How samurai, statesmen, and scholars shaped the Japanese tea ceremony

The ritual of drinking tea in Japan, known as chado, evolved over centuries into a codified practice, steeped in Zen thought, mindfulness, and simplicity.

Kimono-clad women participate in a Japanese tea ceremony in this late 19th-century illustration by Toshikata Mizuno. The ceremony is very complex and more than just about tea. Tea masters say it takes 10 years of study to master the ceremony.
Bridgeman/ACI

The ritualized drinking of tea in Japan, called chado, or the way of tea, is a uniquely Japanese art form that has thrived for 500 years. While the heart of the ceremony involves brewing, serving, and drinking tea in a specialized tea room, it also comprises elements of architecture, landscape gardening, ceramics, painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, and cooking (food may be served, depending on the ceremony). Tea masters say it takes 10 years of study to master the ceremony in its entirety. Writing in 1933, the Japan scholar A.L. Sadler said the ceremony involved 37 steps that are unchanged to this day.

Still widely practiced in Japan (and increasingly internationally), the tea ceremony is an elegant, codified ritual, rooted in Zen thought and symbolism and designed to achieve a total immersion in the moment as well as shared intimacy with fellow participants.

(The notion of ‘tea diplomacy,’ still used to promote peace at global organizations, is centuries old.)

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