Guide to the Japanese Tea Ceremony in Tokyo

By Claire Madsen | May 10, 2021 

If you’re the kind of person who loves to drink tea but isn’t very knowledgeable about different brewing techniques, or if you’re just interested in participating in the long and rich tradition of tea ceremonies in Japan, you might be in the perfect position to get more involved in the scene for the tea ceremony in Tokyo! There are so many different ways to learn more about tea ceremonies, from trying the specially-made tea and sweets, to brewing your own matcha tea. See what kind of experience best suits your interests!

This article is a part of our extensive series on Living in Japan and Learning Japanese.

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    matcha tea ceremony Tokyo Japan

    What are the benefits of participating in a tea ceremony in Tokyo?

    You may be interested in the tea ceremony, but what will you get out of the experience? The Japanese tea ceremony has been a staple in Japanese culture since its creation, influenced by Chinese culture and Zen Buddhism, in the medieval period. It’s a tranquil experience where the guests and hosts remove themselves from the stress of their busy day-to-day lives through the brewing of green tea. By participating in the event, you can connect to others and get some meditation in as well! The tea ceremony is a unique experience that you can bring with you into your daily life or keep as a special memory. If you’re a lover of teas, learning the brewing techniques that create famously delicious matcha tea and getting to indulge in some of the sweet treats served alongside it is also a great benefit.

    The history of tea ceremonies in Tokyo

    Though the tea ceremony began as a meditative event for Buddhist monks, it has evolved into a welcoming social activity that brings people together. You may associate traditional tea ceremonies with Kyoto, which is the center of tea ceremony culture, but you can also explore the rich history and culture of the tea ceremony in Tokyo. The actual ritual of the tea ceremony typically follows one of three schools, all based in Kyoto and created by the descendants of Sen no Rikyu. Sen no Rikyu is considered the father of tea ceremony culture as his contributions to the culture brought it to the general public. Tea ceremonies across Japan tend to follow one of these three schools of thought, with Tokyo being no exception. There are other, more minor schools of tea ceremony as well. Most developed in Kyoto, but in the late 1700s, Kawakami Fuhaku moved to Tokyo (Edo at the time), after mastering the Omotesenke style by studying in Kyoto. After promoting Omotesenke in Edo, he ended up forming his own school called Edo-senke, which split into Fuhaku-ryu after his death in 1807. This form of tea ceremony from Tokyo isn’t as well known or well-practiced as those of the dominant three schools founded in Kyoto.

    The opportunities to engage in a tea ceremony in Tokyo may be a bit less traditional and more focused on providing an exciting and authentic experience for foreigners in Japan. The main school of thought for tea ceremony, Urasenke, even invented a form of the tea ceremony called ryurei, or “standing bow,” using a table and chairs to make foreign guests more comfortable, making it more popular in less traditional ceremonies.

    When you think of the tea ceremony, you may also immediately conjure up an image of a Geisha, in an extravagant kimono, pouring tea for her guests. And while it’s true that Geisha are expected to learn how to perform a tea ceremony as a part of their training, not all tea ceremonies involve Geisha. Tea ceremonies were historically enjoyed by high-ranking or wealthy people and eventually became popular with the general Japanese public. However, if you are interested in experiencing a tea ceremony with a Geisha, you can do so, though be aware that it is pricier. The price increase is because you would be getting a more personalized experience. The Geisha’s expertise in a variety of traditional Japanese arts including dance, instruments, and poetry also contributes to the cost. Here’s an example of a Geisha who takes reservations for the tea ceremony in Tokyo.

    Garden tea room geisha Tokyo

    What exactly happens at a tea ceremony?

    The tea ceremony in Tokyo follows most of the same conventions as others across Japan. Traditional tea ceremonies involve specific etiquette, dress, and steps to complete them properly. However, it’s still pretty easy to get the hang of it once you know what to expect. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most important aspects.

