokutei meisho-shu is usually drunk cold so as not to lose the flavour and aroma. Hot sake is more often than not served in winter. 

5 Sake is served in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle known as a tokkuri, and sipped from tiny cups called choko; at special celebrations sake is served in ceremonial cups or sakazuki.

6 The amount of polishing that has been done to the rice, as well as the absence of additives, governs the premium status of the sake. Rice polishing is described in the following levels: Junmai, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo, and finally Junmai Daiginjo. Look for these terms to guide you when choosing your drink.  

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