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A Japanese brew


Take tea in the Land of the Rising Sun and experience an unforgettable slice of Japan’s unique culture, says Andrew Bender

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As a country, Japan effortlessly weaves the timeless with the relentlessly modern. Deeply traditional structures and culture sit happily alongside the newest of the new, and it’s not surprising to find in the middle of a neon-clad, modern skyscraper a sliding wooden door leading to a chamber specially designed for traditional tea ceremonies. This is a ritual that requires years of study to master and an experience not to be missed on a visit to Japan.


The way of tea
The term ‘tea ceremony’ really doesn’t capture the full nature of this encompassing Japanese art. True, there is tea involved and it’s a ceremony of sorts, but these two dry words barely do justice to a practice so unique and utterly captivating to watch. 


Sado, the way of tea, represents a culmination of many of Japan’s greatest gifts: ceramics, painting, bamboo, textiles, food, architecture, flower arranging and, above all, the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which elevates the rustic to elegant and the imperfect to something to admire. The ceremony, which is called cha no yu (literally, hot water for tea), traditionally begins with guests entering the intimate ochaya (tearoom) through a low door, bowing in a gesture of humility. The stocking-footed host greets them before a tokonoma, an alcove adorned with a scroll painting and an ikebana flower arrangement. As everyone sits down on the tatami-matted floor, the most honoured guest takes a seat in front of the tokonoma.


Then the tea-making begins with graceful and concentrated movements codified over centuries. Using a bamboo ladle, the host warms the tea bowl with hot water from a cast-iron pot that’s heated on a hibachi (small charcoal burner) on the floor. The water is poured out into a ceramic vessel and the bowl dried with a white linen cloth, the ultimate in rustic simplicity. Then, using a wisp of a bamboo stalk as a scoop, the host transfers a gumdrop-sized mound of matcha green tea powder from a lacquered caddy into the bowl and adds more hot water, foaming it using a whisk with needle-thin tines, improbably fashioned from a single bamboo stalk. All of this is performed with graceful and concentrated movements. Finally, the bowl is eventually presented to the guest with a genteel bow.


Before drinking, guests taste the wagashi sweet in front of them, which might be chalky, made of pressed sugar, or gooey, made from mochi (pounded rice) and filled with bean paste. This is meant to balance the matcha tea’s bitter edge. 


Before taking the first sip, guests thank the host, bow to each other, rotate their bowl a quarter-turn clockwise and finish the tea in three sips, draining the bowl. It may seem odd to the uninitiated, but it’s polite to finish your tea with a slurp. Guests will then admire the bowls from top to bottom for their shape, glaze, craftsmanship, keeping them low to the ground as they are often priceless. And finally, they will thank the host and take a moment to appreciate the significance of the event before they exit with a bow.

Japanese geisha walking down a street


Be entertained
An ochaya is where you might also experience geisha. These white-faced, elaborately dressed women are professional entertainers, trained in traditional Japanese arts, such as dance, music and poetry, and hospitality skills including the way of tea, witty conversation and, importantly, keeping everyone’s glasses filled when alcohol is served. 


You’ll find geisha all over Japan, but the largest concentration is in Kyoto, where they are known as geiko or maiko (an apprentice geiko, usually aged 15-20). Here, there are five major hanamachi (geiko quarters), with a sixth, the famous Shimabara district, now operating only as a tourist attraction.


Visitors to Japan can experience both tea ceremonies and geisha dinners. On a cruise calling at Osaka, for example, the Kyoto by Day & Night shore excursion includes a Japanese-style dinner of shabushabu (sliced beef and boiled vegetables) and an exclusive maiko or geiko performance, while the Sky Walk & Sushi Dinner excursion concludes with a traditional sushi dinner and Japanese tea.


If you decide to explore alone, you’ll find plenty of ochayas and high-class restaurants in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geiko district. Many maiko and geiko entertain here, so you might even be lucky enough to spot them in the streets, especially in the evenings – although they tend to shy away from camera-wielding tourists.


A range of our Full World Cruise and Exotic fly-cruise holidays call at Japan and offer shore excursions in Kyoto, Nagasaki, Okinawa and Osaka.


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Andrew Bender
Living and working in Japan gave Andrew a lifelong passion for the country. Beyond his work for Lonely Planet and travel site, he is a lecturer and tour study leader, specialising in Japan.