    Tea ceremonies are usually done in a tea room, or a room with tatami flooring. Traditionally there would also be a tranquil garden outside, though many modern settings lack this. The room will also likely have an alcove decorated with flowers and a hanging scroll with calligraphy above it. Seating arrangements are based on the importance of the guests. You’re supposed to sit in the formal seiza position with your feet tucked under you, and that can be pretty uncomfortable! But don’t worry, a lot of places will let you sit more comfortably and make accommodations for you, like bringing a tatami room chair if you cannot sit in seiza. For those of you who are unable to sit on the floor at all or have mobility considerations such as wheelchair accessibility, the table and chairs version, ryurei, may be a better option.

    The host of the ceremony will first do a ritual purification, or cleansing, of the utensils using a plain cloth. Then, they prepare the tea with great care, placing importance on everything from the placement and types of tools to the specific way they whisk the tea. Guests will be presented with the tea and then be expected to bow, outwardly admire both sides of the bowl, and turn it 90 degrees clockwise before drinking from it. Make sure to compliment the tea once you’ve tried it! Sometimes guests will be given a type of Japanese sweet or wagashi before the tea is served. If it comes with a toothpick, it’s polite to use the toothpick to split the sweet into thirds and stab each piece to pick it up. Some more formal tea ceremonies are longer and include an entire meal. I know this sounds like a lot to remember, but events for beginners will walk you through the process so that you can have the full experience without having to memorize everything. Being a part of a tea ceremony in Tokyo should not be a scary thing.


     

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    What should I be careful NOT do at a tea ceremony?

    If you’ve never been to a tea ceremony, keep in mind that there are etiquette rules you’re expected to adhere to. Of course, as a beginner, you’ll be given some leeway, but it’s still better to do your best to follow them when participating in a tea ceremony in Tokyo. Impress your host by complimenting the flower arrangement in the alcove or using an occasion-appropriate Japanese phrase. But a tea ceremony isn’t the time for idle chat, so you have to keep your comments short and relevant.

    What is considered rude at a tea ceremony?

    Tea ceremonies are deeply intertwined with the ideas of wabi-sabi, or the appreciation of all things simple and rustic. Dress nicely, but keep it simple when going to a tea house--it’s in bad taste to wear anything too extravagant or flashy. However, you don’t need to be concerned about the dress code if you’re going to a place where they provide you with a kimono to wear. It’s traditional to wear a kimono, but most places open to the public do not require them. If you’re interested in learning more about the different kinds of traditional Japanese clothing, check out our Guide to Japanese Yukata vs Kimono.

    Following the pattern of remaining modestly dressed, it’s also best to avoid wearing fragrant makeup, lipstick, or heavy perfumes that could affect your tea-drinking experience. It is also expected for people with longer hair to have it tied up neatly. The tools used to make the tea and the bowls that you drink from are often very old and expensive, so remove jewelry that may damage the bowls, such as rings and bracelets.

    Make sure to remove your shoes before entering the tea room. To be extra polite, some people may go as far as to bring a clean pair of socks to wear during the ceremony. When walking on the tatami flooring, stepping on the threshold of the room or the borders of the tatami mat is considered rude, so try to avoid that. Also remember to look at the alcove with the hanging scroll and flower and pay proper respect to it by giving the host a compliment about them. The host made a lot of effort when choosing what to write for the calligraphy, which serves as a way to set the tone for the rest of the event.

    If served a wagashi sweet, eat it completely, as it’s impolite to leave anything on your plate. If you’re confused, just follow the lead of other guests and the host. Depending on the type and length of the ceremony, there may be slightly different expectations. These are just some examples of things to look out for when you take part in a tea ceremony in Tokyo.


     

    tea room Tokyo

    How is the tea ceremony done today?

    The modern tea ceremony isn’t much different from the way it has been performed for hundreds of years, though it has become much more casual and accessible. Drinking green tea was originally for medicinal purposes, and then it was for monks and wealthy people. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that it became fully accessible to the public. If you want to know more about the history of tea in Japan, you can check out our Guide to Japanese Tea.

    Now, most Japanese middle and high schools, as well as colleges, have casual groups called “circles” where people meet up to learn and practice the art of the tea ceremony. Though there are still more fancy and exclusive events and groups, most everyone is encouraged to take part in tea ceremonies. If you’re a part of a “circle” or other regularly meeting group, it’s common to wear a kimono even today. But it’s also usually acceptable to wear western clothing. Though traditional tea ceremonies were hours-long ordeals that involved a full meal, most modern tea ceremonies are relatively short and only consist of drinking “thin” tea, as compared to drinking both thick and thin.

