History of Japanese Tea Ceremony

History of Tea Ceremony


The tea ceremony is a representative Japanese culture.

Here, the history of Japanese tea, the tea ceremony and the chanoyu are explained in a concise and easy-to-understand manner.

In brief summary, tea was introduced to Japan in the form of ‘dancha’, which is made by steaming and hardening tea leaves, by Chinese envoys to Tang China and resident monks in the Nara and Heian periods. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Eisai held the ‘Shitou Chakai’, and tea fighting also became popular. In the Muromachi and Sengoku periods, Murata Shuko discovered wabicha, which was further refined by Muno Shao-o and perfected by his disciple Sen no Rikyu. In the Edo period (1603-1868), many other schools emerged, including the Samusenke school, which followed Sen no Rikyu, as well as the samurai tea ceremony and the sencha school. After the Meiji Restoration, as Western culture spread among the people, the tea ceremony declined temporarily, but by the Meiji era, the tea ceremony, originally a male form of tea, was incorporated into the liberal arts curriculum of schools attended by children of good families, and a culture of elegant tea ceremonies for women began.


Tea in the Nara and Heian Periods(700~1100)

It is believed that tea was introduced to Japan (Nara and Heian periods) by Chinese envoys to the Tang Dynasty and resident monks, in the form of “dancha.” (団茶)was made by steaming and hardening tea leaves. Dancha is like a mass of tea. Dancha was shaved down to the required quantity and boiled in a kettle. People drank it in white porcelain tea bowls(白磁:はくじ)or celadon glazed tea bowls(青磁茶碗:せいじちゃわん) made in China or in rough tea bowls made in Japan called yama-cha-bowl, or mountain tea bowl(山茶碗). At that time, tea was a precious commodity, so only emperors, nobles, priests, and other noble people could drink tea. During the Nara and Heian periods, tea gardens were established in major temples, where tea was used for ceremonies and served to guests. The idea of a “nation of peace and prosperity”(国家安泰)through the use of Buddhism was very popular, and temples were built frequently. The “Seasonal Reading of the Sutra”(季御読経:きのみどきょう) is an event in which many Buddhist monks recite the “Great Perfection Sutra” (大般若経:だいはんにゃきょう)to pray for national peace and prosperity. The ceremony lasted for three or four days, and on the second day, tea was served to the monks at a “Hikicha”(引茶) ceremony. At Hikicha, the nobles in charge of the event offered tea to the monks and added seasonings such as sweet kudzu(甘葛:あまずら) thick kudzu(厚朴: こうぼく) and ginger, depending on their tastes.

Tea Ceremony in the Kamakura Period(1185-1333)

In the mid Kamakura period, grinding tea leaves to make powdered tea and mixing it with a tea whisk became popular, but there were still no clear rules of etiquette or kaiseki cuisine, and there were no tea rooms.


Eisai (栄西)was a monk of Mt. Hieizan who attempted to go to India via China, but was unable to do so, and returned to Japan in 1191 after studying Zen. He introduced Zen Buddhism and matcha (powdered green tea) to Japan, and planted tea saplings in Hirado, where his ship arrived, and established a tea garden there. Eisai wrote “Kissayoujouki,” (喫茶養生記:きっさようじょうき)a book of tea ceremony regimen, in which he explains how matcha is good for the body, using the latest Chinese medical books. Eisai built Jufukuji Temple (寿福寺: じゅふくじ)in Kamakura and Kenninji Temple(建仁寺:けんにんじ)in Kyoto, spreading Zen Buddhism and the matcha ceremony. Below is a video introduction to Kenninji Temple.

The tea ceremony Eisai promoted is known as the “Yotsugashira Chakai” (四頭茶会). In this ceremony, tenmoku-shaped bowls(天目形) filled with powdered green tea are distributed to visitors. Then, a priest pours hot water into the bowls and uses a tea whisk to serve the guests. “Yotsugashira Chakai” (四頭茶会) is held at Zen temples such as Kenninji Temple and Kennchoji Temple(建長寺). In March 2012, Kenninji Temple’s “Yotsugashira Chakai” was designated as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property by Kyoto City(京都市登録無形民俗文化財). The video above shows a scene from the “Yotsugashira Chakai” at Kenchoji Temple.

