Just like the French with their wine and the Scots and whiskey, the Japanese revere tea—and matcha tea especially.
Matcha is a finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves. Matcha tea plants are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest, and the stems and veins are removed in processing. This slows down growth, stimulates an increase in chlorophyll levels, turns the leaves a darker shade of green, and causes the production of amino acids—in particular theanine.
During harvesting, only the finest tea buds are hand-picked. The leaves are then laid out flat to dry, and become brittle and crumble easily. Then the leaves are de-veined, de-stemmed, and stone-ground to the fine, bright green powder known as matcha.
Matcha tea, being a powder, is prepared differently to loose-leaf tea. Nowhere is it prepared with more love and care than during a tea ceremony.
The matcha tea ceremony has been an integral part of traditional Japanese culture for centuries. A quiet celebration performed with grace and beauty, the matcha tea ritual is meant to be a bonding experience of mindfulness, respect and a focus on the now.
In Japanese, the ceremony itself is known as ‘chanoyu’, while the manner in which it is performed—the hosting and choreography—is called ‘temae’. Zen Buddhism was a big influence on the Japanese tea ceremony, which is why inner peace and mindfulness is such an important component.
There are 2 types of tea gatherings: an informal tea gathering, or chakai, and a formal tea gathering, or chaji. A chaji usually includes a full-course kaiseki—Japanese degustation, basically—followed by confections, thick tea, and thin tea. A chaji can last up to four hours.
Tea ceremonies can be held just about anywhere, as the required decoration is very simplistic and minimalist. Hanging scrolls that feature popular quotes and well-known proverbs are commonplace, and simple flower arrangements may also be used.
Before the ceremony begins, guests gather in a special room set up by the host, known as a ‘machiai’. After everyone has arrived, the guests perform a cleansing ritual that symbolises the removal of dust from the world. This involves walking across a dew covered floor. Then to complete the purification, guests must wash their hands and mouths using clean water from a stone basin.
Once the purification rites are complete, the host greets each guest with a silent bow as they enter the tea ceremony site. Next, the host properly prepares the pouring utensils, taking great care to ensure they are immaculately clean and unblemished.
Finally, it’s time for the matcha. The host gracefully adds one to three scoops of matcha per guest into the group bowl, followed by a small amount of hot water. Using a traditional bamboo whisk, the host rapidly stirs the mixture to create a bright green paste. When the matcha powder paste reaches the right consistency, additional hot water is whisked into the mix to produce a thick, rich tea.
Each guest takes a drink from the bowl, one by one, ensuring to clean the bowl before passing it on. After everyone has sipped the tea, they are given a chance to inspect the utensils that were used. Once completed, the tea ceremony ends with a bow and the guests return to their lives.