    Not every tea ceremony is performed in the same way. Remember how I mentioned the 3 schools of thought out of Kyoto? Well, they all have slightly different ideas about what types of tools, whisking methods, and philosophies are best when performing a tea ceremony. If you want a more detailed understanding of the schools and the differences between them, I recommend checking out this explanation.


    Can I see a tea ceremony in Tokyo live?

    If you’re interested in seeing a ceremony live and tasting the tea as a one-time experience, there are plenty of places to see a tea ceremony in Tokyo. They offer simple demonstrations and you can indulge in the food and tea without the pressure of having to learn how to do it yourself. A lot of places also offer the opportunity to have hands-on experience if you’re interested.

    Types and Costs

    There are a variety of venues where you can observe a master perform a tea ceremony in Tokyo. Many will have additional features such as wearing a kimono or hakama, doing ikebana (flower arrangement), calligraphy, and other traditional activities. Since the tea ceremony is supposed to be an intimate affair, most of the time you’re going to be in a group of fewer than 10 people, oftentimes as few as just you and the host. Keep that in mind when looking at events. The prices range from ¥1,100 - ¥6,000 ($10 - $55) per person, but most are going to hover around the ¥2,000 ($18) area. Here are some ones I think cover the range of options:

    • Maikoya - Based in a traditional teahouse right in Shinjuku, Maikoya offers a great opportunity to wear a kimono and experience the tea ceremony yourself. It will cost about ¥6,000 ($54) per person.
    • Jidaiya - Jidaiya in Asakusa offers a wide range of Japanese cultural experiences, and one of them is the tea ceremony. Depending on whether you make the tea yourself, drink the tea made by the master, the size of your group, and whether or not you wear kimonos, the price can range from ¥2,750 - ¥5,500 ($25 - $50).
    • Wabunka - This one is best for large groups, as the demonstration can be done for groups of up to 100 people! It can be done in English or Japanese.
    • Yamayuri - For those of you looking for a ryurei style (seated at a table) tea ceremony, this place just outside of Tokyo has a variety of options and would be great for that. The basic group setting will run you about ¥1,500 ($14), while a group private session can go anywhere from ¥6,000 - ¥9,000 ($55 - $82) depending on the size of your party.

    Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony

    Big events for tea ceremonies are uncommon, but if you’re looking for an experience that can be as distant or as personal as you make it, then I’d recommend checking out the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony! The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony is an annual event that is a great opportunity for beginners to just observe as well as get involved in a tea ceremony. Many of the events are also in English, making the event extremely welcoming to foreigners. The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony is a public, outdoor event held annually in October since 2008. Public speakers present about the tea ceremony in both Japanese and English, and there are lessons and opportunities for beginners to take part in a ceremony themselves. There are opportunities to partake in a tea ceremony in Tokyo over a wide range of beautiful venues and gardens through the event. There is even live music and entertainment to showcase the wider culture of Japan. If you’re interested in more detailed information, head on over to the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony website. It is expected to be held in October of 2021.


     

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    Where can I learn more about the tea ceremony in Tokyo?

    For those of you who are more interested in learning the skills necessary to become a tea ceremony aficionado, taking lessons will be a great step in achieving that goal. There are a variety of lessons, from one-time events to long-term courses about the tea ceremony in Tokyo. They’re going to have different expectations of their students as well, so that’s something to consider when deciding what is right for you.

    If you want to be able to participate in a simple tea ceremony in Tokyo without guidance, then you’re probably not going to need more than 5-10 lessons to get the basics down pat. However, if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of all the intricacies involved in the various ways tea ceremonies can be performed, then a long-term program would probably be best. Remember, the masters have been learning it for their whole lives.

