Most readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the image of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Known as the Way of Tea, this ancient custom has now become symbolic of a bygone era.
Despite tea still being an extremely popular drink in Japan, if you ask most Japanese locals about tea ceremonies, they will say it is mostly entertainment for foreigners and that few young people have ever participated in one. However, there is a movement to bring aspects of traditional tea drinking into contemporary culture.
In this article we will explore the roots of tea culture and take a look at tea drinking in modern Japan.
The Way of Tea
Tea was first introduced into Japan from China sometime in the 9th century. The traditional tea ceremony, as we know it, developed during the 15th century and was greatly influenced by the writing of the famous tea master, Sen No Rikyu. In earlier times, the ruling classes preferred drinking tea from expensive and ostentatious tea bowls from China, but Rikyu popularized the trend towards simplicity and minimalism that characterizes the ceremony today.
Tea ceremonies are centered around the preparation and consumption of powdered green tea, known as matcha. The practice became highly ritualized as a part of Buddhism and developed into a status symbol among nobles. Historically reserved for the wealthy and samurai class, the practice became more accessible in the 16th century and was eventually practiced by all levels of society.
Tea Time Today
Tea is still the most consumed beverage in Japan, but has naturally taken on new forms to conform with the busy lifestyles of most modern Japanese people. Supermarket aisles offer a huge selection of all different kinds of packaged tea and “British-style” black tea is becoming increasingly popular. Bottled tea is everywhere: in supermarkets, convenience stores and of course in the ubiquitous vending machines.
Green tea has become more versatile and is frequently used as flavouring for desserts. Matcha flavoured chocolate, candy and cakes are all extremely popular. The bright green matcha powder is an ideal natural food colouring and is used in everything from soba noodles to ice cream.
Contemporary Tea Ceremonies
Outside the traditional tea houses, the tea ceremony is being kept alive through several different means. Highschools and universities will often have a tea club that meets to learn about tea preparation and traditions. In recent years there has also been a movement to bring this tea culture into the workplace, using the meditative aspects of tea drinking in an office setting to help reduce stress.
It is still possible to participate in traditional tea ceremonies and this is especially popular among visitors to Kyoto. For those wishing to fully immerse themselves in Edo period Japan, it is also possible to rent a kimono and take a tour through Tokyo’s charming Gion district, experience traditional dinner entertainment with a maiko (geisha apprentice) or to stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn).
We hope you enjoyed this short introduction to tea culture in Japan. If you are interested in experiencing any of the activities listed, do not hesitate to contact us or visit our website for more travel inspiration!