Japan has a very rich history steeped in tradition and etiquette. Many people who visit Japan do so because of this cultural heritage. Tea is a well known part of Japanese culture and development and the tea ceremony is the epitome of Japanese ideals.
Tea has a long history in Asia, and is said to have begun in the 9th century in Japan. Tea was used in China from the 4th century, mainly as medicine. As tea plants were not native to Japan it was not introduced until seeds were brought to Japan during the Tang dynasty when relations between China and Japan were at their peak. Initially when tea began to be produced within Japan it was used by priests and the upper classes as a kind of medicine. When relations between Japan and China deteriorated at the end of the Tang dynasty tea within Japan evolved without the influence of China. At this point in time, tea was still rare and therefore the initial formalities surrounding the drinking of tea were due to its scarce nature. The first Japanese person to change the way tea was consumed was the founder of Zen Buddhism, Myoan Eisai in 1187. On returning from China and building the first temple of Rinzai he began to grow tea for religious purposes. Myoan Eisai also introduced the grinding of tea to Japan, and the use of a whisk in its preparation. Eisai was also the first in Japan to write a treatise on tea suggesting tea was a cure for many different ailments.
This helped give tea its popularity. When the Kamakura shogunate fell a new class rose and tea was a central aspect of their culture. Tea was often used in games for people to bet whether they could tell genuine tea from other varieties. Some historians say this is where the passing of the cup originated. Many aspects of the ceremony you recognise today began during the Muromachi period, such as the decoration of the alcove and the use of tatami mats. The organisation of the table used for the ceremony also began to be formalised in this time. The true father of the tea ceremony is said to be Murata Shukou who set the etiquette and spirit of the tea ceremony. He called this ceremony Chanoyu.
The Japanese tea ceremony is well known across the world as an elaborate and refined event. The other name for the tea ceremony is Way of Tea, and is meant to demonstrate respect to others by the grace shown by the one performing the ceremony. There are two main types of tea ceremony; chakai and chaji. A chakai is a much less formal ceremony which includes biscuits and thin tea. On the other hand a chaji is a formal gathering, including a traditional kaiseki meal following by both thick and thin tea. The origin of the tea ceremony is said to come from a book called Cha Ching written by a Chinese Buddhist monk. However, after this book was written the relationship between China and Japan weakened, the tea ceremony of Japan developed separately.
The preparation of the tea for the ceremony differs depending on the season, the main difference being how the tea is heated. In summer this is done on a brazier and in winter on a sunken hearth. A Japanese tea ceremony is conducted with importance on the smallest details of the experience. This attention to details begins from the ceremony day with the invitation to guests and the cleaning of the entranceway to the tea house. This intricacy is shown in the smallest actions, such as the opening of the door which is done in specific stages with specific hands. The order and manner in which the utensils used for the ceremony are brought into the room is also an aspect. This includes the manner in which people sit and which hand they hold each item in. The production of the tea itself has many different steps, from cleaning the bowl to the scooping of water into the Chawan. Once the tea has been shared by all attending there are further formalities involved in ending the ceremony too.
It would take many hours to learn each step of the tea ceremony just by reading about it. Therefore the best way to understand this art is to experience it for yourself. There are many places where you can enjoy the tradition of the Way of Tea in Japan. Tea Houses are a great place to start. There is a beautiful tea garden and tea house near the entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine in the garden of the Empress. This demonstrates the importance of the ritual in society and the beauty of its location. If you want to see a live tea ceremony or be lucky enough to drink the tea there are several tour operators which offer this experience in many cities in Japan.
The tour above also includes an explanation of the ceremony and history in English.