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A Quick Lesson on Tea Ceremonies in East Asia

Andrea helps people design their homes and gardens. She likes to use Western Astrology and the Chinese Zodiac to help build templates.

Tea ceremonies are popular throughout Asia. The partaking of tea is considered a practice in equanimity.

Tea ceremonies are popular throughout Asia. The partaking of tea is considered a practice in equanimity.

The Art of Tea Ceremonies

I love tea, I love gardens, and I love building intrigue. Combining these three interests into one is the stuff of dreams. Tea ceremonies have been around for thousands of years. Today I'm going to focus on tea practices in East Asia, mainly Japan, China, and Korea

There are several different ways people describe tea ceremonies in Asia:

  • The tea ceremony is translated to "The Way of Tea" in Japan.
  • In China, they call it "Art of Tea."
  • It is called "Etiquette for Tea" or "Tea Rite" in Korea.

The Japanese tea ceremony is what most westerners are familiar with. It was actually influenced by the Chinese tea culture during ancient and medieval times.

Tea was first introduced to Japan from China in the 9th century. The first documented evidence of tea in Japan is from an entry in the Nihon Kōki. The entry is about the Buddhist monk Eichū; he brought tea to Japan from China.

Eichū served sencha tea, a green tea, to Emperor Saga in 815. The Emperor loved it, and because of that, the next year, an imperial order demanded cultivation of tea plantations in the Kinki region.

Tea Practices

Tea ceremonies have several expectations including:

  • Rituals
  • Tools
  • Gestures
  • Level of noise
  • The flavor of the tea
  • An adoration of beauty
  • Spiritual growth
  • Practicing humility
  • The journey to the tea
  • Attire

Tea ceremonies are considered artistic in nature. Partaking of tea is intended to be a positive and soothing experience. Drinking tea communally is often used to help connect guests, new community members, and strangers to those familiar to the area. Tea ceremonies are often used to build peace.

The tea garden prepares the guest mentally for the tea ceremony.

The tea garden prepares the guest mentally for the tea ceremony.

Japanese Tea Houses and Gardens

A tea house is a private structure designed to host tea ceremonies. The facilities became popular in Japan as more people became tea drinkers. The room where the tea ceremony takes place is called the chashitsu.

Tea gardens came into fruition during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573). The Muromachi Period roughly occurred at the same time as the European Renaissance. The Muromachi Period was marked by several new cultural activities and advances including: Zen Buddhism, zen gardens, Noh drama, sarugaku, minimalist nature paintings, and flower arranging.

The Muromachi Period established the traditional tea principles that most Japanese ceremonies follow today. In most cases, you can prepare yourself for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony by reading and learning about the Muromachi Period.

Buddhist monks were the first people in Japan to drink tea regularly. They drank tea as part of their daily meditation exercises. When Buddhism came to China between 200 to 850 CE, tea was prized for having medicinal properties. In some monasteries, Caffeinated teas were used to keep monks awake for lengthy periods.

Tea houses and tea gardens continued to have popularity during the Momoyama Period (1573-1600). During the Edo Period (1600-1868), tea houses were popular places where geishas would entertain. Also during the Edo Period, couples would go to tea houses for some privacy away from their families and jobs.

