A 5-part account of a formal Japanese tea ceremony by Elliot Mitchnick, who holds the rank of Junkyoju (Associate Professorship) of Urasenke, the 400 year old tradition of Tea headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.

(If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most tea terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word.)


first_lightChaji 茶事, the term used for a formal tea, has changed over the history of tea in Japan, and what I write about is the Urasenke tradition of tea. There are many other traditions, and although they all have slight variations, the main idea is to offer a guest a great tasting bowl of tea.

The term Chaji translates as “Tea thing”, and is the term used today for a formal tea gathering. But it is thought that the term Chakai茶 会 was used 400 years ago. Chakai, which translates to “tea gathering”, is used today for an informal tea gathering, usually a sweet and bowl of thin tea.

Before I begin, let me clarify that I am writing as if we are living in a perfect tea world and that we have a beautiful tea garden and tearooms. Today, even in Japan, very few people have the facilities to offer this kind of tea. I have attended teas in Japan in many unusual locations over the years and all were wonderful. There is a wonderful Japanese phrase used in Tea, ichi go ichi e 一期一会, or “One chance, one opportunity”. It teaches us that this time together is a one time opportunity, so make the best of it. Wikipedia explains the term as “linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience. The term is particularly associated with the Japanese tea ceremony, and is often brushed onto scrolls which are hung in the tea room. In the context of tea ceremony, ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique.”

So, let’s begin. Our tea will be a standard tea called Shogochaji 正午茶事 , a noon tea. It is October and the days are beginning to become colder and the leaves are starting to change and the Host decides to host a formal tea. A week or so before, he or she gets out the ink, ink stone and some paper and writes the first guest, or maybe all the guests, an invitation for the tea. The invitation will start with a greeting about the season and will give details about the tea. It may be sent to the first guest and the first guest would take care of inviting the others. The first guest will then write to the host with a list of who will attend. The first guest may also visit the host the day before with a gift of the season. Maybe now a small box of matsutake mushrooms would be nice. The host would then use the mushrooms in the tea, maybe as matsutake gohan (rice with mushrooms), or if they are large, grilled matsutake as a yakimono, or grilled dish.

During this period, the host is busy preparing for the tea; picking out utensils for the meal and for the thick and thin tea, preparing a menu for the guests, remembering if there are certain dietary restrictions. For the host, many changes may occur as he/she shops, as the vegetables may not be available, or may not be up to standard. Much written about Japanese kaiseki 懐石 cooking is based on the lunar calendar, which is about a month later than the calendar used today. The fish would be picked up the morning of the tea from the fish monger. The host wants to make sure all the utensils picked for the meal work together, that the selection is not boring because of repeated dishes from a particular kiln. For example, if you used the pottery called shinoyaki for the mukosuke, (a raw fish course), you should not also use shinoyaki for the yakimono (a grilled dish) course. So the host will spread out the utensils on the tatami mats and look to see how they work together. This is called toriawase 取り合わせ.

The day before, the host would clean the roji 露地 and the tsukubai つくばい . If the basin was dirty, he would clean it with salt and wash it out and cover it. On the day of the tea, the host will be out going over the roji and also preparing the tearoom for the tea. The room is cleaned and the scroll will be hung in the alcove or tokonoma 床の間. The brazier or ro (sunken hearth) is prepared and the charcoal is prepared to be lit as well as the small charcoal for the tabakobon 煙草盆 or smoking trays.

The host has a great deal to do before the guests arrive and more than likely, he or she has an assistant to help. Timing is of utmost importance, so help is always appreciated. I have seen a host do it on his or her own, including all the cooking. I wish I was that organized!

chirianaJust before the guests are to arrive (for a noon tea 10-15 minutes before), the host will sprinkle the garden path with water, even in mid winter, but will make sure that not too much is on the plants that border the path and that there are no puddles that may wet the bottom of the guests’ kimono. The host will go to the main gate and sprinkle water around the gate to let the guests know that all is ready. The gate will be left ajar and the guests know that they may enter. Please be aware that there seem to be many rules and the guests must be well versed in Tea before attending as a guest. If one does not know enough, then he or she might be paired with another guest who can assist.

There are of course exceptions to this rule. I remember doing a tea for a friend who was a writer who invited 10 guests to tea in a one and 3/4 mat entranceway. Most of the guest sat in the attached living room. The first guest, a friend and professor of Japanese classics, was chosen by the writer. He went to his tea teacher for special lessons and she told him that it was impossible for him to learn what to do within a week. He told me about this and I told him it would be OK and it would all work out. The tea was fine, luckily all the other guests knew even less. Even as I tried to explain everything in my poor Japanese, all went well. I think this is because the kaiseki was prepared by one of the great kaiseki chefs of Kyoto. The first guest brought some live sweetfish as a gift and without blinking an eye, the chef just took a tin from the truck, put in charcoal and grilled up the 15 sweet fish.


Now, back to tea. As they arrive, all the guests enter through the main gate (you can see a main gate in my photo section) and walk along the stone path to the main building where they can leave their packages and change their tabi 足袋 (split toe socks) to a clean pair. They then enter the waiting room while the other guests arrive. In the waiting room, there may be a scroll hanging with a seasonal feel; perhaps a landscape of the Arashiyama mountain in its fall glory. When the last guest arrives, he or she will close the sliding door with a bit of noise to advise the host all the guests are there.

