Japanese Tea Ceremony History and Meaning

Matcha with treats!

Appreciating tea comes in many forms and one of the oldest forms is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This ceremony has a rich history that encompasses not only enjoying matcha but setting up an environment to connect with ones’ guests over tea. What is often interpreted as strict and formal by Western cultural standards is actually a much broader examination of how the environment you are in will effect your ability to appreciate the tea and connect with your guests.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

As we mentioned in our blog post on the History of Matcha, tea made its way into Japan some 400 years before the creation of the tea ceremony via the Zen Buddhist Monks and their cultural exchange with China. The creation of the tea ceremony came during the period of the first samurai and shogun in Japan (1192-1333 C.E.). The Zen Buddhist Monks would prepare matcha for each other and themselves before sitting for long periods of meditation. This practice continued and would be shared with the royal court in Japan for many centuries before being adopted formally by the royal court under the reign of Toyotomi Hideyosi (1585-1598 C.E.).  It was also during this time that the ceremony and its steps where formally documented by the Zen Buddhist monk Sen Rikyu.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Attention to Detail and Environment

The Buddhist Monks that developed the tea ceremony paid a lot of attention to the environment around them as they drank the tea and shared it with their colleagues and friends. The environment was to be pleasant but not over stimulating. So artwork was carefully chosen and only a few pieces hung.  A small but carefully chosen flower arrangement was often included on the table with the tea utensils. The bamboo mats and cushions for guests where to provide protection from the cold floor so they could concentrate more easily on each other and the tea. The tea bowl and utensils where also chosen to fit with the artwork. The goal was to have everything fit together to provide a peaceful environment that would allow everyone to enjoy each other and the tea. What is often lost to Western cultural is that after consuming the tea, the host and guests would often discuss the artwork, practice calligraphy together, and spend time discussion intellectual pursuits.

Japanese Tea Ceremony: Modern Day

The practice of the Japanese Tea Ceremony continues around the world. There are schools, in Washington, DC it is the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association, that not only teach the preparation of the matcha but include how to do the ancient calligraphy, flower arrangements and play traditional Japanese instruments. So broaden your horizons by taking a class and learning more about this part of Japanese culture.

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Dragon Well Shrimp

Dragon Well Shrimp is a simple traditional Chinese dish that incorporates the world famous Dragon Well Tea. This recipe originates from the same region as Dragon Well tea, the Hangzhou province of China. It is easy to make and can actually be made with other teas as well.

Dragon Well Shrimp Ingredients

1 pd of shrimp (Any size is fine. Traditionally, these would be small rock shrimp)
1 tbsp Chinese Rice Wine (can be substituted with dry white wine, sake, or chicken/vegetable stock)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp corn starch
1/4 tsp white pepper
3/4 cup of water
1 tablespoon of Dragon Well tea
Salt to taste

Dragon Well Shrimp Instructions

Start by peeling and deveining the shrimp and putting them into a small bowl. Mix the Chinese rice wine, white pepper and corn starch. Pour over the shrimp and put into the refrigerator for 15 minutes. While the shrimp is in the refrigerator, brew the tea. Heat the water to 175°F (If you are working with a kettle, bring it up to a boil and then pour out 3/4 of a cup of water and allow to cool 3 minutes). Steep the tea in the water for 4 minutes and strain out the leaves. Do not through out the leaves as you will be cooking with them. Have a plate nearby the stove

Steeped Dragon Well for Shrimp

Heat the oil in a large flat pan and put in the shrimp. You will want to spread out the shrimp in the pan so they do not overlap to ensure even cooking. You will want to pour out any  leftover marinade in the bowl. As the shrimp cook, pour in the tea and stir in the tea leaves. The tea and marinade should thicken into a sauce. Turn the shrimp about 2 minutes into cooking. After 4 minutes, if your sauce is not fully thick, remove the shrimp to a plate and continue cooking the sauce until it thickens. Then turn off the heat and put back in the shrimp. Taste the sauce and add salt to your taste.

The tea leaves will soften and be very easy to eat with the shrimp. Other green and white teas can be used for this recipe. Black and oolong teas will be much tougher and are not ideal for this unless you chop the leaves after brewing. This is a fun way to appreciate tea.

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Gaiwans: A Tool for True Tea Appreciation

Many a loose leaf tea drinker will admit to having a cupboard full of strainers, tea pots and various mugs that assist them in consuming tea. In China, that cupboard would be full of gaiwans. This simple lidded bowl lends itself to truly appreciating the tea in many ways that a teapot just cannot accomplish.

A gaiwan can be used to drink just about any tea you would like. However, traditionally it is reserved for white, green and lighter oolong teas. There are some teas we would not dream of drinking in anything other than a gaiwan, like Bai Hao Silver Needle. This is due to how the gaiwan amplifies smell and mouthfeel when following the traditional Chinese method of using a gaiwan.