Zen Buddhism and Seiki

Zen Buddhism spread mainly among samurai during the Kamakura period. This was because Zen Buddhism, which emphasized the training of a peaceful mind through Zen meditation, met the needs of the samurai. During the Kamakura period, famous Zen priests in China came to Japan. For example, Rankei Doryu (蘭渓道隆)of the Sung(宋)Dynasty came to Japan with his disciples. In 1253 when Kennchoji Temple(建長寺) was built, he was invited to the temple by regent Tokiyori HOJO (北条時頼: the fifth regent of the shogunate)to become kaisan (開山: the founder of the temple and first chief priest) of Kenchoji Temple. Mugaku Sogen(無学祖元)of the Sung Dynasty (宋)was invited by Tokimune HOJO(北条時宗: the eighth regent of the shogunate) to to become kaisan of Enkakuji Temple(円覚寺). The “Singi”(清規), a set of rules to be followed by Zen monks in the temple, also came from China. The “Singi” included detailed regulations for various types of tea ceremonies, including those for entertaining guests and for newly appointed abbots. Through these regulations, tea ceremonies spread to Zen temples throughout Japan.

Trade with China

In the Kamakura period, numerous Jishazoueiryotosen(寺社造営料唐船)were dispatched to China for the purpose of supplementing the cost of building and rebuilding temples and shrines through overseas trade. Jishazoueiryotosen(寺社造営料唐船)was a group of trading ships dispatched from Japan to the Yuan (元)with the approval of the Shogunate under the guise of obtaining funds for the construction, restoration, and expansion of temples and shrines. Between 40 and 50 ships were dispatched annually, including the “Tenryuji ship”(天龍寺船) dispatched for the construction of Tenryuji Temple(天龍寺) in 1342 and the “Kenchoji ship” (建長寺船) for the reconstruction of Kennchoji Temple(建長寺) after its fire. Around 1323, a ship bound for Japan was wrecked and sank off the coast of Shinan (新安沖) in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. The ship’s cargo was said to have included approximately 20,000 pieces of copper coins and ceramics from the Yuan dynasty, as well as many imported items such as “Goryeo celadon“(高麗青磁) from the Korean peninsula. Based on the above, it is believed that the ship departed from Ningbo in present-day Zhejiang Province(浙江省寧波), China, and was shipwrecked on its way to Japan after completing transactions in Goryeo(高麗). Among the Chinese goods salvaged from the ship were vases and tea jars from the Song dynasty, indicating that a large number of tea ceremony utensils were being imported during the Kamakura period.

Toucha (Tea Fighting)

Another characteristic of the Kamakura period is toucha (闘茶, tea fighting). Toucha is a game in which participants try to guess where the tea comes from and compete in quality, dressed up in flamboyant costumes, had a big meal, drank many different kinds of tea, and bet their valuables by guessing the tea’s origin. In this game the guests were tested on their abilities to distinguish between Honcha (real tea) and other tea, later, a set of 10 different kinds of tea was mixed together, and each set of 10 different kinds was drunk several times, which was a type of gambling.  The Muromachi shogunate prohibited toucha by law. Toucha continued from the end of the Kamakura period to the middle of the Muromachi period, lasting more than 100 years until the advent of chanoyu (tea ceremony).

Tea Ceremony in the Muromachi Period (1336-1568)

Against a background of Japanese pirates’ activities (倭寇) and conflicts between the Northern and Southern Dynasties(南北朝の争乱), the Muromachi Shogunate was unable to conduct trade with China. However, in 1392, under the leadership of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満), the third shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate, a unification of the Northern and Southern Dynasties was achieved, and as a result, the Kangou trade (勘合貿易) began in 1401, and Chinese tea utensils and other items were imported from the Ming Dynasty.

Kitayama Culture


Yoshimitsu gave the shogun’s residence to the fourth shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimochi (足利義持), and retired to his new residence, Kitayama-dono (北山殿) , in Kitayama, Kyoto. After Yoshimitsu’s death, Kitayama-den was called Rokuon-ji Temple(Kinkakuji Temple).

In the private reception hall of the mansion, renga meetings (連歌会) and toucha were held, and arts and crafts imported from China were displayed. Yoshimitsu later became devoted to Zen Buddhism, building the new Shokokuji Temple (相国寺) and establishing the Kyoto Gozan Temples (京都五山), a system that defined temple ranks mainly for the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. In the temples centering on the Kyoto Gozan Temples, Gozan literature(五山文学:Chinese poetry composed by Zen monks at the Gozan Temples), and ink wash painting(水墨画: a type of Chinese ink brush painting which uses black ink, such as that used in Chinese calligraphy) flourished, and further developed into Noh drama by Zeami (世阿弥) and others, which came to be known as Kitayama Culture.

