Foreigner’s Survival Guide to a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Living in Japan has afforded me many cultural experiences that I did not get while in the States. For example, attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This ancient practice is steeped in harmony, respect, serenity and beauty. It’s a traditional expression of many virtues held by Japanese people, and it’s a treasure to be able to experience this.

If you have the good fortune to be invited to or purchase tickets to a tea ceremony, you may have abundant questions since everything about the ceremony is so new and different. Fear not! Below is your “gaijin (foreigner) survival guide” to the mere basics of attending a tea ceremony. Because this is a highly ritualized event, what you’ll read here only scratches the surface of what could be learned. I’ve only been to two ceremonies, so there also may be errors in the directions here! But the basics are below, and you will be better prepared than before.

The first week of May is Golden Week here in Japan, and our city held many tea ceremonies as part of the festivities. We three American teachers, along with some Japanese friends, were fortunate enough to get tickets to not one, but two tea ceremonies in one day. We dressed in traditional kimono, took lots of pictures and learned a great deal about the tea ceremony!

Here are your basic dos and don’ts:

DO: take off your shoes or sandals before entering the tea house. The best way is to slip out of your shoes and step backwards into the building. This way, your shoes are ready for you when you leave.

DO: bow to the hostess as you enter.

DO: sit on the floor with your knees under you the entire time, or as long as you can stand it.

DO: receive the tea sweet and eat it when everyone else does.

DO: receive your tea cup from the hostess with both hands, bow to her, turn the cup twice so the side facing her is now facing you, and drink the matcha in three sips.

DO: wipe the rim of the cup with your finger, turn the cup back two turns, place it on the ground, press your hands together respectfully, bow, place both hands on the floor on either side of the cup, check both sides of the cup (you’re admiring the cup in this) and bow to your hostess when she returns to pick up the cup.

DO: follow everyone after the ceremony is concluded to admire the beauty of the utensils. It’s polite and respectful to quietly show your admiration at the beauty of the cups, containers, etc.

DON’T: make conversation or speak loudly in the tea house.

DON’T: be afraid to watch what others are doing and follow their example. If you are a few seconds behind because you do this, it’s nothing to worry about.

DON’T: be afraid to ask questions or make a mistake.

DO: enjoy your time in this serene and ancient ceremony. It’s a beautiful opportunity to calm down and appreciate simple beauty.