Crash Course: Japanese Tea Ceremony (Part 3)

A true tea ceremony is not for the faint of heart. Or rather, for the weak of knee. Traditional tea ceremonies (ie those not performed for tourists) can last up to four or five hours, depending on if a meal is served or not.

Thankfully, all of my experiences have been brief. But an hour’s ceremony is still plenty of time to learn alot about tea in its many incarnations.

Tea ceremony tea is prepared from matcha, a powdered form of green tea that’s everywhere in Japan. I’ve even found it dusted on desserts and mixed in with cheesecakes and cream tarts. At a tea ceremony, however, different types of matcha are used. Matcha made from older, more brittle tea leaves usually found near the base of the tea bush is used to make the first proffered drink of the ceremony, the koicha, or thick tea. Koicha is … an acquired taste, let’s say. And after attending at least half a dozen tea ceremonies, I am disappointed to say I have not yet acquired it.

Preparing the koicha

The bitterness of koicha is cut by a traditional sweet, or wagashi. As mentioned in an earlier post, the wagashi at a tea ceremony change with the season. In April, your typical sweet will have a sakura theme. In fall, expect maple leaf shapes or autumn flavors, like chestnut.


After the koicha and wagashi, guests are served a cup of usucha, or thin tea. Usucha is brewed from match powder as well, but the leaves used to make this powder are younger, fresher and the taste is noticably different in the brewed tea. Unlike with the koicha, where one cup is shared among 3-4 guests, each participant gets his or her own cup of usucha. I’m not sure if that is tradition, or a money-saving move on our tea practioner’s part.

After the usucha is drunk, we’re done. Then it’s out the front door, though etiquette dictates we should actually be leaving feet first through the nijiri-guchi.

And there, in three nutshells, is your lesson on chado, the way of tea.

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