What is the History of the Tea Ceremony? Learn about the origins of Japan’s proud traditional culture tea ceremony


Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative

The tea ceremony is a traditional culture that Japan is proud of, but do you know all about its history and origins?

There are many reasons why the tea ceremony became widely popular.

This article explains the history and origins of the tea ceremony, while also introducing Sen no Rikyu, a well-known figure involved, and the spirit of “wabi and sabi.

We have packed a wealth of knowledge about the tea ceremony that you need to know before you start to enjoy it more deeply. Please take a look at it until the end!

Origins of the Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony is considered one of the three major classical performing arts along with kodo (the art of incense) and kado (the art of flower arrangement).

Its origin is said to date back to the 9th century (from 801 A.D.), when a Buddhist monk named Yongchu brought tea back to Japan from China and presented it to Emperor Saga. Famous Buddhist monks such as Saicho and Kukai, who went to Tang China (present-day Mongolia and China) as envoys, also used tea in ceremonies and offered tea to the emperor.

Thus, tea came to Japan when monks brought it from China and spread it.

Tea was introduced as a way to help people sleep during training and to improve health, and it became popular in Japan as a modern beverage.

History of the Tea Ceremony to the Present

Tea culture was introduced to Japan from China and spread throughout the country in various forms. From here, we will unravel the history of the tea ceremony from its introduction to Japan to the present.

Spread in Japan

It was brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks and spread, but unlike today’s tea, tea at that time was made from steamed tea leaves that were hardened into dumplings.

In the Tang Dynasty, tea was not bright green, but a slightly fermented “brown” color. The color “brown,” which is commonly used today, is believed to have its roots in this style.

Tea was all the rage in the Kamakura period (1185-1333)

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), a monk named Eisai brought back powdered tea called tencha (點茶) or hikicha (挽き茶) from other countries, which was recorded in a book called “Kocha Yosei Ki.

The tea seeds given by Eisai were first cultivated in Tsugao, Kyoto, and then introduced to Uji, where they became the “Uji tea” we still see and hear today.

Toward the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the culture of “tocha” (tea fighting), in which participants guessed whether the tea they drank was “honcha” grown in Tsugao or “non-tea” grown elsewhere, became popular. It is said that this game, which was once played at court, became popular among the general public as a form of gambling.

Wabi and Sabi are born in the Muromachi period (1336-1573)

In the Muromachi period (1333-1573), Uji tea came to be treated as the main tea, but this tea was still enthusiastically popular among samurai. The samurai general of the time, Ashikaga Takauji, went so far as to prohibit tea fighting in his Buke Laws, but in the middle of the Muromachi Period, the “Onin War” broke out, and the situation was no longer conducive to enjoying tea culture.

At the same time, Murata Jukou, a Buddhist monk of the Nara period, rejected the tea ceremonies of the samurai and aristocrats, and created a new world in which Japanese tea utensils were used in a simple tea room. This is said to be the origin of wabicha (wabi tea), and is also regarded as the starting point of wabi-sabi.

Birth of the Tea Ceremony

In the late Muromachi period (1333-1573), the Higashiyama culture blossomed as Ashikaga Yoshimasa, one of the eight generals of the Tokugawa shogunate, held Wabicha and Karamono (Chinese tea ceremony) fairs at the residence he had built on his retirement grounds, establishing ceremonial manners and other rituals. Furthermore, his disciple Takeno Ougai, who inherited the wabicha tea ceremony proposed by Murata Shuko, applied the spirit of creating waka poems to wabicha tea.

This wabicha was passed down to Sen no Rikyu, a disciple of Ogai Takeno. Rikyu perfected the Wabicha style by using his sense of tea ceremony to create a new style, including the act of carrying tea utensils into the tea room as one of the manners.

In addition, seven renowned military commanders became Sen no Rikyu’s disciples and contributed greatly to the spread of wabicha, the tea ceremony established by Rikyu.
It is said that tea became popular among the merchant class during the Edo period, and the tea ceremony, which was passed down as an art form, was established in earnest by this warlord.