The host will enter the room and greet all the guests, who will be sitting in their proper positions. The host may offer the guests some hot water in small cups to quench their thirst from the trip. The host will then ask the guest to go to the koshikake machiai 腰掛待合 in the roji. As the guests have left their zori sandals at the main door, the host will usually provide the them with garden zori for their use in the roji. The guest of honor, or shokyaku 正客, will leave the room first and will be followed by each in the proper order. The entering of the inner roji is an escape for the guests.


Roji stones

One by one,each guest leaves the machiai 待合 waiting room and slips on a pair of garden zori 草履. These zori are made from wonderful woven materials and very primitive in style to the standard zori used by the Japanese for everyday use. The zori’s beauty notwithstanding, if they are new they are the most uncomfortable shoe I have ever worn. I think this is due to the fact that when new the zori have not loosened enough to make them comfortable to wear and the bottom sticks into one’s arch.

We are now in the heart of the roji 露地, a truly transforming space that acts as a bridge from the ordinary world to the world of tea. The roji was once described with the characters 路地, which might translate as road or path and ground or place. This was changed to 露地, translated as “dewy path.” This change is said to have occurred in the late 16th century. It is attributed to Sen no Rikyu, the most influential tea master of all times. Like all important figures in Japanese history what is true and what is not is a blurred area and much of the traditions of the world of tea are just that – traditions with much not being backed by historical fact. For me, the idea of a dewy path from the outside world to a “higher world” is just a wonderful term. I am grateful to whoever thought of it.

Koshikaki machiaiBut, what is true is the incredible ”non beauty” of the roji 露地. What I mean is, the path of stepping stones and plants seem to have been put there by God. There seems to have been no effort, and the plants – just plants, form a lush beauty that takes us away from all the ordinary thought of life and free us to beyond the ordinary. This, for me, is the feeling of walking through the roji to the middle gate, chūmon 中門, the roji is not large, but the path makes it seem so much larger that it size.

We enter a space of lush green, that allows us to move along at a relaxed pace until we reach the middle gate. The first guest will open it and proceed to the koshikake machiai 腰掛け待ち合い. The tsume will close the gate and follow the other guests to the seating at the koshikake machiai. See two photos of a koshikake machiai in the gallery section.

The first guest will take the Tobacco tray, or tabakobon 煙草盆 off the round mats and then place the mats on the wood with the tobacco tray between the first gust and the other guests. The tobacco tray will have a hiire 火入れ or small container with ash and a lit piece of charcoal, a tobacco hiire, to hold the loose tobacco, haifuki 灰吹(ash recepticle – a bamboo tube with a bit of water in the tube for the disposal of ash from the pipe), and a pipe. Today, more often than not, the tray will only have the hiire and haifuki. You can tell quickly how rushed the host was by looking at the white ash that forms over the glowing piece of charcoal. But, that is just being picky as the true joy is to pick up the hiire and feel its warmth in your hand and take a puff of tobacco if desired. The pipe itself originates from Holland traders. The tobacco is an old, shredded style that you pack into the pipe. You light it with the heat of the charcoal in the hiire and take your puff or two. When I lived in Japan, you could buy this style of Tobacco in Kyoto only at Daimaru or Takashimaya once a week. Today, the use of the tobacco is not important and its meaning is to welcome the guests and show them the host is taking his/her time even for the smallest details.

If the roji is well designed, one cannot see many things that are near the koshikake machiai, but you can hear. In a few minutes you hear the sound of water on the bushes and plants that surround the tsukubai and then the pouring of water. There is an excitement that all the guests have as the tea is about to really begin. They can hear the host with the ladle removing as much water from the basin as he/she can and then pours fresh water from a wooden bucket into

the basin. The host then carefully purifies him/herself with the water, returns the bucket to the preparation room and walks toward the middle gate. The host opens the gate, walks through, and all the guests rise and there is a silent bow. The host returns the the teahouse and the guests prepare to move on to the tsukubai. The first guest says, “Osaki ni”, or “please excuse me for going before you”, and will turn the mat over so it rests on the back wall, then each guest will follow. The last guest will return the mats to the starting position and place the tobacco tray on top and follow the guests through the chumon to the tsukubai area. There are some pictures of the tsukubai area in the photo gallery.

Each of the guests, starting with the first, go to the tsukubai to purify themselves, similar to the purifying basins at temples throughout Japan. The guest first takes out a handkerchief to wipe their hands after using the basin, then crouches in front of the basin with the handkerchief on the knee. The guest takes the ladle and a scoop of water and pours some on his left hand, switches to his left and pours water on his right hand. Next, with the ladle in his/her right hand, takes another scoop and pours some on his/her left palm and uses it to rise out the mouth, then spits it out. The guest then picks up the ladle and allows the remaining water to run down the ladle to purify the object for the next guest. The guest then returns the handkerchief to his/her kimono. One by one, each guest repeats the purification.