The first step of using a gaiwan is to warm it with hot water and to discard that water. This seems like a silly step. However, it gives you an opportunity to smell the dry leaves even better. If you put the tea in just after this, the warm ceramic allows the smell of the dry leaves to become stronger. It is expected in China that the drinker will take the time to bring the gaiwan to just under their nose to inhale this fragrance before adding water to the leave. This allows the drinker to better appreciate what they are about to consume.

While drinking the tea, it is expected that the drinker will stop before putting the tea in their mouth and smell the brew. The bowl shape of the gaiwan makes it easy to smell before drinking. There should be no expectation that the dry leaf and the brew will smell the same. Often they do, but in some cases they absolutely do not. There is a green tea in China called Mo Li Xiang, where the dry leaves smell like duck/chicken poop but the brewed tea has a sweet dry grass aroma.

So to appreciate tea the Chinese way, stop and smell both the tea leaves and the tea before you drink. These simple steps lead to a better appreciation of your tea.

Fascinated by the gaiwan, read about how to use it and its history in this blog post.

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Stress Reduction and Tea

We could all use a way to reduce stress created from modern life.

We’re tempted to say that those in our area, the Metro Washington DC region, could all use an excuse to destress. But really, the DMV doesn’t have a monopoly on stress right? High stress has been linked to all kinds of health issues and occurs globally. One paper suggests that, globally, 500 million people are stressed but don’t realize it and aren’t getting help (Stress, work and mental health: a global perspective, PubMed). This paper suggest that, among other causes, stress comes from rapid social changes and the time-compression of modern life.

Regardless of its cause, enjoying tea can be a great way to reduce stress in your life. Here are just a few of our thoughts on how to incorporate tea into activities to reduce stress.

  • Sit down to appreciate one cup of tea every morning. Don’t just grab a travel mug and run out the door. Instead, deliberately think about the tea you want that morning, take time to smell the dry leaf and try to pick out the different aromas. After steeping, inhale deeply the aroma of the infused leaf (stick your nose right into the infuser basket) and again think about the aromas that come to mind. Finally, sit, don’t stand, and enjoy the first mug of tea. Whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV, radio, or read the news online until after that first cup.
  • Have a tea party with friends and family. Grab a tea pot, make a large batch of something special but make an experience of it. Put the loose tea in a small bowl and pass around for everyone to smell before infusing. Once you have finished infusing don’t just toss the leaf. Consider pouring the leaf into the same small bowl and pass around for all to inhale the fresh brewed leaf.
  • Curl up with a good book and a pot of tea. Not sure anything else needs to be said really. Just a good tea and a book that is a bit of an escape goes a long way (step away from your phone).
  • If you really want to go the extra mile, pick up a tea tray, small cups, and a gaiwan or yixing teapot and prepare something special. Making tea in this way produces many small infusions, shared in small cups. It takes a bit of time, intentionally, and allows for appreciation of both tea and company (or family).

Don’t miss the entire series on tea and your health!

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Healthy Lifestyles Include Tea

Harmony through tea!This is kinda a self-serving statement, isn’t it? In all seriousness, a healthy lifestyle can certainly be made up of many different things and tea doesn’t need to be one of them. That said, we believe there are way too many artificial products (not real food) on the market, too much emphasis on miracle diets and cures, and we could all do with a bit of simplification. So we eat our own dog food, so to speak, or at least drink our own tea. In prior posts we’ve focused on other aspects of tea and your health including all the amazing micronutrients in tea so this one is short and sweet. Here are some of our thoughts on how tea fits in with a healthy lifestyle:

  • Morning cup (or three) of tea of course. But we like lots of variety so we don’t stick to one type of tea every day. We like to mix it up so sometimes that means green, sometimes black, puerh, or really whatever we are in the mood for.
  • To-go thermos of tea for our son to take to school. We remember the days when you had water from the fountain or milk at lunch and that’s it. No more – even elementary school kids bring a thermos with something – ours likes his morning Sencha.
  • We switch to caffeine free tisanes (herbals) mid-day or, shocking we know, water. We just sleep better by cutting out the caffeine by midday, even if the caffeine in tea is less jolting.
  • We love iced tea in summer. Technically we do cold brew. Throw some leaf into a jug of water at night, place in the fridge, and viola, fresh iced tea for the family in the morning.
  • We stop and smell the roses on the weekends. Meaning, this is when we tend to pull out the special teas we want to enjoy like Japanese Gyokuro, fresh Tieguanyin (in season), or a rare puerh from Yunnan China and to enjoy using traditional teaware. Yes, this takes more time, but it is great way to use your tea to slow down and enjoy the moment.
  • Finally, cooking with tea! This is always a fun way to explore in our house with everyone getting a chance to taste, compare notes, and decide if its something we would make again.

Don’t miss the entire series on tea and your health!

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