  • Ochaya is an older word for "tea house." Modern tearooms are called kissaten. Ochaya is mostly used in Kyoto where geishas still perform.
  • The Japanese tea ceremony is called chadō.
  • Chadō is one of three classical Japanese arts centered around refinement. The other two are: (1) kōdō, incense appreciation, and (2) kadō, flower arrangement.
  • Roji is the garden one passes to enter the tearoom for the tea ceremony.
  • The garden is meant to be a meditative space that prepares people for the ceremony ahead. It's important to prepare your heart, mind, and soul for the ceremony. You're supposed to let go of your societal worries and woes.
  • Traditional tea gardens have an outer and inner space. People wait in the outer garden next to a gate. They wait for an invitation to be allowed into the inner garden.
  • In the inner garden, people are instructed to wash their hands and rinse their mouths. These are also practices people would do before entering a Shinto shrine.
  • The path to the tea ceremony is meant to be green, lush, moist, and flowing. Moss ground cover is common in the inner garden.
  • Paths to the tea ceremony are not supposed to have bright flowers or bright colored objects that could be considered distracting.
  • The first tea houses didn't have windows. Later the tea houses included a wall that could be opened to see the garden.
  • Tea houses may have dressing and waiting rooms. Certain attire is necessary for some ceremonies.
  • A formal tea gathering is called chaji. This includes a full-course kaiseki meal. It is followed by confectionery treats (wagashi), thick tea, and thin tea. A chaji lasts a long time, up to four hours. (It's important to plan your day well to be completely present at the chaji.)
  • An informal tea gathering is called chakai. This includes simple hospitality, a baked good, thin tea, and a light meal.
  • The tea master usually invites one guest who they wish to treat to tea. The guest may invite a couple more people, but the ceremony will mostly focus on the main guest.
  • The tea master will select a calligraphy scroll and flower arrangement appropriate for the gathering. The guests bow down to it in appreciation.
  • Quietness is encouraged. Gossip is discouraged.

The tea house often has a tatami floored room. The host makes the tea before the seated guests. A tea gathering held outside picnic-style is called nodate.

"The Way of Tea" is called cha-no-yu in Japanese. Cha-no-yu focuses on ceremonial prep and the presentation of matcha. Matcha is a powdered green tea that's frequently used in Japanese tea ceremonies.

Some Japanese tea practices use loose leaf teas. Arguably the most popular is sencha. Drinking tea is seen as a transformative practice. Drinking creates a metamorphosis in the drinker; it helps them to be spiritually aware.

Some of the most popular tea principles have to do with wabi-sabi.

  • Wabi represents the inner, spiritual experiences of our lives.
  • Wabi is about quietness, sobriety, and subdued taste.
  • Sabi represents the outer, material side of our lives. The emptiness of materialism inspires people to find spirituality.
  • Sabi is about examining one's unpolished and unfinished nature.
  • Sabi deals with the mortal demands of our flesh.

Some tea houses are built for wabi. A purpose-built room designed for wabi tea is called chashitsu (the term is used for more generic tea houses as well). A chashitsu usually has tatami flooring, a low ceiling, a hearth built into the floor, an alcove for hanging scrolls, and decorative ornaments. The wabi style room has separate entrances for the host and the guests. The attached preparation room is called the mizuya. Guests are not allowed in the mizuya.

A 4.5-mat is standard for a tearoom. Most wabi style tearooms have simple and rustic furnishings. Don't bring out the most expensive teacups or the ones emblazoned with jewels and dragons.

Another popular tea ceremony concept is ichigo ichie. It translates to the idiom: "one, time, one meeting." It emphasizes the ephemeral nature of each tea gathering. The meeting is special because the exact nuances that take place will only happen once.

Japanese Tea Gardens

There are three basic designs for Japanese tea gardens. The first is a simple, solitary garden surrounding a tea house. This simple style has no particular name. This would be the best garden for a standard home.

The second style, the niju-roji, involves an outer garden and an inner garden. Stepping from the outer space and into the inner garden symbolizes the visitor's departure from the outer world into a place of quiet serenity. You must leave behind the circumstances and woes of the societal world and step into the tranquil space for a cup of tea and a spiritual lesson.

The third type is the taju-roji. It has an outer garden, a middle garden, and an inner garden. The addition of the middle garden is to further help people to transition from the outer world and prepare themselves to enter the tea house. The tea house is considered a sanctuary.

Cha-niwa refers to gardens created around a tea house. There are no official aesthetic guidelines for these gardens. Roji-niwa, however, is a term used for formal gardens, and it applies to niju-roji and taju-roji.

  • Tea gardens are generally small, simple, and have a subdued color palette.
  • The fragrance isn't too strong in a tea garden. You're not stopping to smell the roses.
  • The foliage should appear natural. It should't be overwhelmed by flowers, idiosyncratic plants, or shiny objects.
  • The outer garden is sunny. A canopy of trees shades the inner garden.
  • The outer and inner gardens should contrast each other.
  • The inner garden should feel more remote. It feels as though you have stepped into a new environment. The inner garden is rustic.
  • The outer and inner garden is often separated by a bamboo gate and a tall hemlock hedge.
  • A carpet of moss may cover the ground.
  • The tea garden should be in harmony with the natural landscape. Indigenous plants should be used. If you're building a tea garden in a tropical place, use tropical greenery for your garden.
  • Sometimes a zen garden is built next to a tea house. Rock gardens also have the ambiance to help prepare people for the tea ceremony.
  • Common households usually don't have tea gardens. They're often associated with shrines, aristocrats, and botanical community centers.