The tsukubai つくばい is a “place” rather than just a water basin. The basin is generally called a chozubachi 手水鉢 in tea gardens, and the hole is usually circular and it is always placed low so that one must crouch in order to use it. I think it is Arthur Lindsay Sadler’s book, that attributed the following quote to Rikyu; “It is necessary for all, even the greatest of men to stoop low on the ground, for it is by humility that the true Sage is known”. The tsukubai area is usually 5 to 15 steps from the tearoom and when you approach there are a number of stones in front of the basin. Urasenke has a a stone to the left that is shorter than the right stone used to hold a bucket of hot water in the winter called a youku-ishi 湯桶石, and a slightly taller stone to the right for a lantern during the evening tea called a teshoku-ishi手燭石 and a flat stone directing in front of the basin called a mae ishi 前石. More detail on the design and construction of tsukubai can be found in Tsukubai – Design & Construction.

sekimori-ishiWith first guest leading, all guests will follow the path to the tearoom. As there are sometimes different paths, i.e. the path that the host might take to the mizuya 水屋, or preparation room, and on that path is there will be a small stone with black hemp rope tied around it is used to tell the guests to stop. This stone is called sekimori ishi関守石. You can see one in the photo gallery. When the guests arrive at the tearoom they might see an interesting feature of the roji, the chiriana 塵穴, or dust hole (pictured in part 1). This is a mortared or cement hole placed in area in full view of guests and near the nijiriguchi 躙口, the crawl in entrance way. Most of the time it is just there as a decoration, but if we look further at its Buddhist symbolism, the unwanted dust of the world can be left there when we enter the tearoom. This small hole becomes an important symbol as we enter the tea room. The size and shape depend on the size of the tearoom, and those with interest, feel free to ask. There is also a photo in the gallery area of the chiriana and of the nijiriguchi. In the photo of the nijiriguchi you can see a hanging broom called a warabiboki, a broom of fern fronds (now used for decoration, but in the past was used for the cleaning the roji).

Now with the first guest leading, the guests open the sliding door and enter the tearoom or chashitsu 茶室. End of Part 2.


TokonomaThe first guest crawls into the chashitsu and sizes up the room, looking to find the temaeza 点前座, the mat where the host makes the tea, and the tokonoma 床の間 or alcove, where the scroll should be hanging. Then, the first guest will crawl further, remove his or her zori and arrange them against the tearoom foundation wall. The first guest will then walk toward the alcove, sit seiza style, or kneel in front of the scroll and bow in a formal style, called shin. He or she will study and enjoy the beauty of the writing, then bow again. One bows in respect to the writer of the scroll, generally a Buddhist priest.

Kakemono 掛け物 , or hanging scroll, can be by laymen, priest and men or women of the cloth of any religion. The writing is generally one or two lines by today’s standard, and will set the theme of the tea if that is the intention of the host. I found this strange when I first started to study tea as the scroll seemed very important. I did not understand why it was displayed during the meal and the flowers during the tea. Like many things in Japan, there are contradictions to my thinking patterns.

If there is any other object in the alcove, the guest will appreciate the object, then stand and go to the temaeza area where the host makes the tea and look at the utensils displayed; usually the brazier, kettle or furokama 風炉釜, ( May to Oct.) or sunken hearth or ro 炉 ( Nov. to April ). The guest will sit as before and look at the object. The first guest then stands and returns to a temporary space to sit as the other guests look or haiken 拝見 the tokonoma and temaeza.

One by one the guests enter the tearoom and follow the same procedure. The last guest after entering the tearoom will turn to the nijiriguchi and close the door with some noise to let the host know that all have entered.

All the guests after haiken have found their sitting positions and have taken them. This is a very orderly process and requires study of part of the guests before being invited to tea.

A standard tea room is four and half tatami, or about 10 feet by 10 feet. It will have maybe two or three small paper windows. For the first part of the tea, the windows will have a reed mat over the paper. The room is dark with shadows made by the small amount of light being allowed to enter the room. There is something magical and intimate about being in a small dark room.

After allowing time for the guests to haiken and sit, the host will enter the tearoom. The host will slide into the room and then a series of aisatsu 挨拶, or greetings, will begin. The host will alway begin with first guest and then greet the other guests. He or she will then return to the first guest, where the first guest will ask about the painting in the machiai (if there was a painting), the hot water utensils (if hot water was offered), then the gardens and how beautiful they are and how well cared for. This conversation, of course, has no standard form and will vary depending on the host and first guest’s relationship.

KaisekiThe host will then slide out of the room and then will tell the guests that he /she will bring out some “scraps” that he or she has prepared after looking through the kitchen. This of course, is far from the truth and the host has been preparing for the last week to make the most wonderful meal for the guests.

The meal is called kaiseki 懐石and comes from the Buddhist meals at temples. It is said that the idea came from the warm stones that some Buddhists would use during long seshin they take part in. The warm stone, wrapped in a cotton cloth would be placed in the kai or front opening of the samue (Monks work clothes) or kimono to warm the body and trick the stomach into thinking that it was full. The characters used for kaiseki are 懐石, meaning the kai of the kimono and stone. The other characters used today for kaiseki at restaurants in Japan uses the characters for meet and sit 会席.

