Discover the graceful social dance that is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Any Japanese culture enthusiast must try the art of the tea ceremony at least once—if not in Japan then with a tea master in Canada. Tea ceremony is called sadō in Japanese, meaning “the way of tea,” or chanoyu, which simply means “hotwaterfortea.” But sadō is about much more than simply drinking tea. From start to finish, the entire process is about putting one’s heart into preparing a bowl of tea and sharing a spiritually and esthetically refined ritual with your guests.

The history of tea ceremony stretches back over a thousand years to when tea seeds were first brought to Japan from China. Sadō was perfected in the 16th century by the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu. He popularized the wabicha style of tea ceremony, which prizes rustic simplicity and directness. Even today, each ceremony is performed with careful attention to harmony, from the tea tools, to those who drink the tea, to the changing seasons. Depending on the season, each ceremony is performed differently, using different tools and even different room decorations. Tea practitioners divide the year into two main seasons: the “sunken heart” season, which starts in November and lasts until April, and the warmer “brazier” season, which begins in May and ends in October. As the beginning of the tea year, November is a special time for sadō practitioners, marked by the kuchikiri no chaji, a ceremony to celebrate breaking the seal on a new jar of tea.

Tea ceremony normally takes place in a chashitsu, a small “tea room” where the host invites a modest gathering, usually about four or five guests. The guests are given a ranking: Shokyaku, the first guest, or the guest of honour, is followed by Jikyaku, then Sankyaku, and so on down the line.

The last guest must know all the rules of sadō and plays a special facilitating role. Each guest enters respectfully and takes a designated seat, and everyone performs a task dur- ing the ceremony, depending on their ranking. Traditional seating involves sitting seiza, or sitting on the tatami floor with your legs folded under you and your butt resting on your heels. Sitting seiza is a key way of expressing respect through the body. Your host, the Teishu, will probably provide a small plate of wagashi (Japanese sweets), which should be put aside until the Teishu has warmed the chawan (tea bowl). No one should before the Shokyaku, who always goes first. Once everyone has eaten the sweets the Teishu will add matcha, a finely ground green tea powder, to the chawan, then mix it with a wooden whisk until it has a rich, creamy consistency. When it is your time to drink, first admire the bowl and rotate it in your hands. After you drink, wipe the rim of the cup, then pass it to the next guest. Each graceful gesture is part of the larger social experience of mindfulness, sincerity and attention to others.

Tea ceremony DOs and DON’Ts


Certified tea masters train for a decade to perfect this art, but don’t let that intimidate you. There are plenty of resources to teach yourself sadō etiquette:


DO walk slowly on the tatami mat

Tatami floors can be slippery …
not to mention that it’s bad form to rush to your seat.


DON’T  be a slouth

The chashitsu is not your living room, so don’t sprawl like a couch potato. Sit properly in seiza.


DO hold your teacup with both hands

It is bad manners to use one hand—and definitely don’t put your finger in the cup!

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe