Chadō: The Art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained

Chadō: The Art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained

A short and concise look at the history and appreciation of the Japanese tea ceremony.
A short and concise look at the history and appreciation of the Japanese tea ceremony.

A mong traditional cultural rituals embraced by contemporary generations, little compares in mainstream appeal to the Japanese tea ceremony, chadō, “The Way of Tea”. Otherwise known as chanoyu, which literally translates to hot water for tea, chadō is a skilled craft of preparing and serving matcha, a finely ground green tea. It is a ritual with principles closely associated with Zen Buddhist philosophies. If you have ever participated in or witnessed a chadō ceremony then you will be familiar with the tranquil ambience, the calming ritualistic movements, and the profound intimate connection it creates between host and guest.

The first known documentation of tea in Japan dates to the 9th century, said to be introduced by Buddhist monks and envoys who brought tea back upon their return from China. Legend has it that in 816, by imperial order of Emperor Saga, cultivation of tea plantations began in the Kinki – or Kansai – region of Japan. At this time, tea culture was already flourishing in China where tea whisking was a tradition in the early Song dynasty, and also developing in Korea, where it was introduced as early as the Later Three Kingdoms period and refined during its dynastic era. Thus historically, the ritualistic tea ceremony is widely practiced across East Asia, but while China later favoured the steeping of loose-leaf teas as the mainstream method of drinking tea, Japan continued to pursue perfecting the ceremonial tea ritual of preparing matcha. In 1872, chanoyu was officially recognised by the Japanese government as a form of art of great cultural significance. There are four key principles that guide chadō – wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquility). Set forth in the 16th century by Sen no Rikyū, highly respected tea master and notably the father of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony, these principles are still at the heart of chadō today.

So refined and sophisticated is chadō that every element has its purpose and significance, from the tea ceremony garden, to the chashitsu (tea room), chabana (flower arrangement), and kakemono (hanging scroll), among others. The dōgu (tea ceremony utensils) may perhaps be the crown jewels. While, like the other elements, the utensils can vary depending on the formality of the occasion and the season, the four items that are considered essential are: chawan (tea bowl), chasen (tea whisk), chasaku (tea scoop), and chaire (tea caddy).

Of all the utensils, deemed most important and prized is the chawan, as it is the only item that is handled by both the host and guest. In Japan, the chawan exists in many styles and lineage, each with its own name. Although pottery has a long history in Japan, the earliest chawan is said to be imported from China between the 13th and 16th centuries, while soon after, Japan began to master the craft. Of all types, the raku-yaki, known also as raku, is most treasured. Made in the Raku family kiln, which dates back to the 16th century, raku bowls are usually red or black. Kyō-yaki, meaning Kyoto ware, are revered for their colourful designs and fine craftsmanship. To this day, Kyoto attracts many contemporary ceramicists to set up kilns there, continuing the region’s artistic legacy. Then there is Kuni-yaki, which translates to country fired and encompasses hundreds of styles from all across Japan.

It is said that making a chawan is one of the greatest challenges for a potter because to be deemed suitable for use in chadō, it must meet certain demanding requirements. Like Goldilocks choosing the bowl of porridge with just the right temperature, a chawan must be heavy enough for its presence to be felt when handled, yet it should be light enough to handle with ease; too thick will lend it to feel unwieldy and unable to allow the heat to penetrate when held, while too thin and it can lose its heat too quickly.

The chawan is also carefully inspected and scrutinised for three elements of its form: the rim, interior and kodai, or foot. Each have strict standards that practitioners look for. While the foot must feel accommodating to one’s fingertips when the bowl is held between the fingers and thumb of one hand, the interior surface needs to be uniform so the whisk is not damaged during use, and lastly, the rim must be of a smoothness that would not snag on a guest’s lip, and be easily wiped clean during the ceremony. Most important is that the chawan must capture the essence of its maker – a sensibility that calls attention to its philosophical roots in Zen Buddhism.

Explore an array of tea wares and utensils relating to this historical development of chadō in the online auction CHADO – The Beauty of Japanese Tea Ceremony, featuring Chinese Song ceramics, Korean ceramics, and beautifully crafted potteries by contemporary Japanese masters.

Special thank you to 汴京茶寮 Tealosophy Hong Kong and for the generous support for our themed photoshoot (banner image).

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