Tea gardens often include lanterns, stepping stones, bamboo fences, and water basins. Outer gardens have evergreens and tightly trimmed shrubs. Inner gardens are naturally-shaped or have lightly trimmed shrubs. There are more deciduous plants in the inner garden.

Matcha and sencha are two of the most popular green teas in Japan.

Matcha and sencha are two of the most popular green teas in Japan.

Tencha Tea Preparation

Tencha is the practice of adding hot water to a bowl of powdered matcha. The tea and hot water are whisked together. The practice was introduced to Japan by the Buddhist monk Eisai on his return to China in the 12th century.

  • The powdered green tea was originally used in rituals at Buddhist monasteries.
  • During the 13th century, matcha tea became a favored drink in the warrior class.
  • Tōcha parties formed as more warriors became interested in matcha. During the tōcha parties, people could win prizes for guessing the best quality tea, which was grown in Kyoto. (The tea was derived from seeds that Eisai brought from China.)

Thin and Thick Teas

There are two main ways to prepare matcha: thin (usucha) and thick (koicha). The best quality tea leaves are used for thick tea.

Tea leaves used as packing material for the thick leaves are usually served as thin tea. The first mention of usucha and koicha dates back to the Tenmon era (1532-55).

  • Thick tea uses about three times as much tea as thin tea.
  • Thick tea is kneaded with a whisk to smoothly blend everything together.
  • Thin tea is whipped with a whisk.
  • Thick tea is shared among guests.
  • Thin tea is served in an individual bowl to each guest.


Seasons do have an influence on tea ceremonies. In Japan, the year is divided into two main seasons:

  • The sunken hearth season, which are the colder months from November to December.
  • The brazier season, the warmer months from May to October.

There are different variations of tea used for each season. The tatami mat in a tearoom also changes seasonally.

Many of the utensils used in Japanese tea ceremonies are made of bamboo.

Many of the utensils used in Japanese tea ceremonies are made of bamboo.

Tea Equipment

Tea ceremony equipment in Japan is called chadōgu. Many of the items are created out of bamboo. Tools for tea should be handled with care. It's important to clean all the surfaces, the insides of objects, and the handles. All tea equipment should be stored in a safe place. Some pieces are only handled with gloves.

Tea storage jars are some of the most treasured items. They're known as chigusas. These items are often named like people. They're important items that get mentioned in diaries or important family documents.

Here is what you'll usually find at a tea ceremony in Japan:

  • Chakin: a small white linen or hemp cloth. It is usually rectangular. It is used to wipe the tea bowl.
  • Tea bowl (chawan): these come in a variety of styles, sizes, and shapes. Shallow bowls allow tea to cool quickly. These are used in summer. Deep bowls are used in winter.
  • Tea caddy (Natsume/Chaire): a small lidded container for powdered tea.
  • Tea scoop (chashaku): used to scoop tea from the caddy into the tea bowl. Tea scoops are often made of bamboo. Larger scoops are used to transfer tea into the caddy while in the preparation room.
  • Tea whisk (chasen): the utensil is used to mix powdered tea with hot water. Tea whisks are carved out of bamboo. Tea whisks are frequently replaced.
  • Sunken hearth (irori): a square, stone-lined pit in the floor used for heating the home and cooking food. It is equipped with a pothook, called a jizaikagi.
Tea houses around East Asia have different styles, different teas, and different etiquette. There isn't a one-size-fits-all aesthetic.

Tea houses around East Asia have different styles, different teas, and different etiquette. There isn't a one-size-fits-all aesthetic.

China Tea Houses

In China, a tea house is similar to a coffeehouse. People gather at a tea house to socialize, play Chinese chess (xiangqi), and sip on hot tea.