The host and his or her assistants are now busy preparing the trays to be brought out to the guests. The tray will have two covered lacquer bowls, usually black, but red and other color combinations could be used, and a ceramic food container. In addition, there is a pair of cedar chopsticks on the tray. The lacquer bowl will hold miso soup 味噌汁; red miso in the warm summer months and changes over the months to a sweet white miso in winter. The soup will have a small vegetable of the season and usually topped with some Japanese mustard. The other covered bowl will have rice, which is usually a bit under cooked for the first serving and will be a moist. In the Urasenke tradition, it is shaped in the form of ichimonji 一文字, or the Japanese number one. Other traditions use different shapes. The ceramic dish called mukosuke, which literally means “over there”, as the dish is in the center of tray behind the two covered bowls. A typical mukosuke for the standard tea is a raw fish (sashimi) 刺身 with a garnish of greens.

The combination and types of mukosuke are limitless. Just before bringing in the tray some water is “sprayed” on the lacquer bowls using the chasen 茶筅, or tea whisk and this is called tsuyu, or dew, the same character as is used for the ro of roji. There are some very fine books on the subject of kaiseki and a wonderful book on just vegetarian dishes. During the meal, the host will stand and sit serving his or her guests, which is hard work and tiring, but for me, this is a wonderful time for the host and it humbles one with service to others.The host returns with a container called a hanki 飯器, which contains rice in individual portions for each guest. On top of the hanki is a round lacquer tray and the host will ask the guest if they want a refill of the soup, if the guest would like a refill the host leaves with the bowl, and the guests will pass the hanki along to each guest to take some rice. The host will be serving a second soup to all who want and when finished will leave the room with the hanki and the tray.Nomono dish & coverThe host then returns with the nimono 煮物, the main course. This is usually a clear broth with a steamed fish paste with shrimp, as an example. Of course, only seasonal ingredients are used to make this. It is served in a decorated covered lacquer bowl, wider than the rice or soup bowls. The host will return with more sake and then start with additional dishes. A yakimono焼き物, a grilled dish, usually a seasonal fish that is grilled over charcoal, followed by azukibachi, which is usually materials from other dishes that are skillfully combined, as not to waste any of the food. The last rice in the hanki is brought in and the host will ask the guests if they want a refill, but traditionally, the guest will pass. The guests now start to enjoy the food. The host and his or her assistant eat in the preparation room to give them an idea of timing. During this time, the guests are hopefully having a wonderful time enjoying the food and good conversation. The room is dark, so it is not always easy to see the food, so the guests converse on what they think the different dishes are. The guests are also drinking sake so they are happy!

When finished, the guests will drop their chopsticks on their trays at the same time to let the host know they are finished. The host will clear out the large dishes which will be at the door entrance. The host will return and take out the Nimono bowls and bring in a small lacquer bowl called kozuimono 小吸物, this is a palate cleanser of sorts, usually a clear broth with a small delicate item of the season.

The host returns with the hasun 八寸, a small wooden cedar tray which is 8 sun (about 8 inches) in size and hence the name hasun. The tray has food from the mountains and food from the ocean. The host also comes in with a container of sake and through a rather elaborate serving method will serve all the guests the foods and sake and the guests in turn will serve the host sake. The host returns with a bowl of pickles and a ewer of hot salted water. The guests take some pickles including the takuan 沢庵(daikon pickles) and use the water and takuan to clean the bowls on the tray, like Buddhist priest and monk do today. The host takes the trays from the room.

CharcoalAfter the kaiseki is finished, the host will do shozumi 初炭, or charcoal procedure. I am describing the furo season, which has just ended. If we were to discuss the ro season, this would take place before the meal to help warm the room.

The host will enter with the charcoal in a basket and a container of fujibai 藤灰 or wisteria ash. In the basket will be a set number of charcoals in different sizes, a pair of metal chopsticks, a feather and an incense container called kogo 香合 with sandalwood chips. The feather purifies the area, then the charcoal is placed in a set pattern. Afterwards, some ash is added with some chips of sandalwood and the kettle is replaced. The guests are allowed to view the kogo close up, with each guest handling it.

The host removes the utensils and comes into the room with a large feather called a zaboki 座箒 and uses it as a broom to clean the tea making mat.

The host returns and will speak about the kogo to the guests, with the first guest only asking the questions.

The host now brings in the sweets in stacked lacquered boxes with kuromoji sticks on top. If there were three guests, then three boxes would be brought in. These sweets are usually of the season and deserve a forum of their own. The host will tell the guests to enjoy, then return to the roji and the koshikake machiai. The guests will have their sweets and the last guest will place the stacked boxes at host’s door. Each guest will take a final look at the scroll and other objects before leaving the tearoom for the garden.


The guests have returned to the koshikake machiai and repeat the process described in Part II. This middle “break” of the tea ceremony is called nakadachi 中立.

The host has a lot of things to do before the guests return and in the world of tea, there are a number of rules for the host to follow so that the Tea will come off successfully. The seven basic rules passed down to us by Sen Rikyu are:

  1. Arrange flowers as they are in the fields.
  2. Lay charcoal so the water boils.
  3. Keep cool in summer.
  4. Keep warm in winter.
  5. Be early.
  6. Be prepared for rain even if it is not raining.
  7. Be mindful of the guests.

