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Matcha and green tea culture

30th March 2016

When the Japanese Tea Ceremony is mentioned often the first image that comes to mind is of serenely beautiful women dressed in formal silk kimono, kneeling on tatami and serving matcha tea to their honoured guests. Many of us will not recognise its origins as an exercise in mindfulness and wellbeing.

The earliest accounts of Tea Ceremonies come from China during the Tang Dynasty when the ritual of infusing and serving tea was part of a religious ceremony called cha dao or ‘The Way of the Tea’. It wasn’t until much later that a monk called Eisai, the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, brought leaves from China and taught the custom of preparing matcha tea to the Japanese.

Followers of Zen Buddhism shunned the traditional means of making a living and encouraged a return to wisdom and self-understanding. The wandering monks who spread the words of Buddha had few possessions and believed that the way to self-improvement was not through performing great deeds or thinking complete thoughts but rather by doing very simple things with great intensity, thought process and concentration. One such man, Sen No Riku, set out to completely understand the ritual and benefits of drinking tea and made the study of it his life’s work. Sen No Riku is considered to be solely responsible for the ritual of Chanoyu meaning ‘Water for Tea’ and the Japanese Tea Ceremony as we know it today.

Drinking tea was considered to be healthy, calming and spiritual and to raise the awareness of the lifestyle known as wabi-sabi meaning simplicity and austerity and the appreciation of the imperfect. The state of wabi-sabi applied not just to tea but also to architecture, art, interior design and awareness of nature. Small teahouses were built in secluded locations where one could contemplate simple pleasures such as flower arranging, painting and, of course, drinking tea. One would approach these structures along a meandering path leading the visitor around carefully placed trees, shrubs and stones so as to create a barrier from the world outside and to promote a sense of wa or harmony. Doors were deliberately made smaller so that even the most distinguished guest should stoop to enter, windows would be unglazed to allow enjoyment of the sound of the wind, water and birdsong, to be able to smell moss and wood and to participate in a rediscovery of connection to nature.

Zen philosophy considers everything to be imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

The tea bowls used during the Tea Ceremony are hand made from simply glazed clay; tea scoops, whisks and spoons are made from bamboo and chopsticks, tapered at both ends, carved from fresh cedar branches so that the participant might enjoy the scent of the wood and the colour of the grain.

Every aspect of the chanoyu or Tea Ceremony is performed with solemnity and depth of wisdom, concentration and grace. From the boiling of the water to the measuring of the finest quality matcha green tea; the way a clay bowl is respectfully presented to the honoured guest, the time taken by the participant to notice the bowl, the warmth of the liquid inside and the bright colour of the matcha against the clay.  

The purpose of these observations; to enjoy kei, jaku and sei or respect, tranquility and purity.

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