Kyoto is a Japanese city with a rich history and deep food culture. But for travelers yearning to learn about the culture of Japanese aesthetics and feel the historical magic of Kyoto firsthand, one type of hands-on experience comes to mind: a traditional Kyoto tea ceremony. So, if you're searching for the best tea ceremony in Kyoto, look no further! First, let's take a deeper look at the fascinating history and rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony. Then, get ready to sip some matcha tea, because we have 5 Kyoto tea ceremony experiences that will knock your geta off.
What is Japanese Tea Ceremony?
The Japanese tea ceremony, or "Way of Tea," is the cultural practice of preparing and appreciating matcha: the refined, powdered green tea. This quiet, beautiful ritual embodies 16th century tea master Sen Rikyu's four principles of tea ceremonies: harmony, respect, purity, and silence (wa-kei-sei-jaku). As the Japanese expression goes, each tea ceremony is a "perfect encounter," or "once in a lifetime experience" (ichi-go ichi-e), a unique meeting of souls that must be cherished.
Formal tea ceremonies can last hours, but are often abbreviated today, and typically take place in a tatami room or tea house. Different schools of tea follow slightly different practices, but tea ceremonies generally involve making precise hand movements and appreciating every aspect of the experience, right down to the intricacies of the dishware chosen for the guest.
Basic Tea Ceremony Etiquette and Rules
- Wear kimono or conservative clothing. Traditionally, one wears a kimono at a Japanese tea ceremony, and your host will appreciate it! But modest Western-style clothing is perfectly acceptable—just be sure to forgo strong perfumes that distract from the experience and jewelry that could damage the equipment.
- Sit in traditional Japanese seiza, kneeling with your backside resting on your feet, if you can. For people unaccustomed to sitting this way, seiza can be painful! So if your legs begin to hurt or fall asleep, switching to sitting cross-legged is generally acceptable, especially for foreigners.
- Turn the tea cup clockwise before drinking. For hygiene, each time the cup is passed, the new person must turn the cup slightly and drink from a different side of the cup. This also lets spectators see all sides of the beautiful, likely hand-picked pottery used at the tea ceremony.
- Don't drink from the front of the tea cup. Often, the front of the cup carries a special design meant to be shown off to the rest of the guests as you drink. So when turning the cup, try to avoid drinking from the front!
- Avoid taking big gulps of tea. The professionally-made green tea at tea ceremonies is meant to be delicately savored, not chugged! Take about three sips and enjoy the experience slowly.
- Say "osakini" to your neighbor before eating Japanese wagashi sweets or drinking tea. This simple phrase means "pardon me for going before you," and it is one of the most important rules of a polite tea ceremony. The order in which tea and sweets are passed around is the same every time, so you'll hear this quite often!
Basic Tea Ceremony Steps
- Clean the tea room, arrange tea garden, and prepare food (optional) before guests arrive
- Have guests wash hands to cleanse them of the "dust" of the outside world
- Guests take turns passing around and eating Japanese wagashi sweets (opt.)
- Warm up tea bowl (chawan) and soak bamboo whisk (chasen) in water
- Use cloth to gracefully clean and purify tea tools in front of guests
- Put two scoops of matcha powder into tea bowl with bamboo tea ladle (chashaku)
- Scoop 60 ml of hot water into tea bowl with bamboo water ladle (hishaku)
- Stir well with bamboo whisk until tea is slightly foamy
- Place finished tea in front of guest; both host and guest bow politely
- Guest turns tea bowl 90° clockwise and takes slow sips, appreciating the tea
- First guest passes tea bowl on to the next guest, who turns it 90° clockwise and sips, and so on
- Once everyone has enjoyed the tea, host cleans tea equipment again
- Guests politely inspect the beauty of all aspects of tea tools, room, and ceremony, bowing on exit
5 Best Kyoto Tea Ceremony Experiences
Here are 5 Kyoto tea ceremony experiences that we highly recommend for lovers of Japanese traditional culture.
- Tea Ceremony in a Kyoto Machiya
- Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Maiko
- Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Sweets
- Traditional Tea Ceremony at a Kyoto Tea House
- All About Japanese Tea: Tour of Uji, Kyoto
1. Tea Ceremony in a Kyoto Machiya
On your next Japan trip, why not stop by tea master Randy Channell Soei's tea shop? Located in the longest covered arcade in Japan, this beautifully renovated townhouse, or machiya, will enchant you as you learn the "way of tea."
