Believe it or not, most of the tea traditions and rituals that are practiced by the Japanese people today originated in China many, many years ago. These rituals and customs were brought to Japan by monks that were in China studying. Fast forward to modern day and you will see that the main type of tea that is consumed by the Japanese public is green tea in a powder form or oolong tea that originated in China.
It was way back in the ninth century when the first monk returned from China with knowledge of tea. However, it was not until the twelfth century when tea really became somewhat popular in this part of the world. The powdered green tea was placed into a bowl that had hot water added to it. Next, it was mixed together to produce the earliest form of green tea. In addition to that, some of the monks that introduced tea to Japan also brought tea seeds back with them from China. These seeds were responsible for producing some of the best quality Japanese teas of this period.
At first, the powdered green tea that the monks brought back with them was used mainly for religious rituals or medicinal purposes. However, before long it was determined that tea drinking was to become a status symbol amongst the upper class citizens of Japan. Because of this early tea tasting parties developed where the participants could win big prizes just by guessing what the best quality tea was.
The basic Japanese tea ceremony began to evolve and develop hundreds of years ago. Specifically, wabi-sabi is a Japanese tea ritual that is somewhat sacred. The wabi is thought to represent the spiritual experiences of the human life whereas the sabi is thought to represent the outside experiences of life. When you put these two things together you are to have a nice experience that is sacred. Wabi-sabi is supposed to be experienced when drinking tea in Japan as there should be a subdued state of mind along with a spiritual awakening. The whole Japanese tea ceremony is a spiritual practice that is thought to help cleanse the mind, body and soul.
By the 1500’s the ritual of drinking tea had spread all over Japan. It was a ritual that was not only for the rich but also for anyone that had the means to partake. This meant that more and more families were getting involved with tea customs and tea culture. The end result of this involvement was the further development and enhancement of some popular traditions that are still being observed to date. Without the popularity of tea culture during this time period there is a chance that Japanese tea rituals would not be what they are today. For many people this may be hard to imagine as tea is such a large part of the lives of many people in this area of the world.
Since tea culture is so popular in Japan there are actually groups of people that get together in order to study it. These groups meet on a regular basis to talk about the different traditions and rituals that are present. The traditions and rituals are discussed and interpreted with an open mind at these meetings. Believe it or not there are dedicated tea schools in Japan that focus on the study of local tea traditions. Students that attend these schools usually pay a monthly fee that covers the cost of the tea as well as any complimentary equipment or books. The teachers at the schools will always be dressed in traditional Japanese outfits that fit the era being discussed. While most schools allow the students to be dressed casually, in some cases they will allow a student to wear the schools mark. Being granted permission to wear this mark means that you are a high level student that has a deep understanding and regard for the local tea traditions. In general, the newer students start out by observing the practices of the older students. In fact, the newer students may be taught much of what they know by the more advanced students instead of the teacher. These advanced students are the ones that are taught directly by the teacher. New students will learn about tea but they will also be taught about things such as how to enter a tea room in Japan, how to correctly open and close sliding doors and even who to bow to when they enter a room filled with people.
Believe it or not, the first documented tea ritual in Korea was recorded in the year 661. Loose leaf tea was used as an offering to the spirits in hopes that they would provide protection even in the afterlife. These types of rituals were also common with the spirits of well thought of monks all the way into the fourteenth century. The rituals would take place in temples and could last several hours or even days! In addition, most of these rituals were overseen by high ranking officials to ensure that they were executed properly. Over the last several hundred years the Korean tea drinking rituals have been developed and evolving to the point where they are typically used just for special occasions. In fact, the rite to have tea was made a national rite that was made available to all residents of the country. This type of rite is not present in other countries that do not take tea drinking as seriously. Over history there have been periods of decline in the ceremonial tea rituals of Korea. However, each time there was a decline it was followed up with a period of great interest. This fact alone shows how serious the people of Korea are in regard to the tea rituals that they hold so dear. No matter what the circumstances surrounding the decline in tea drinking it has always seemed to make a comeback is it is central to the core values of the people.
The interesting thing about Korean tea ceremonies is that they seem to follow along with the seasons. Because of this, the way in which the tea is served varies greatly depending on what time of year it is. However, for the most part tea is always served with the assistance of bowls and cups. Much of the time the bowls and cups are green with images and designs on them for decoration. There are, however, instances where the cups and bowls are different colors. For example, special situations may call for a bronze or white cups and bowls. In the summer months the bowls that are used are about 5-centimeters high and 12-centimeters wide. These dimensions are important because it allows for quick cooling of boiling water as there is more surface area that is exposed. The boiling water is cooled in the bowl and then emptied into a teapot. In Korea, the water is cooled because pouring water that is too hot over the tea will make the product taste bitter. In the fall and winter the bowls are taller and narrower so that they could maintain the internal heat without cooling too much. The tea would be made the same way that is made in the summer- the water is poured into a teapot making sure that it is not too hot so the taste does not become bitter.
It should be noted that the way in which the tea is consumed is unique and unlike most other tea cultures. In short, the approach to tea is less ritualistic than other places. The emphasis is on relaxing and enjoying the tea. In other cultures the emphasis may be on the technique that was used in making it and even the way in which it is to be consumed. Because of this, the Korean teahouses are all a bit different in design and styles. For example, some will offer food along with the tea while others will not. The teaware that is used can also vary from teahouse to teahouse as there is not strict guidelines that must be adhered to. The thing that is common in all the teahouses in Korea is that the best local water is used to brew the tea. Some teahouses in Korea even go as far as to develop their own springs where they can harvest high quality water. The water is taken from the spring, boiled and then immediately used in the tea making process. This ensures that the taste of the tea is natural and that it is unique to the area that the tea is being consumed in.
Tea has always been served in Korea on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. The tea signifies the importance of the event as well as makes it memorable. Most often the tea will be served with some other type of cake or pastry for the guests to enjoy. At the party the host or hostess is in charge of making sure that all the guests have the tea just how they want it. This is a sign of showing respect to the guests that you have invited to the party.