The life of Sen no Rikyu, who perfected the tea ceremony

One person who always comes up in discussions about the tea ceremony is Sen no Rikyu. How exactly did this hasty man perfect the tea ceremony? Let’s take a deeper look into his career.

How Sen no Rikyu learned tea

Sen no Rikyu was born in 1522 in Izuminokuni, Sakai, Osaka. His childhood name was Tanaka Yoshiro, which is Sen no Rikyu’s real name. The name “Rikyu” was given to him by Emperor Shojincho in 1585, when he was unable to participate in the tea ceremony offered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi because he was a merchant.

Sen no Rikyu began learning the tea ceremony at the age of 17 as part of his education. His teacher was a tea master in Sakai named Kitamukai Dochin, and after repeated training, Rikyu held his first successful tea ceremony when he was 23 years old.

Rikyu continued his training and became known as a tea master. He married a woman from the Miyoshi clan, the ruling family of Sakai, and devoted himself to the family business as an official merchant of the Miyoshi family.

Living the Warring States Era through the Tea Ceremony

In the process of Sakai becoming under the direct control of Oda Nobunaga, Rikyu’s position in the tea ceremony was raised and he was recognized by Nobunaga. Later, Rikyu made his presence felt as the tea master of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but his relationship with Hideyoshi did not last long.

The disagreement brought him into disrepute with Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ordered Rikyu to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), and he ended his life by committing suicide in the Juraku residence in Kyoto.

Hideyoshi’s anger at the order to commit seppuku is said to have been considerable, as Maeda Toshiie and others pleaded for his life but were not heeded, and he was also beheaded near his residence.

What is wabi-sabi, often heard in the tea ceremony?

When studying the tea ceremony, one often sees and hears the term “wabi-sabi.

What does wabi-sabi mean? And what kind of appearance is called wabi-sabi?

In this section, wabi-sabi is explained.

Letter left by the creator of Wabi-sabi

Murata Shuko, who is credited with creating the concept of wabi-sabi, left a letter called “Kokoro no Bun” (Letter from the Heart).

The greatest obstacle to the way of chanoyu is pride and self-obsession. It is interesting only when one has fully tasted and enjoyed the best utensils, without envying the skilled or looking down on the novice, and when one has cultivated and prepared a high dignity from the bottom of one’s heart and mind, and when one has removed everything and reached a state of complete indifference.”

*Some excerpts

At that time, the term “tea ceremony” had not yet been invented, but the word “chanoyu” was already used to describe those things.

This statement of the heart is very important in the aspiration of the tea ceremony and shows that the tea ceremony is not only the act of drinking tea, but can be deeply enjoyed only when one cultivates dignity from the bottom of one’s heart and has a tranquil mind.

Sen no Rikyu, who perfected wabi-sabi

Sen no Rikyu, who received the heart writings of Murata Shuko, led the way to the perfection of the tea ceremony, which emphasized spirituality over formality.

It is based on the spirit of “harmony, respect, and tranquility,” in which the master and guest treat each other with mutual respect and without treats, and is captured more essentially. Harmonious respect and serenity have the following meanings.

Harmony・・・Open your hearts to each other and get along well with each other.

Respect… Respect each other.

Ching…not only in appearance but also in heart and mind.

Sadness… A heart that is unmoved at all times.

Wabi-sabi is one of the spirits perfected by Sen no Rikyu, and this word expresses it well.

Wabi-sabi, which expresses simplicity and simplicity, is a space without luxury that oozes out with the passage of time to calmly sharpen the spirit. It can be said that the world of “wabi-sabi” expresses the Japanese sense of beauty, which is rare in the world.


In this article, we have introduced the history of the tea ceremony and the people involved in it. We hope that by learning about the history and its origins, you have gained a deeper understanding of the tea ceremony.

The tea ceremony is a traditional culture that values the spirit of “wabi and sabi,” which is unique to the Japanese. It is not a spirit that is easily accepted by people from overseas, but it is a spirit that everyone should keep in mind.

Motenas Japan also offers projects that combine tea ceremony and manners. Why not learn the spirit of “Wabi and Sabi” with foreigners with an understanding of its spirit?
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