Soei-sensei, the highest ranking non-Japanese teacher of the tea ceremony in Japan, practices ryurei, a style of tea used during Kyoto's World Fair in 1872 to entertain foreign dignitaries. He's been teaching for 20 years and has published a book on the subject, Book of Chanoyu...Tea the Master Key to Japanese Culture, so you know you're learning from an expert!
During this Tea Ceremony in a Kyoto Machiya, you'll spend 1.5 hours learning the parts of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, observing proper etiquette, and trying your hand at making the best cup of Kyoto tea. If you're fascinated by the thought of learning the unique ryurei dignitary style of tea ceremony from a Western tea master using tables and chairs, this experience is undeniably for you!
2. Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Maiko
Have you ever wished to step into the secretive world of geisha and maiko in Japan? During this exclusive experience, you'll learn all there is to know about Kyoto geisha and tea culture from a group of maiko, or young geisha apprentices. These enchanting maiko traditionally entertain guests by playing shamisen and dancing with incredible grace. During this experience, they'll demonstrate how to stir up the perfect matcha tea and give you a chance to try. Then, watch in amazement as they put on a beautiful traditional maiko performance right before your eyes!
This one-hour Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Maiko at Jinmatsuan, a center for tourists to experience traditional Japanese arts, includes Japanese sweets and coffee/tea, as well as the tea ceremony itself. Take a chance on this experience if you're eager to combine your tea ceremony with the rare intrigue of a stunning maiko performance!
3. Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Sweets
If you're wondering what to eat in Kyoto, why not try some yummy wasanbon wagashi sweets to complement your bitter green tea? In this Kyoto tea ceremony experience, you'll be especially culturally immersed in the tea ceremony process. Enjoy wearing a beautiful authentic Japanese kimono, provided by the instructors, and taking pictures as keepsakes of this priceless cultural encounter!
During this hour-long family-friendly Kyoto Tea Ceremony with Sweets, you'll don a gorgeous kimono and learn from a licensed tea ceremony instructor. The unique, melt-in-your-mouth sweets from Shikoku (gluten-free and vegan) are also included! This ceremony is perfectly suited for those who love trying unique sweets and taking once-in-a-lifetime snapshots in traditional Japanese dress.
4. Traditional Tea Ceremony at a Kyoto Tea House
While you're in Kyoto, stop by the famous geisha district of Gion to enjoy an immersive tea ceremony at En, a traditional Japanese tea house. "En" means "connection" and "circle" and symbolizes peacefulness and relationships, as well as Buddhism's highest truth of enlightenment. This tea house strives to celebrate all those values and more!
On this journey into tea ceremony culture, immerse yourself in the way of tea in picturesque Gion and, after learning from an expert, prepare the drink yourself using a traditional Japanese tea set!
This 45-minute Traditional Tea Ceremony at a Kyoto Tea House is broken up into thirds: 15 minutes of introduction, 15 minutes of tea serving, and 15 minutes to prepare your own tea. For travelers who want to experience a quicker tea ceremony and witness the unparalleled architecture and ambiance of Kyoto's ancient Gion district, this ceremony hits the spot!
5. All About Japanese Tea: Tour of Uji, Kyoto
Are you a green tea aficionado itching to explore a special corner of Kyoto that's known for its rich tea culture? Then this All About Japanese Tea: Tour of Uji, Kyoto is definitely for you! Embark on a five-hour journey through the gorgeous historical district of Uji, making stops frequently to duck into a thousand-year-old tea shop, visit a tea farmer's shop, experience an authentic Japanese tea ceremony, and even pay respects at one of Japan's oldest shrines.
For lunch, unwind and enjoy chasoba (green tea soba noodles) at a famous Kyoto tea house. The unique point of this tour is its eclecticism; perfect for those who want to explore tranquil Uji, absorb tea history from countless fascinating locations, and appreciate Japanese green tea in every way possible in one day!
For any traveler looking for deeply satisfying things to do in Kyoto, there's no better choice than a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Japanese tea culture reflects so much of Japan's rich history that you'll come away from it with a more nuanced understanding of the beautiful country, guaranteed. Plus, professionally-made Japanese matcha green tea and sweets are incredibly tasty! Book one of these Kyoto tea ceremony experiences today and make your time in the ancient city of Kyoto both enriching and delicious!