Also, an important set of principles that should be followed in one’s study of Chanoyu is the phrase WA KEI SEI JAKU 和 敬 清 寂.

  • WA is the importance of harmony in Tea.
  • KEI is the importance of respect.
  • SEI is the importance of purity.
  • JAKU is the importance of selfless tranquility.

ChabanaWhile the guest sit and relax, the host and host assistant are busy checking the fire in the brazier to make sure the newly added charcoal has caught fire, the scroll is removed, and the room is cleaned. The flower container is placed on a hook in the middle of the alcove or on a hook on the tokobashira 床柱, the wooden post which is part of the alcove, or on the floor of the alcove on a board (or no board, depending on the situation). A simple flower arrangement is best and is called chabana 茶花 or “tea flowers”. In a small container 2 or 3 flowers and branches are all that is necessary. The idea is to seem as if they came directly from the field and just placed in the flower vase called hanaire 花入, without any “thought”. I feel the simpleness of the flowers is the difference with Japanese flower arrangement.

When complete, the host will take a chasen or sprayer and spray the flowers including the wall, if the hanaire is placed in the center of the alcove wall. A great book on the subject is called “Chabana”, by Henry Mitwer. There is a new edition titled something like “Zen flowers“.

A host will have a bucket of flowers ready so that he or she can have flowers to choose from. A classic flower is a closed tsubaki つばき, or camellia bud with a branch of the season. The branch should still have tight buds and a few open leaves with the tsubaki. Tea people from Samurai background will not use this flower as in a warm room the flower head may just drop and that is too close to home with idea of beheadings. For chabana, it is preferred that the flowers be not completely open (depending on the variety), but to allow the guests to envision what is to come.

The flower containers are classified into Shin , Gyo , and So (formal, semi-formal and informal). Boards are used when the vase is placed on the tatami mat in the alcove and are also classified Shin, Gyo and So. A simple breakdown would be as follows:
Shin: Chinese or imported bronze and celadon, seiji, would be placed on a lacquered board with a arrow notch cut out along the edges and called yahazu ita
Gyo: Japanese glazed ceramics, such as Seto, Tamba, Hagi etc on a hamaguriba ita ( clam shell edge shape) lacquered board.

So: Unglazed ceramics, bamboo vases and other misc items on a natural cedar or burnt cedar board with a clam shell edge shape are now used.

The mizusashi 水指, or cold water container, is prepared and brought into the tearoom to sit to the right of the brazier. The tea caddy, or chaire 茶入, has the thick tea added to it and the ivory lid is replaced. The chaire is placed in a cloth bag, shifuku, and tied. About 3.75 grams of koicha 濃茶 is added per guest. A good estimate is three scoops of tea per guest. (There are wooden cups are used to measure the tea and then it is poured into a wooden funnel that sits over the mouth of the chaire, but the 3 scoops per guest works fine.) The chaire is placed in front of the center of the mizusashi. For thick tea, a simple strong water container is used. A brown glazed Seto 瀬戸 is always a good choice. Blue and white can be used, but only in a small room and skill is needed to pull it off.

The host and assistant will have the other utensils ready for the tea and place them on a board next to the host’s door. This will include: tea bowl, chawan 茶碗 (tea bowl) with a chakin 茶巾 ( linen tea cloth ), chasen 茶筅 (tea whisk), placed in the bowl, and the and chashaku 茶杓 (tea scoop) placed across the bowl to the right of the chasen. The kensui 建水 (discard water container), with a green bamboo futaoki 蓋置 (lid rest ), and a hishaku 柄杓 (ladle made of bamboo).

This is truly a spiritual time for the host and host assistant as they sit in the preparation room preparing the tea bowl and other utensils to assure the purity of the utensils before they are used.

Some tea people who have a number of assistants might even take a fūro お風呂, or bath, to purify themselves for the tea. This is not the norm, but I have been told that Tantansai, the 14th generation Grand Master of Urasenke, did take a bath before making tea during Chaji.

Now all is ready and the host will get out the gong or dora (I have been told that the first dora were trade pieces from Indonesia area). The host will ring the gong a number of times depending on the number of guests. If you do not have a dora a large pot can be used and, although it does not have the beautiful tone, it will work.

Once the guests hear the gong, they will all kneel and then stand, use the toilet and when ready as in the first part of the tea will again say, “Osaki ni”, then put up the reed mat and walk to the tsukubai to purify themselves, then once again enter the tea room.

They will haiken the tokonoma (alcove), enjoy the flowers, and proceed to the temaeza and look at the brazier, mizusashi and chaire and return to their assigned position.

An account of a formal Japanese tea ceremony by Elliot Mitchnick, who holds the rank of Junkyoju (Associate Professorship) of Urasenke, the 400 year old tradition of Tea headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.

(If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most tea terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word.)


Let me start with a very short history of the development of tea in Japan. In early days, tea was made in the preparation room and brought into large banquet style rooms by servants. Later, tea was made in front of the guests by a servant. A Buddhist priest and tea master named Murata Shuko (or Juko) was troubled by how Tea had lost its spiritual compass and he tried to change things. He wanted to see the use of smaller rooms as well as a tea person to make tea in front of the guests. Both of these ideas do not sound important, but they really changed tea and gave it back a spiritual course, or at least I believe so.