During the Kitayama Culture, the Muromachi Shogunate shoguns and feudal lords began to hold banquets to entertain guests with tea, which can be said to be the origin of the tea ceremony. Shoguns and feudal lords of the Muromachi Shogunate built a building called “kaisho(会所),” where they decorated many Chinese paintings and tea utensils, and drank tea while admiring them.

Shokokuji Temple

Higashiyama Culture

Higashiyama Culture” is the culture that emerged around Higashiyama-dono(東山殿), the villa of Ashikaga Yoshimasa( the eighth shōgun of the Ashikaga shogunate). Higashiyama-dono(東山殿) is today’s Ginkaku-ji Temple(銀閣寺). A representative garden created around 1513 is the famous karesansui (dry landscape garden) at Daisenin, the pagoda of Daitokuji Temple.

The culture of Wabi Sabi(詫び寂び) was born during this period, and the prototype for the tea ceremony was also created during this period. Wabi Sabi means quiet and simple taste, and represents beauty in simplicity and imperfection.

The simple samurai residence, the shoin-zukuri style(書院造), became popular, and with the advent of the Higashiyama culture of the tea ceremony, banquets held at the meeting hall were replaced with tea ceremonies held at the shoin (書院).During the Higashiyama Culture period, tea ceremony, ikebana flower arrangement(生け花), Noh theater, and sumi-e ink painting (水墨画)developed. Much of what is now commonly known as the Japanese Zen aesthetic was born during this period.


In the Muromachi period , the residences of shoguns and feudal lords were used as meeting places for private receptions and waka poetry (和歌)meetings. The Muromachi Shogunate conducted trade with the Ming Dynasty, which led to the importation of fine Chinese art. Thus, the meeting room of the 6th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshinori, was decorated with a large amount of Chinese imports such as Chinese karamono (唐物). These karamono were managed by the Douboushu (同朋衆 どうぼうしゅう:people who served the Ashikaga shogunate and were engaged in the appraisal of art works and various performing arts). The karamono were appraised and organized according to type and period. When the shogunate weakened, they were sold and passed on to the shoguns, who called them “Higashiyama-den 「東山殿御物」,” or “Rikaen-in-den Gomotsu,” after the third shogun, Yoshimitsu. The standards for decoration and the quality of karamono were also clarified, and the Kundaikanzōchōki(君台観左右帳記:a record by Nōami 能阿弥and Sōami 相阿弥 regarding the decorations in the Ashikaga Yoshimasa Higashiyama Palace ) was compiled based on these standards.

Murata Jukou

Murata Jukō(村田珠光:むらたじゅこう)(1422-1502) received Zen training from Zen master Ikkyu (一休)at the Shinjuan (真珠庵), the pagoda of Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. Based on this experience, he advocated the spirit of “wabi. Thus, Murata is considered the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony “Wabicha”. The spirit of “wabi” refers to the feeling of purity and strength in a desolate atmosphere as the greenery of the trees fades. Murata adopted the spirit of Zen and created a simple four-and-a-half-tatami-mat tea room, emphasizing the spirituality of the tea masters who sought spiritual tranquility through the tea ceremony. Tea ceremonies during this period were mainly lavish tea ceremonies with the appreciation of imported goods (Chinese and other foreign goods), but Murata Jukou argued that it was important to blur the boundary between Japanese and Chinese goods, and that the simple beauty of Japanese pottery should also be noted in contrast to the tendency to prefer only Chinese goods. The tea utensils left by Jukou are called “Jukou Meibutu” (珠光名物) and it is said that Sen no Rikyu also used these tea utensils. This spirit of “wabi” was passed down to his disciples even after Jukou’s death, leading to today’s tea ceremony.

Tea Ceremony in Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama Periods (1467-1615)

From here, we will discuss the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods, when chanoyu and wabicha were established.

