Those tiny little tea leaves
Dried, bound, immersed in hot water, and iced— the path of a tea leaf is anything but serene. Though the thought of drinking tea might conjure up images of the Queen of England sitting erect in a comfy chair and munching on buttered scones or Paula Deen giving recipe instructions in between snorts of the spiked beverage— in Japan, tea-drinking originated as a much more reverential practice. Tea was first introduced to Japan by traveling monks who brought it back from China during the ninth century. Though it was received with moderate popularity, it wasn’t until the 16th century that tea master Sen Rikyu gave it the ceremonial significance it holds today.
Chado, or the “way of tea,” is a ceremony with the preparation and presentation of tea at its core. From the austere architecture of the teahouses built during that era to the imperfect shape of raku pottery used for the drinking bowls, Rikyu gave Japan its own tea ceremony. For samurai, it served as a meditative counterpoint to combat. As New Mexico Chado director Sakina von Briesen explains, “In the 15th and 16th centuries, most teahouses had sword racks outside of them, because samurai weren’t allowed to bring in their swords. But because the sword was considered their spirit, the use of fans began in place of swords, so they were never without their spirits.” It’s not clear whether the samurai brought the philosophy of Zen Buddhism to the practice of chado or it existed before the ceremony became popular with samurai in the 16th century. But the association of Zen philosophy with the practice persists today.
Most aspects of the ceremony are determined by the time of year in which it takes place. Deep tea bowls are used in cold months; shallow tea bowls are used during warmer months (shallow bowls help the tea cool faster). Everything from flower arrangements to where the tatami (woven straw mats) are placed depends on seasonal changes.
Though the tea ceremony is revered as a part of Japan’s heritage, young people aren’t taking to the discipline as their parents once did. Today, most young adults who study chado do so as a matter of etiquette.
Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 087803