Chaire - Tea ContainerThe host and assistant are ready and as the guests entered the tearoom, they refill the water basin at the tsukubai. The guests are quietly sitting in the tearoom. There is a stillness and dreamlike quality to the space. As the guests have partaken in the meal and the sake, they are a bit tired and there is bit of sleepiness working. This for me is a wonderful part of the tea and the dream like mind is important.

The host opens the door and picks up the tea bowl in front of him or her.

The host assistant is now outside the tearoom, ready to remove the reed mats that are over the paper windows. Timing is everything, so the assistant listens for a sign to start.

The host comes in and places the tea bowl to the left next to wall, picks up the chaire and moves it to the right, judging the space needed to balance the tea caddy and tea bowl in front the mizusashi. The host picks up the tea bowl and moves it to a position forming a triangle of the three objects. The host returns to the preparation room, picks up the kensui, enters the room, turns and sits facing the door. He or she then puts the kensui down to close the door, picks it back up, stands and walks to the tamaeza area. He or she then sits with the kensui to the left side. Carefully picking up the ladle and holding toward the heart in a position called kagami bishaku, mirror position. The host then picks up the bamboo lid rest and places it to the left of the brazier’ wooden board, then places the ladle on top of the bamboo. The host and guests make a formal bow and the tea now begins. Koicha, or thick tea is the reason for coming to a tea and this is a spiritual time for all attending. A dinner party is where the meal is most important and the beverage and desert are secondary. In a chaji, the meal is secondary and the thick tea is the essence of the event with the thin tea second.

Various set adjustments are made and the basic thick tea procedure is begun. At the same time, depending on the host and assistant’s prior arrangement, the assistant will begin to remove all the reed mats that cover the paper windows. Light starts to pour in the tearoom which is magical in this same dark room. A dream like world is now on stage. According to tradition, Sen Rikyu invited guests to tea and this teahouse had a number of windows along the host side of the room and as Rikyu carried in the tea bowl, the mats were removed almost like spotlights in the theatre. Even in the 16th Century, there was performance art.

Even with the light flowing into the room, there is a stillness. The host will start to purify the tea caddy and the tea scoop, the two utensils the come into contact with the tea. The host takes from his / her obi, kimono belt, a silk cloth and folds it into a set form, varying by the “tea school”. Traditionally in the Urasenke tradition, men use purple and women red. It is thought that these silk cloths, called fukusa,袱紗 come from the Mass in Japan in the mid 16th Century when the Jesuits visited Japan. The purple color is a priestly color and it is thought that it was picked for that reason. The red color’s origin is not known, but from what I could unearth, no one knows for sure. Women did not really start to study tea until the early 20th Century and red is thought to come from the idea that women’s under kimono and kimono linings were often red. Not a clear answer, but all I could find. Today tea students use the entire color palette for their fukusa.

Koicha - thick teaThe host moves the tea bowl in front of him or herself, then takes the chaire and places it in front of the tea bowl. The host takes the folded fukusa and wipes the tea caddy, after removing the shifuku(silk bag). After wiping the chaire, it is placed to the left in front of the mizusashi. The host refolds the cloth and wipes the tea scoop and places the scoop on the lid of the chaire, then removes the chasen (tea whisk) and places it to the right of the chaire. Next, the chakin (tea cloth) is removed and placed on the lid of the mizusashi. Hot water is poured into the tea bowl from the kettle and the host takes the chasen and places it in the tea bowl and inspects the whisk in a set procedure. The reason for doing this is twofold. First, you make sure that none of the tines of the whisk have broken off or are broken and might wind up in a bowl of tea. Second, you are able to warm the bowl.

The water is poured off into the kensui, waste water container, and the bowl is wiped with the tea cloth and the cloth is now placed on the kettle cover which is now on the lid rest called futaoki.

The host picks up the tea scoop in the right hand and with the left hand picks up the tea caddy, removes the lid with the right hand and takes three scoops of tea from the caddy and places it in the bowl, then puts the scoop with scoop side up on the tea bowl and pours in the balance of the tea. The lid is replaced and put back in front of the water container. The scoop is then used to spread out the tea on the bottom of the bowl. It is lightly tapped to loosen the remaining tea on the scoop and then put back on the lid of the caddy. The host will then take the lid off the water container and place it on the water container’s left side. He or she then uses the ladle to takes a scoop of cold water, pours it into the kettle. Another scoop of water is drawn and part of it is poured into the tea bowl. Experience will tell the host how much is needed for this bowl. The cold water is added when using the brazier because the tea, which is picked in May, is allowed to age until November. At that time it is made available to tea people, as the furo (brazier) season is May to October, the tea is a year old and the lower temperature allows for better taste.