Takeno Jōō

Takeno Jōō(武野 紹鴎, 1502–1555) was born to a wealthy merchant father who dealt in armaments. At the age of 23, he went to Kyoto to become a renga master (連歌師) and apprenticed himself to Sanjonishi Sanetaka(三条西実隆). Takeno Jōō also learned the tea ceremony from a disciple of Murata Jukō. When he was 30-31 years old, he returned to Sakai from Kyoto, became a monk, received the title “Jōō” (紹鷗) from Kogaku Soukō(古嶽宗亘), and devoted himself to the tea ceremony. Like Murata Jukou, he reformed the tea house and tea utensils. Jōō’s tea room was four and a half tatami mats with a thatched roof and a sunken hearth cut into the floor. He also used a variety of tea utensils, from Chinese to Japanese (Shigaraki, Seto, Bizen, etc.).

Sen no Rikyu 

Sen no Rikyu(千利休, 1522-1591)) is best known for perfecting the Japanese tea ceremony. Sen no Rikyu started learning the tea ceremony when he was 17 years old, under Kitamuki Dōchin (北向 道陳). Dōchin had a good relationship with the tea master Takeno Jōō. Dōchin recommended Jōō to Rikyū when he was 19 years old. Takeno Jōō perfected the tea ceremony, and his disciple, Sen no Rikyu redefined the tea ceremony in all its aspects: the rules of procedure, the utensils, the teahouse architecture , and even the tea-garden landscaping. The first tea ceremony was held by Sen no Rikyu at the age of 23 in his room in Sakai. Sakai fell under control of the powerful feudal lord Oda Nobunaga (織田信長). Oda Nobunaga employed Rikyū as his tea master. After Nobunaga died in 1582, Riyu became a tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi(豊臣秀吉). His relationship with Hideyoshi quickly deepened, effectively becoming the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu (tea ceremony).

Hideyoshi ordered Rikyū to build a tea room. Taian(待庵)at Myokian in Yamazaki, Kyoto, was designed by Sen no Rikyu in 1582. It still exists today and is designated as a national treasure. Its most distinctive feature is that it has only two tatami mats. 

Yamanoue Souji

Yamanoue Sōji (山上宗二) became a famous disciple of Sen no Rikyū and wrote the chronicle Yamanoue Sōji ki (山上宗二記), which gives commentary about Rikyū’s teachings and the state of chanoyu at the time of its writing, which enables us to understand the essence of Rikyu and the Wabicha of his time.

Tea Ceremony in the Edo Period(1603-1867)

Let’s move to the tea ceremony in the Edo Period. Chanoyu was formally incorporated into the rituals of the Edo shogunate. From this time on, chanoyu came to be known as 茶道 (sadou or chadou). There had been several schools of chanoyu before then, and more schools emerged during the Edo period.

Three Senke

Sen no Sōtan (千宗旦) (1578–1658) was the grandson of Sen no Rikyū. Sōtan helped to popularize tea in Japan. Sōtan had two sons by his first wife, and after her death, two more sons by his second wife. Sotan had disowned his eldest son, so his other three sons( Ichiō Sōshu 一翁宗守・Kōshin Sōsa江岑宗左・Sensō Sōshitsu仙叟宗室) established the Mushanokoji Senke, Omotesenke, and Urasenke schools, respectively, in an attempt to continue their grandfather’s teachings.

Mushakouji Senke

Sōtan arranged for his second son, Ichiō Sōshu (一翁宗守), to be adopted into the family of a lacquer ware artisan at a young age. Sōshu, however, later on chose to carry on the tea tradition of his forefather, Rikyū. Sōshu built a tea house “Kankyuan“(官休庵) at Mushakōji street and began his career as a tea master, starting the Mushakouji Senke (武者小路千家).


Sōtan made his third son, Kōshin Sōsa(江岑宗左), the heir to the Senke family, which eventually came to be known as Omotesenke. The Omotesenke estate, known by the name of its representative tea room, the “Fushin-an” (不審庵), was where Sen no Rikyū’s son-in-law, Sen Shōan (千少庵), reestablished the Kyoto Sen household after Rikyū’s death. Sōtan soon succeeded as the family heir and head of this estate. The next heir to the estate and family tradition was Sōsa(宗左), counted as the fourth generation in the Omotesenke(表千家) family line.


Sōtan had his fourth son, Sensō Sōshitsu(仙叟宗室) adopted into the family of a doctor, but after a few years the doctor died, Sōshitsu returned to live with Sōtan. Sōtan, when he was ready to retire and gave the headship of the family over to Kōshin Sōsa(江岑宗左), established his retirement quarters on adjacent property in the north, building a tea room there, the “Konnichi-an” (今日庵). Sōshitsu inherited that part of the estate, which came to be known as the home of the Urasenke.


