Japan’s long and storied history with its most beloved herbal drink dates back to the Kamakura Period, which spanned from 1185 to 1333. The Japanese credit a priest named Eisai for introducing tea into their society, by way of China, and for circulating the first tea seeds in all of Japan.
Through the next hundred years, tea’s popularity in the country skyrocketed, and the ceremonial tea practice (Sado) becoming a cultural norm. The rites have evolved slightly over the centuries, but Sado remains an important facet of Japanese culture — one that generations of all ages continue to participate in.
Also called Chado (“the way of the tea”), the rituals of a tea ceremony are communicated and taught by designated schools across Japan. The reverence given to this special kind of education can be attributed to Sen No Rikyu, a tea master from the 16th century, whose descendents later founded Japan’s premiere tea academies — Ura Senke for lay people, Omote Senke for aristocratic society, and Mushanokohi Senke, which holds wabi (a principle that lauds the benefits of simple living) as its highest value. The Ura Senke school still flourishes today, promoting the ancient art of the Japanese tea ceremony to anyone interested in learning.
While tea ceremonies of the past may have been conducted in a special cha-shitsu (designated tea room), they can take place anywhere, from a community center to a private dwelling. If you’re in Tokyo, try to seek out a traditional cha-shitsu. You’ll find that when entering a tea room, you’ll be forced to crouch through a nijiriguchi, a tiny door that encourages those who enter to assume an attitude of humbleness. The room itself is often decorated with scrolls, paintings, and flowers.
Once seated, the celebrant making the tea will mix the powdered tea with a chasen (bamboo brush). They’ll use a cha-ire (ceramic container) to store the tea powder, a kama (kettle) to boil the water, and cha-wan (tea bowls) to serve the hot, steaming drink. In a traditional tea ceremony, koicha (thick tea) is served before the usucha (thin tea). Sake, higashi (sweet snacks), and kaiseki (a simple, light dish) may also be served.
When visiting Tokyo, you may be able to view a tea ceremony at one of the city’s premiere tea rooms, such as Kantoku-tei in Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens or Nakajima No Ochaya in Hamarikyu Gardens.
If you’re on a tight budget or don’t have much time (the traditional tea ceremonies can be long and costly), consider visiting one of Tokyo’s simpler tea rooms instead! Local favorites include Ippodo, Kosoan, and Saryo Tsujiri.
Located in Marunouchi, and lauded for its delicious matcha, Ippodo Tea is a warm and welcoming tea room with a friendly English-speaking staff. The establishment’s main draw is their incredible green tea — so try it koicha style (thick and sweet). Ippodo also offers a variety of sweets to pair with your tea — whatever you do, don’t miss out on the Kyoto Cheesecake!
Visitors seeking a more zen tea room experience should head to Kosoan in Tokyo’s Meguro district. Nestled in an antique wooden house, tea enthusiasts at Kosoan will appreciate the serene ambiance of the place and the accompanying garden beyond.
For those with a sweet tooth, Saryo Tsujiri is a one-stop shop. Situated on the 10th floor of a high rise building in Chiyoda, Saryo Tsujiri offers both sweeping vistas and delectable matcha-themed desserts.
No matter where you choose to experience Japanese tea culture, be sure to sip mindfully, soak up your surroundings, and participate in this age-old tradition.
Header photo by Cheiemi Yamaguchi