In countries like China and Japan, tea is more than something you serve to guests on chilly days, more than simply an accompaniment to an afternoon meal. You don’t just put on a teapot and grab random mugs out of your cabinet. Tea is a ritual, or a religious ceremony, reflecting the principles and practices of Zen Buddhism. The process of making and serving the tea, and the dishes and utensils used in the ceremony, are as important as the drinking of the tea itself—nothing about it is casual or careless.
Tea was first discovered in ancient China, where it was consumed for medicinal purposes and then for pleasure. In the 9th century, a Chinese author Lu Yu, strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, wrote “The Classic of Tea,” which detailed the correct way to cultivate and prepare tea. This book had a tremendous influence on what is now known as Tea Culture, or “The Way of Tea,” in China and Japan.
In China, ceremonial tea, or “cha dao,” is served for many specific reasons, including to show respect for an elder or superior, to celebrate a family gathering, to apologize or show regret or submission, or, during a wedding, to unite the two sides of the family. Chinese tea sets may have tea containers, bamboo cushions, tea bowls (cha hai and cha he), a serving pitcher (gong dao bei), tea strainer, tea pot or kettle, aroma cup, taste cup, and gaiwan (covered bowl). Chinese tea tools include a needle for dredging the tea pot, tweezers, scoop (cha zhe), tea spoon, and tea funnel.
Tea migrated to Japan through Buddhist monks around the 12th century, and “The Way of Tea,” also known as chado, had a tremendous influence on Japanese culture. The tea ceremony, called “chanoyu,” has rigid rules regarding the tools and procedures, and the purpose of the ceremony is to bring the participants into the moment, so they focus on the details and aesthetics of the utensils, the serving dishes, the flavors and scents, and the ambiance of the room.
Over the years, a while range of tea schools emerged, including aristocratic, warrior, sencha (Chinese-style green tea), and merchant, but “wabi cha” is the most popular. In the 1400s, Sen Rikyu developed this school, intended to be humble and rustic. The idea was to remove the experience of tea from everyday life. The ideal tea room would have a small door requiring men to crouch to get through it, so that even warriors and aristocrats would be humbled. They would leave the trappings of their status—watches, jewelry, swords, and military regalia—outside.
A Japanese tea room features scrolls, a brazier, a kettle, a water pitcher, a slop bowl, a tea caddy, a water pourer, a bamboo whisk, a bamboo tea scoop, and the tea bowl. In “wabi cha,” all participants at a tea drink from the same tea bowl, while in “sencha,” each gets his own.
Tea utensils are stored in boxes within boxes, with handwritten labels. Boxes signed by a tea master are considered much more value than those that are unsigned—signed tea boxes indicate that the tools inside are of highest quality and craftsmanship. However, in some cases, it’s possible financial “gifts of gratitude” to the tea master might have had something to do with why they were signed.