The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Zen in a Bowl

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Drink tea, savor life… This philosophy seems to infuse life for the Japanese, and we certainly felt it permeating the hall at the Shofuso House and Garden.


Nestled in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the pavilion is an alluring doorway into Edo-period Japan, where everyday court life was captured in intricate brush strokes and ceramic carvings.

Step inside, take off your shoes, and sit comfortably on a traditional tatami mat. Within moments, gracious patrons in exquisitely tailored kimonos glide over to the natsume, or tea caddy, made of raku (Japanese clayware) and heated with coals.

Japanese Drinking Bowls

In a true Zen fashion, which emphasizes balance and natural flow, the host stirs the hot water with a thin chashaku, or tea scoop. Each portion of tea, so to speak, is prepared by scooping the hot water, pouring it atop a so-called spoonful of matcha at the bottom of a tea bowl (chawan) and whisked with a cha-sen.

Japanese Tea Bowl

Each guest receives an accompanying wa-gashi (Japanese sweet).

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The Japanese sweets which is typically a miniature, multi-layered rice cake with persimmon jelly.


The wrapping paper for the wa-gashi. Can you guess what this kanji says?

Japanese Sweets

The tea ceremony truly extends beyond what one might expect from having a cup of tea with a slice of cake. No doubt, tea and cake are involved, but the guests are invited for much more than nourishment, The cha-no-yu is intended as an exchange of friendship and goodwill between host and guest. Well-wishes have long been rooted in the ritual of tea-drinking. Everyone knows the legendary reputation of tea throughout India and China. Not long after the beverage evolved from being a strictly medicinal concoction to a drink of luxury, it traveled to Japan during the ninth century, courtesy of the  Buddhist monk Eichu. The method most widely associated with cha-no-yu came into prominence, thanks to another monk named Eisai, during the twelfth century. A hundred years later, tea became a status symbol for the samurai in the Muromachi period. The warriors organized frequent tasting parties and tea-making contests, thus giving rise to the cha-no-yu.

Enjoy authentic matcha from a raku tea bowl, dating back to the sixteenth century. During the Sengoku era, the renowned tea master Sen no Rikyuu enlisted a renowned tile-maker named Chojiro to produce hand-molded tea bowls for use in a wabi-style ceremony. (“Wabi” suggests delicate, impermanent nature; it is reflected in what are perceived to be flaws on the bowl, as well as in the delicate clay). The matcha, itself, varies in thickness, and intensity.


Some of the highlights from the cha-no-yu at Shofuso were techniques taught at the renowned Mushako-ji Senke, Urasenke Chanoyu Center of New York.  Naturally, every cha-no-yu occasion is a sequence of what one might call rituals, wherein guests are given tea (usually several varieties of different thickness) and wagashi or even a full kaiseki (formal banquet) accompanied by sake. The tea presented at Shofuso carried a slightly velvet texture and a robust, thick flavor with a hint of bitterness. Both the feel and taste are reminders that taste is only a fraction of the experience. which becomes a sort of exercise in meditation.

After the tea, you can stretch your legs (especially once having sat for several minutes in seiza (i.e. kneeling on the floor, while folding one’s legs underneath one’s thighs), Such is the way perceived to be a demonstration of class and propriety in Japan.

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So after training one’s body in seiza and attuning one’s senses in cha-no-yu, it is the perfect time to follow in the footsteps of Muromachi nobility and stroll along the garden. Cross the rock path and gaze at the majestic koi swimming practically beneath your feet.  Make sure to bring your camera, because you might want to recall the entirety of the unique experience. Relax, indulge, and drink more tea!

Check out our video on youtube.

Thanks to everyone at Shofuso for allowing us to share this wondering experience!

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