Must Do Tokyo: Japanese Tea Ceremony

Our host offered to take a photo of us in the traditional tea room.
Our host offered to take a photo of us in the traditional tea room.

Going into this trip, one our of goals was to attend a Japanese tea ceremony. I have always associated Japan with the ritualized drinking of tea, and so I was keen to experience this while we were there. Due to our limited Japanese language skills, we had to aim for something that was accessible for tourists, so we made an appointment for a tea ceremony at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. The website had pretty good English, and the reviews we read made it seem like the tea pourers would be able to explain what was going on.

Traditional Japanese tea ceremonies take place in the tea house, a small building in a secluded setting, usually surrounded by gardens. The house is entered through a tiny door, and the kneeling required to enter the house symbolizes that once you are inside, everyone is equal. Samurai were required to leave their swords outside of the building, showing the respect and peace inherent in the ceremony.

Zen garden near the hotel's lobby
Zen garden near the hotel’s lobby

We arrived at the Imperial Hotel for our appointment, and took the elevator up to the fourth floor. A woman in a kimono and sandals welcomed us and escorted us to the tea house. As soon as we went through the door, we were transported to another world. We walked down a pathway of stones set into finely raked sand, winding around a few different tea rooms. There was also a Japanese garden built on a terrace, so looking outside gave the impression of being out in the country, not in one of the world’s biggest cities. The sounds of traffic and city life melted away and created a sense of peace in the whole area. It was delightful, and a bit surprising. The tea rooms themselves were built of bamboo, and after kneeling to enter the doorway, we sat on the bamboo mats on the floor. A little fire was burning in a hole in the center of the room, heating an iron kettle. The room was sparsely decorated, with one calligraphy painting hanging on the wall and a couple of flowers set on a vase below it. The only other thing in the room was a ceramic water jar, filled with cool water for the ceremony.

Swanky hotel on the ground floor, traditional tea room on the fourth floor.
Swanky hotel on the ground floor, traditional tea room on the fourth floor.

After a brief time to get settled in our new surroundings, our hostess welcomed us and explained a little about the tea house and the ceremony itself. The decorations in the house are meant to represent the season, in this case autumn. She then gave us each a little sweet to whet our appetites. Another helper then brought in the instruments for making the tea and these were explained to us as well: a case filled with the matcha powder for tea, a bamboo tea scoop, a bamboo whisk for making the tea, a ladle for the hot water, a lid stand for the kettle, and our two tea cups. She then began to prepare our tea, mixing just the right amount of cool water with the hot water from the kettle with one and a half scoops of match powder. Everything was very practiced and precise, and it seemed like she always put everything in the perfect place. Our hostess explained that this woman had been training in performing different types of tea ceremonies for the past twenty years! It was a beautiful ceremony, and we quite liked the actual tea as well!

I really loved the tea ceremony, as it really created a bit of magic and stillness during our hectic time in Tokyo. The simplicity and perfection of the whole experience really made it a meditation. We are certainly looking forward to doing this again sometime, maybe next trip we’ll be a bit more ambitious and go to a tea house out in the country!

3 years ago

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