|The character for cha, tea, comes from China.|
I took several courses on Japanese history and culture while in university, and it stood me in good stead when I went to Japan, because I was able to understand a lot more about what I was viewing or witnessing. The history of Japan seems very long to those of us in the United States or even in Europe, but compared with the history of China, the Japanese are positively upstarts. The history of the tea ceremony illustrates this point pretty well, I think.
Tea plants came to Japan from China sometime during the Tang dynasty of China, between 618-907 A.D. This was when the relationship between the countries was at its peak, and there were many types of cultural exchanges going on. The Chinese even had a character for "tea" as far back as the 8th century, B.C., and of course they had been drinking tea long before that. It's no surprise, then, that the Japanese word for tea (as well as the Chinese character used) is the same: cha.
|Tea host with implements for making tea|
Tea plants were grown in Japan during their historical period called the Nara period (710-794), but tea was mainly drunk by priests and noblemen as a form of medicine. Back in China, during this same time period, tea was undergoing a transformation from medicine to beverage. This also happened in Japan, but much later. Why? Because relations between China and Japan were deteriorating, and there wasn't as much communication going on. This is when the Japanese began to form their own traditions and culture around tea, rather than simply imitating what the Chinese did. Because tea plants were not indigenous to Japan, the plants – and the tea made from them – were very rare, and thus, valuable. If tea had been readily available, a whole ceremony would probably not have been created around it.
In Japan, tea leaves are ground into a fine powder before adding water to them, and a bamboo whisk is used to stir the tea into a froth. This preparation distinguishes matcha tea, the kind used in formal tea ceremonies, from tea as it was prepared in other countries. (Tea from tea leaves that have not been ground up into powder is called sencha.)
Tea began to be consumed by the samurai class of people, who seemed to embrace a great many elements of Chinese culture. Later, a type of guessing game was invented, where a number of bowls full of tea were passed around to guests to see who could tell the name of the tea and where it came from This may be where the custom of sharing a tea bowl came from.
|Vintage 1950s postcard from Japan|
|Two Japanese American women demonstrate a |
tea ceremony. This photo shows just how small a
two-mat teahouse really is. Photo by uzushio.
|A Buddhist monk demonstrates how to hold the tea bowl|
when drinking tea at a formal tea ceremony. The bowl
is held on the side with one hand, and on the bottom
with the other hand.
|The Taian teahouse in Kyoto, a two-mat room |
designed by tea master Sen no Rikyu is
one of three teahouses in Japan designated
as a National Treasure. There is a
hanging scroll in the tokonoma.
|Tea being served to one guest, who bows to the host|