For its array of flavors and varieties said to number more than 1000, ranging from robust and rousing to sublime and soothing, tea is a well-loved drink across the world. Hot or iced, there’s no denying that tea is comfort in a cup and goodness in a glass, to those who are acquainted with its many beneficial properties. After all, several studies have found that drinking tea comes with a roster of health benefits, such as improving the immune system; lowering systemic inflammation; and even helping to increase antioxidant activity in the body, thereby protecting it from ailments like cancer and heart disease.
While certain teas have more potent health benefits than others, there is abundant evidence that drinking tea on a daily basis may have long-term pluses. This, along with the satisfaction it delivers, is the reason that millions of people around the globe have incorporated tea drinking into their lifestyles; so much so that in 2020, worldwide tea consumption was around 6.3 billion kilos, with a projected increase to 7.4 billion kilograms by 2025.
Apart from being a palate-pleasing pastime packed with a powerhouse of positive properties, tea drinking takes on a deeper significance, in some cultures of the world — including the culture of Japan.
Hot or iced, there’s no denying that tea is comfort in a cup and goodness in a glass, to those who are acquainted with its many beneficial properties.
Savoring life’s moments
At its most basic level, tea drinking fulfills a primal need to quench thirst and satisfy a craving. On a higher level, though, tea preparation and drinking, done right, impart a valuable lesson: to slow down and savor life’s fleeting moments.
The tea ceremony, called Chado or “Way of Tea”, is a spiritual practice in Japan. It is profoundly entrenched in Zen philosophy and in the ancient art of wabi-sabi, which celebrates and finds beauty in the transience of life. The objective of the ritual is to provide guests with a sense calm and inner peace, as they disconnect from the outside world and focus, instead, on the pure and unfettered moment of preparing, pouring, and purposefully sipping the tea.
Typically, the Japanese tea ceremony takes place in a sparsely decorated tea room, characterized by clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic. Guests must first wash their hands prior to entering the tea room as well as remove their shoes; for hygienic reasons, but also to symbolize a cleansing from the outside world. Once inside the venue, they sit on tatami mats on the floor, with low tables. The thoughtfully-designed tea rooms traditionally feature sliding doors that open up to spacious verandas and reveal restful, kempt, simply-landscaped gardens that serve to heighten the sensation of serenity.
Timeless tea traditions
A customary tea ceremony goes on for up to four hours, comprising a light meal of Japanese sweets, thick tea, and thin tea. The tea service and preparation are meticulously carried out by a highly-trained Tea Master. With exact, subtle, flowing motions and gestures that create a sense of warmth and friendliness, the Tea Master prepares the instruments and accessories to steep the tea, usually matcha from ground green tea leaves. Once the tea is ready, the Master pours it precisely into bowl-like teacups chosen specifically for each guest. The cups are meant to honor the guests, and are picked to reflect their individuality. Moreover, the combination of cups and decorative elements is always unique for every ceremony. Again, this is in line with the concept of wabi-sabi, in that each of life’s moments is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.
As a sign of reverence, guests are expected to bow in gratitude before lifting the cup with the right hand and placing it into the palm of the left hand. Then, they proceed to appreciate the cup, and the care put into making it, before sampling the tea in small sips. When finished, guests must bow once more, while the Master clears the space, marking the end of the ceremony.
A shared experience
Apart from the distinctive beauty of the ritual — carried out with care, precision, and pride — the Japanese tea ceremony is meant to be a shared experience between the guests and the Master. It is a ritual governed by a sense of mutual respect; of sharing a memorable moment, one that can never be replicated in exactness, and forging a bond with fellow-human beings.
Chado is about far more than tea, as it were: it is about beauty in the simple things, etiquette, politeness, respect for others, warm hospitality, appreciation, discipline, and humility of service — qualities that should brim over beyond the teacup, into life itself.