Chasen - tea whiskThe host picks up the whisk and places it in the bowl, and with a light tapping, will try to incorporate the tea and water. The host then using a slow deliberate kneading motion starts to make the tea, When the host feels it is mixed, he or she will rest the whisk in the bowl and take another scoop of water, pick the whisk and as the room is light, is now able to see the thickness or thinness of the tea and will judge how much water to pour into the bowl. The host will then finish the tea. The first guest will slide forward to take the bowl and bring it back to his or her position. It is placed between the first and second guest and all the guests will bow together. One by one, the guests will partake of the tea, usually three sips. The guest puts down the bowl and takes out a damp small tea cloth, ko chakin 小茶巾, and uses it to wipe that area of the rim from which they drank. The guest replaces the tea cloth in a special waterproof pack and places it into the left kimono sleeve.

As another aside, the use of the ko chakin to wipe the tea bowl that we use today is a white open weave linen cloth. During the mid Meiji period, Japan saw more women showing interest in tea and starting to go to tea. The 11th generation Urasenke Tea Master, Gengensai, found that women used bright red lipstick which stained the chakin red when used. Gengensai started to have kochakin dyed red so that the lipstick would not distract guests during teas. This has died out and today we use a plain white kochakin or piece of paper called kaishi 懐紙, which means paper that fits in the kai of the kimono.( The kaishi is an all purpose wad of paper to be used as a napkin, tray for foods, a writing pad as well as any other use that came up, that is folded to resemble the chakin. For tea, this would only be use during practice and with my teachers, never allowed during real tea ceremonies.)

Serving KoichaUp to this point in the tea, there is almost total silence and for me it is a very reflective time that allows us to go deep within ourselves as we share a bowl of tea together. The first words are between the first guest and the host as they discuss the tea sweets that were eaten before the guest left the tearoom for nakadachi. The guest asks the poetic name and the maker of the sweets, then asks the poetic name of the tea and the tsume, or name of the tea packer.

After all the guests have partaken in the tea, the first guest will ask to see the bowl. The last guest will bring the bowl to the first guest. The guest will place the bowl between themselves and the second guest and says “Osaki ni”, or “please excuse me for going before you”, and this will be repeated by all the guests before they haiken the tea bowl. The guest places the bowl in front, then places his or her hands on the tatami, palms down, and takes a look at the bowl. Then, with their elbows drawn close, they will pick up the bowl, most carefully, whether the bowl is a $1.00 thrift shop item or a many thousand dollar bowl. One must respect the utensil! As the guest picks up the bowl he or she will cover the lip so that when it is overturned none of the excess tea will fall on the tatami. Some guests will take kaishi paper and wipe out the bowl so that all the other guests will have no problems viewing the bowl.

So what do you look for when viewing the bowl? First, with the tea in the bowl, you get to see the skill of the host and the beautiful glistening of the thick tea against the tea bowl. This is especially true with a classic black Raku bowl. When you view the kodai or bottom of the bowl, it gives the opportunity to see the skill of the potter as they can not hide lack of

skill, if any, in this area of the bowl. There is something special in holding the bowl and viewing it. As the bowl works its way to the last guest to view, they will meet the first guest near the host, receive the bowl and then return it to the position where they first received it.

The host will pick up the bowl and place it front. All will bow in the formal shin style. The host’s bow will seem to be informal, due to the lack of space between host and bowl, but the bow is a true formal bow within the heart of the host. The host will add hot water to the bowl, empty it, and then tell the guests “Ichio oshimae itashimasu”, or, “For now I will finish.” The host will follow a set pattern in finishing up and when the host adds cold water to the kettle and closes the mizusashi lid, the first guest will ask to view the tea caddy, tea scoop, and shifuku, cloth bag. During koicha, you will always ask to view the utensils. It would be rude to the host, if guest did not and in most cases, the host would ask if he or she thought that the first guest might have forgotten. As with the viewing of the tea bowl, the guests have the wonderful opportunity to hold each of the utensils up close. The tea scoop is a difficult utensil for some to appreciate as it is “just” a piece of carved bamboo in the shape of a narrow spoon. The more chashaku I hold, the more I appreciate them as most are usually carved by Buddhist priest. For me, their presence is transmitted through this most humble and utilitarian piece of bamboo.

Tea ScoopAs with the tea bowl, the last guest starts to bring the utensils back and the first guest will join them and will place the utensils in their proper place, then return to his or her position.

The host reenters the room and the first guest and the host will answer questions about the utensils. There is a set of standard questions within the Urasenke Tradition that are used for practice class, but with a Chaji, the first guest can ask anything about the pieces. A set of standard questions might be:
“What is the shape of the chaire? What is the kiln? What is the maker?” The first guest might instead just ask, “What can you tell me about the chaire?” giving the host some leeway and answering only what they would like to. In class, we are trained to ask questions for learning and since the utensils are all practice utensils asking questions about the maker etc is not important, but at a tea asking some questions can be embarrassing to the host. The chaire may not be more than a practice utensil.

After the host answers the questions, he or she leaves the room, and at the door, will sit with the utensils to his or her side and bow. The host will then close the door.

The host will then bring the utensils to the preparation room and the assistant will bring the charcoal utensils to the entrance area for the procedure gozumi, or “2nd charcoal”.

The host will open the door and bow and tell the guests that he or she will do gozumi. The host enters the room sits in front of the tamaeza area and follows the procedure set for the 2nd charcoal. The host after removing the kettle takes a look at the charcoal and decides how much of the charcoal pieces in the basket are necessary to make fire burn for the balance of the tea. Some of the charcoal or all will be added, as needed. The kettle is replaced and the host leaves the room.

