What you would have Experienced at Senses from Japan

At this time of the year, Senses from Japan Spring would be happening.  Last year it was canceled.  This year it’s not happening….. At least can I replicate the 20-30 minutes demonstration that would normally occur at the event on this blog post?


“Welcome to Senses from Japan.  Many thanks to Fran’s Chocolates for hosting us. 

I’m Akemi Sagawa of Five Senses Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes Japanese traditional culture in the US.  I will be your MC today. (MC bows to the audience.)

With me are, (name 1), the host who serves tea and (name 2), the assistant of the host.   (name 1) and (name 2) are both members of Seattle Tankokai.

We have asked (the guests’ names) to be the guests. Thank you!

In the next 20 to 30 minutes, we will do a demonstration of Japanese tea ceremony. At the end of the demo, we will take any question from you. 

Now let’s start the demo!

The stage is loosely replicated of what you would normally see in the tearoom.  There is a scroll with calligraphy, normally written by a Zen monk. And the place is decorated with seasonal flowers.

The guests are already seated.  The assistant brings in the sweets, Fran’s white chocolate truffles!  When the host greets the guests, the guests also stand, and bow.  The host comes in, carrying the tea container and the tea bowl. 

Brief history of tea ceremony

Just like wine has a long history in Europe, the custom of drinking tea has a long history in Asia. 

It was quite popular among people in the Tang dynasty in China in 7th century.  In those days, tea leaves were steamed and made into a cake (called “団茶dancha”). People would boil the tea cake together with salt and other spices.

In the Sung dynasty in 10th century China, the whipped tea came into fashion. The leaves were ground to fine powder (called “抹茶” matcha), and it was whipped in hot water by a bamboo whisk.  This method of tea making was incorporated into Zen Buddhists’ rituals. And it was this Zen ritual that finally developed into the tea ceremony of Japan, with the support of Samurai clan, in the 15th and 16th century.

In those days Japan was in the middle of civil war.  All over Japan, samurai war lords were fighting against each other.  They wouldn’t know if they will come back alive tomorrow.  The tiny tearoom must have become an oasis for them.

You are not allowed to bring your sword into the tearoom. In the tearoom, the host focuses on serving tea to the guest. The guests focus on appreciating everything that the host prepared for the guests.  Forget about the past. Forget about the future. Never mind if the person sitting next to you is your enemy. Just enjoy the present moment…

The Four Basic Principles

The spirit of the Way of Tea is identified with four basic principles : 和(wa), 敬(kei), 清(sei), 寂(jaku).

和(wa) = Harmony 

Over a bowl of tea, the host and the guests collaborate to create a harmonious experience together.

In order to best serve the guests, the host carefully chooses the utensils appropriate for the occasion.  The scroll on the wall has a significant role for determining the main theme of the tea gathering.  If you want to celebrate the arrival of cherry blossoms, what about “桜花無尽蔵”? Usually you choose some Zen phrase.  This one means that the life of cherry flowers is so short but in it you find its eternity.  The flowers displayed in the tearoom should also represent the season.  Cherry blossom?  No, that’s repetitive and boring.  How about graceful white spirea? 

The kettle, The incense container, the cold-water container, the tea container, the tea bowl…. Nothing has the same design, but everything in the tearoom is in harmony.

敬(kei) = Respect

Respect is the sincerity of heart that liberates us for an open relationship with other people, regardless of the appearance or the status.

In the tearoom, a high-ranking samurai and a merchant would be equally treated.  They show respect by bowing to each other.  Respect is expressed not only between people but to our surroundings, to the nature, to everything that is enabling us to experience our lives. 

清(sei) = purity

Notice the host is purifying the tea container and the tea scoop meticulously with the silk cloth.  The host also cleans the tea bowl with the hot water and the small white cloth.  Everything is spick and span before the guest arrived.  S/he still purifies them during the actual service of tea, and in storing the utensils afterwards in front of the guests.

The guests cleanse their hands and mouths before entering the tearoom.

Through the simple act of cleaning, you clear “the dust of the world.”  You clear the worldly attachments from your heart and mind.  Only after putting aside material concerns, you can sense the pure and sacred essence of things, human beings, and nature.

寂(jaku) = tranquility

Tranquility is not merely silence.  It is the status of the heart and mind that is liberated from any worldly attachment. May I say it’s the ultimate freedom!

Having sweets before tea

The host suggests that the guests take the sweet. Guests are supposed to finish the sweets before having tea.

In tea ceremony, sweets are appetizers. The main course is tea. Sweetness in your mouth mitigates bitterness of the tea.

Drinking tea

The tea for the first guest is ready!

The assistant carefully places the tea bowl facing its front to the guest.  The first guest says to the second, “Please allow me to go first.”

Then s/he says to the host, “I will now humbly have the tea you have served.”  The guest picks up the bowl, bows lightly and turns the bowl twice.

Why does the guest bow first?

To show respect to the host for making the tea; to the craftsman who made the tea bowl; to the farmers who grew the tea leaves and anybody who was involved in the process of making the tea powder; to the nature for providing the sun light, clean water, and soil that nurtured the tea trees.  By bowing, you realize that you are not living alone but your life is dependent on so many things.  You show respect to everything that makes it possible for you to live.

Why does the guest turn the bowl?

The bowl is facing its front to the guest.  To show his /her humility, the guest avoids touching his/her lips on the front by turning the bowl.  Remember “Respect”, one of four basic principles?

Sharpen your Five Senses

Did you notice that neither the host nor the guests talk much during the ceremony?

The tearoom is not a place for chit-chat. It’s not a place to talk politics, or gossip, either.  Rather, try this:

Look at the flowers on the wall.  Which color pleases your eyes? 

There is a small incense container.  Did you notice the fragrance coming from it? When the host whips the tea, can you also enjoy the aroma coming from the bowl?

The kettle is designed so that it makes subtle noise when the water is boiled.  What does that sound remind you of?  The host pours hot water when making tea.  After the guest returns the tea bowl, the host pours cold water to clean the bowl.  The sound of pouring hot water and of pouring cold water.  Are they the same? 

You hold the tea bowl.  You hold the tea container.  The touch….. How does it feel? 

The first bite of the sweets.  The first sip of the dark green.  How does your tongue react?

Then you have the first sip….

The tearoom is a place where you sharpen your five senses.  Without uttering a word, experience the deep and rich communication with your surroundings.

一期一会  Ichi-go Ichi-e

In tea ceremony the phrase “Ichi-go Ichi-e” is often used.  It means “One time, one meeting.” Each tea gathering is an opportunity for a unique experience that will never occur again.   

Forget about the past. Forget about the future. Just enjoy the present moment…

But wait!  Which moment will you be able to repeat?  Which moment in your life is not unique? 

A bowl of tea reminds you of this simple fact of life.

The notion of immersing yourself in the present moment is just as important nowadays as 500 years ago. We have so much distraction in our daily lives, so why not just stop and enjoy a bowl of tea to be mindful….


Just as s/he brought in all the utensils orderly and purified them in front of the guests, the host puts everything away in order. The tearoom looks empty, the same as when the ceremony started.

The host and the assistant line up, and the guests stand up.  They bow together….

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