Tea houses are traditional spots for dates and for family outings. These are generally safe places for tourists.

Yum cha is the Cantonese tradition of having brunch with Chinese tea and dim sum. Yum cha is popular in Guangxi province, Hong Kong, and Macau.

  • Yum cha consists of steamed, pan-fried, or deep fried dim sum.
  • It is served in bamboo steamers.
  • The meal is meant to be shared.
  • You drink hot tea, not cold tea.
  • Yum cha is meant for large gatherings and celebratory events.

Tea has been enjoyed in China for more than a thousand years. In Eichū's time, dancha was the choice for tea. Dancha is tea that's been compressed into a nugget shape; it is similar to pu-er tea. It's ground up then mixed with herbs, spices, and other flavorings.

In the early 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea, which focused on tea cultivation and preparation. Lu Yu was heavily influenced by Buddhism. His ideas had a strong influence on the development and traditions of Japanese tea.

FYI: in Chinese tradition, teacups are tested for a fine musical note. Drinking tea is meant to satisfy all five of your senses.

Korean Style Tea Ceremonies

Korea's focus on tea ceremonies is to be creative, open-minded, and social. The ceremonies employ a variety of teas, services, and foster lively conversation. Korean tea ceremonies have existed for more than a thousand years. The ceremony is called darye.

Recently Korean tea ceremonies have made a comeback. They're seen as a way to relax and separate from the fast-paced modern world.

During the initial rise of Buddhism in Korea, tea was offered in temples to the spirits of beloved monks. Tea was also offered to gods in different regions.

There are at least 15 major tea ceremonies in Korea. You may want to ask your host before the event if there are any special rules to follow, because it may be hard to do your own research.

There are a plethora of tea house designs in Korea. Tea house designs are not nearly as streamlined as in Japan. There are a variety of garden entries, styles of pots and cups, as well as treats. Essentially, Korean style tea ceremonies are accommodating.

Matcha is enjoyed in Korea, but not to the extent that it is in Japan. Matcha tea practices are popular with Buddhists. Tea evokes four kinds of thought for Korean Buddhists: peacefulness, respectfulness, purity, and quietness. Teas that bring out these four qualities are the most prized.


Korean tea ceremonies follow the seasons, just like in Japan. The ceramics and metalware change depending on the event and time of year.

  • Stoneware is common.
  • Earthenware is very popular.
  • Porcelain is rare.
  • Imperial porcelain with dragons on it is the rarest.

The bowls have naturalistic designs. Jade green, celadon, and bronze-colored patinas are used for Buddhist ceremonies. Pure white with faint designs on porcelain is for Confucian tea rituals. Coarse porcelain and ash-stone glazes are common for animist rituals.

Glazing provides a rich texture. It creates many tones and colors that change according to the time of day and season.

Glazing is used to imitate textures and materials: bamboo, pebbles, tree bark, human skin, peach skin. The pottery is intended to remind people of seasons, deeply held memories, and poems.

Summer tea equipment consists of katade bowls. They're about 5cm tall and 12cm wide. The surface area helps to cool boiled water. The water is cooled before it's poured into the teapot. If the temperature is too high, it might extract too much out of the leaves, making the tea bitter and disagreeable. Tea in the summer is taken cool or lukewarm.

During autumn and winter, tea equipment is made up of tall, narrow bowls, like the irabo style. This style is best for keeping things warm. Tea is poured in small spurts from cup to cup to prevent the flavor from getting too concentrated in one cup. Seeping times are critical. The tea is taken hot.

Teacups in Korea are selected based on form, emotion, and color. It's not important to test the cups for musical quality.

References / Further Reading

1. Elison, George (1983). Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (Vol. 3). Tokyo: Kodansha "History of Japan", section "Azuchi-Momoyama History (1568-1600)", particularly the part therein on "The Culture of the Period".

2. Honda, Hiromu; Shimazu, Noriki (1993). Vietnamese and Chinese Ceramics Used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. Kakuzo, Okakura (2012). The Illustrated Book of Tea. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books.

4. Sadler, A.L. (1962). Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tokyo: Tuttle.

5. Surak, Kristin (2013). Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice. California: Stanford University Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrea Lawrence