The host re-enters the room with tobacco tray, as used in the roji at the koshikake machiai. This is to allow the guests the opportunity to smoke, if they want. Some host will only bring in the hiire (lit charcoal container) and haifuki ( bamboo cylinder) and no tobacco. It is the host’s choice.

sweetsThe host again reenters with a tray of dry tea sweets for the usucha 薄茶 or thin tea. The tea sweets are generally two types in the Urasenke tradition. The more formal is placed at the top right and the less formal at the bottom left. Today, we take one each for each bowl of tea, but in the past it is said that you would only take one sweet per bowl of tea. These dry sweets are seasonal and are most beautiful, almost to the point of not wanting to eat them, although, I do not think I have ever put them in a piece of kaishi for later or to give to a friend .(Here in the United states, these sweets are not readily available and when they are, the price is high. You can substitute many other candies for these tea sweets. I like jellies in multi stripes for the Spanish / Latin markets as well as guava jelly candies. Simple cookies are good, as are dried fruits. All work well if some thought about the seasons are taken into consideration.)

At this time, the host may bring in zabuton, cushions, for the guest to sit on and help relieve the pain of sitting seiza for the last 3 to 4 hours. In general, the guests will refuse, especially the younger guests, but the option is that of the guests.

At the entrance the following utensils are ready: mizusashi, tea bowl with chakin, chasen and chashaku, natsume , a lacquer tea caddy, kensui with hishaku and futaoki.

The host when ready, opens the host’s door with the mizusashi to the right (but can vary depending on tearoom setup ) and bows. He or she brings in the mizusashi and places it in tamaeza area and returns to the preparation area and gets the tea bowl and natsume, brings them into the tearoom and returns for the kensui stands and enters the tearoom turns to the door and places the kensui on the tatami and closes the door. The host stands and goes to the tamaeza and sits. He or she picks up the ladle and then the futaoki, places it to the left of the brazier board, places the ladle on it and moves the kensui to one’s knee level. As with thick tea, the host will purify all utensils that come into contact with the tea (in the case of thin tea, the natsume, lacquered tea container and the chashaku or tea scoop).

When the host gets to the point of picking up the chashaku to take tea from the natsume, he or she will ask the first guest to have a sweet. The first guest will put the sweet tray between him or herself and the 2nd guest and say “Osaki ni”, move the tray in front and pick up to offer thanks. They will take out their kaishi papers and take two sweets, first from the upper right and then lower left. The guest will then pass the sweet tray to the next guest. The 2nd guest will wait until the host picks up the chashaku to follow the same procedure. The host will generally not tell the guest to take a sweet and will presume the guest knows. If the host feels the guest does not, he or she will tell them to take a sweet. This form will continue until all the guests have sweets.

After preparing the first bowl, the host will place it outside of his or her tatami mat, so that the guest can slide to the area and get the bowl. In some cases, in a big room, or if the host decides to have a hanto or assistant in the room, the assistant will take the bowl to the guests.

The guest will take the bowl and place it between him or herself and the next guest and say “Osaki ni”, place the bowl in front and say to the host “ Otemae chodai itashimasu”, pick up the bowl offer thanks ( kansha suru 感謝する) and enjoy the bowl of tea. The bowl is inspected by the guest and returned to the host who will make another bowl for the 2nd guest who will place it between the first guest and him or herself and say, “Oshoban itashimasu”, “I will join you”, and then between the 2nd and 3rd guest and say “Osaki ni”, and follow the form I described above. After all the guests have enjoyed tea, the host will continue to make tea until asked by the first guest to stop. In a formal tea the guest will usually have at least two bowls of tea, no matter how much their feet hurt. The first guest will ask the other guests if they would like more tea and when all have had enough, the first guest will tell the host, “Dozo oshimae kudasai.” Please finish and the host will respond with, ” “Oshimae itashimasu””.

The host will continue to “ clean up” and guests will continue to enjoy themselves. The thin tea part is when the guests will laugh a bit more and let go a bit, unlike the thick tea part. This is the end and all during the thin tea part, the guests are relaxed. The feet may be “killing” the guests, but they know that the tea is coming to an end and a feeling of melancholy has started to enter the psyche. You just want it to never end, leg pains and all. At the proper point, the first guest will ask to view the natsume and the chashaku, and the host will comply. As before, each guest will haiken the two items and they will be returned as before. The host returns to the door, bows with the guests and closes the door. The guests will take a final look at the tokonoma flowers and the tamaeza, then leave the tearoom. Just outside the tearoom they wait for the door to open and the host will look out to the guests. All will have a final bow and then close the door. The guests will walk along the path to the waiting room area and retrieve their possessions and return home.

The host will now begin the clean up.

When I was a guest, I would try to find an excuse to walk around to the kitchen to see if I could extend my stay by offering help. Depending on the host and our relationship, I would be allowed and I would tie up my kimono sleeves and put on an apron and help clean. And after cleaning, might spend some time snacking on leftovers and sake.

I hope this offers an oversight on the standard tea. At Urasenke, there are many other styles of Chaji. I can give overview of the teas if there is any interest.