The tea ceremony that prevailed in samurai society during the Edo period is known as the Bukesado(武家茶道).  The everyday manners of the samurai families were incorporated directly into the Bukesado. For example, when bowing in the Bukesado, one does not place the palms of the hands on the tatami mats as in Three Senke(三千家). Instead, they lightly clench their fists to form a genkotsu, place their hands next to their hips, and bow their heads.

There are also differences in the decor of the tea room and the utensils used in the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony such as three senke developed by Rikyu, known as “wabicha,” favores small tea rooms and simple utensils. In contrast, Bukesado, which was used for ceremonies to welcome the shogun, is characterized by large rooms and the use of relatively luxurious and extravagant utensils. There are three famous people in Buquesado: Furuta Oribe(古田織部), Kobori Enshu(小堀遠州), Katagiri Sekisyu (片桐石州).

Furuta Oribe

Furuta Oribe (古田織部:1544 -1615), whose birth name was Furuta Shigenari (古田重然), was a tea master lord who served Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu. His teacher in the tea ceremony was Sen no Rikyū. He became the foremost tea master after Rikyū’s death, and taught the tea ceremony to the the second shogun Tokugawa Hidetada(徳川秀忠), establishing the tea ceremony etiquette of the samurai class. Furuta Oribe is also the founder of Oribe ware. Oribe ware is a type of Mino ware, produced mainly in the Mino region. Green is the typical colour of Oribe ware, along with white. 

Kobori Enshu

Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州, 1579-1647), whose birth name was Kobori Masakazu (小堀政一), was a feudal load and notable Japanese artist .After Sen no Rikyu and Furuta Oribe, Kobori Enshu became a central figure in the tea ceremony. He excelled in the arts of painting, poetry, Ikebana flower arrangement, and Japanese garden design. Kobori Enshu is known as the founder of the Enshū-ryū school (遠州流). Kobori Enshu instructed the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu(徳川家光). His tea style was called “kireisabi” (meaning “clean and rustic”) because of its flamboyant and bright atmosphere. He used many elegant and gorgeous tea bowls, mainly in white. He designed many tea houses including the Bōsen-seki (忘筌席) in the subtemple of Kohōan (孤篷庵) at the Daitokuji (大徳寺).

Katagiri Sekisyu

Katagiri Ishizhu(片桐石州: 1605-1673), whose birth name was Katagiri Sadamasa (片桐貞昌), succeeded Kobori Enshu as the tea ceremony instructor to the fourth shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna (徳川家綱). Katagiri Sekisyub is known as the founder of the Sekishū-ryū school (石州流).


Senchadō (煎茶道, “way of sencha”) is a variant of Japanese tea ceremony. It involves the preparation and drinking of sencha green tea(tea made from small roasted tea leaves), especially the high grade gyokuro type. Towards the end of the 17th century in the Edo period, Chinese merchants visiting Nagasaki showed how brewed tea should be drunk. This practice of the Chinese tea culture spread in the 18th century until the beginning of the Meiji era, particularly among literati merchants, in the form of friends meeting in a less formal atmosphere than the chanoyu. Baisao (売茶翁:1675–1763) was a Japanese Buddhist monk of the Ōbaku school(黄檗宗:おうばくしゅう)of Zen Buddhism, who became famous for traveling around Kyoto selling tea. He contributed to the popularization of sencha and led to the birth of Senchadō. He popularized the tea ceremony to the common people.

Tea Ceremony in Modern Times

After the Meiji Restoration, Western influence permeated society, causing a temporary decline in the tea ceremony’s popularity. However, originally an activity reserved for men, the tea ceremony underwent a transformation during the Meiji period (1868-1912) when it became part of the liberal arts curriculum in prestigious schools attended by children from affluent families. This marked the beginning of a captivating culture surrounding the tea ceremony, which took on an elegant form led by women adorned in stunning kimonos.

Moving into the Showa period (1926-1989), the tea ceremony started captivating the attention of modern, independent-minded women. Many of these women found themselves excluded from conventional societal roles, igniting their desire for personal growth. Seeking avenues for self-expression and enlightenment, they turned to the tea ceremony as a means of acquiring knowledge and refining their skills.


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