    Now you might be wondering if you need to buy your own tea set to take lessons. The answer is no. If you’re taking lessons they will usually provide a tea set for you to use, or the cost of one will be included in your lesson fees. Make sure you check what your specific school does if you sign up for lessons. If you are interested in buying your own set to practice with though, there are plenty of places where you can buy them online or in person. Keep in mind that tea ceremony tools and sets can get pretty pricey, especially if you’re going for high-quality stuff. You can get a good starter set for under ¥8000 ($75), so keep an eye out.

    Types and Costs

    There are a variety of lessons out there, some targeted towards foreigners and people learning Japanese as well as those for natives who are interested in exploring further. Again, these are often going to be in small groups to keep the closeness that is so integral to the tea ceremony experience. If you’re interested in learning Japanese to get a fuller experience and more in-depth knowledge of tea ceremonies or any other part of Japanese culture, try checking out our guides on How to Learn Japanese or signing up for affordable lessons at Japan Switch to get you started!


    School Language Requirement Length

    Cost

    Kudan Institute - Tea Ceremony Short Course JLPT N4 / Low-intermediate

    8 lessons over 2 months

    ~ ¥54,000 ($500)
    Urasenke School Advanced / Fluent

    20 lessons over 6 months

    ~ ¥77,000 ($700)

    Hyakka no Kai

    Advanced / Fluent Varies

    Varies (Range ¥1,100 - ¥30,000 ($10-$275))


     

    Are there English classes on the tea ceremony in Tokyo?

    If you’re worried about your Japanese skills being a barrier to enjoying the wonders of learning the tea ceremony, don’t sweat it! There are a variety of tea ceremony lessons available for English speakers or people with limited Japanese knowledge. You can find some at the Shizu-Kokoro Chado School, where the lessons are conducted entirely in English. Each lesson costs ¥4,400 ($40) and you’re required to purchase at least 10 lessons. Do be aware that most English opportunities are going to be short-term.

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    What Japanese phrases should I know before attending a tea ceremony in Tokyo?

    Whether the event you’re at will be in English or Japanese, it’s a good idea to prepare for some situations you can expect when at a tea ceremony in Tokyo. Also keep in mind that it’s a formal event, so you’re going to want to reflect that with your language as well. You don’t want a “yabai” to slip out.
    Don’t worry about your language skills too much though! Remember, this is a meditative, reflective experience. There’s not a lot of talking going on during the ceremony itself, so as long as you can understand instructions, you’ll be good.

    Questions you may be asked

    はじめてですか?
    Hajimete desu ka?
    Is this your first time?

    This is a simple question and answer, as a “hai” or “iie” (yes and no respectively), will suffice.

    どうですか?
    Dou desu ka?
    How is it?

    If they’re asking about the tea or some other aspect of the room, you can reply with some of the tea-related vocabulary compliments down below.

    Questions you’ll want to ask

    When you’re doing the tea ceremony for the first time, you may have some questions or have forgotten something you’ve learned. Some easy phrases that may help you out could be:

    もう一度おねがいします。
    Mou ichido onegaishimasu.
    Could you please repeat that?

    これは何といいますか
    Kore wa nanto iimasu ka?
    What is this called?

    Tea-related vocabulary

    Some other good vocabulary to have on hand would be the names of some of the tools and compliments!

    Japanese

    Romanization

    English

    おいしいです

    Oishii desu

    It’s delicious!

    美しいです

    Utsukushii desu

    It’s beautiful

    茶碗

    Chawan

    Tea bowl

    茶筅

    Chasen

    Tea whisk

    柄杓

    Hishaku

    Bamboo ladle

    茶杓

    Chashaku

    Bamboo spoon for measuring the matcha

    Natsume

    Tea caddy for matcha


    If you’re interested in learning more Japanese, check out our Guide to Learn Japanese for beginners or our list of the Top 10 Japanese Lessons in Tokyo.


    Conclusion

    Now that you’ve gotten a look into the world of the Japanese tea ceremony in Tokyo, are you interested in trying it out? I hope this guide was helpful for you in finding some new information, and it got you closer to experiencing the tea ceremony best suited for you! If you’re looking for some other cool Japanese cultural events, check out some of our guides on the rest of BFFTokyo, like The Best Things to Do in Tokyo at Night, or our Guide to Cafes in Tokyo.

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