The Soul of a Kyoto Tea Ceremony

Japanese tea ceremony is an immersive cultural experience (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Japanese tea ceremony is an immersive cultural experience (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

Japanese Tea Ceremony is More Than Just the Tea in Your Cup

By Teh Chin Liang
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, always draws visitors for a sensory awakening.

The sun-dappled grove and the serenity of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, the historic UNESCO Nijo Castle that exemplifies shogunal power with its fortifications, the lively Nishiki Market where the brininess of seafood blends with the aroma of local delicacies.

Miss Atsuko Mori, the founder of Camellia Tea Ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Miss Atsuko Mori, the founder of Camellia Tea Ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

A charming machiya, one of Kyoto’s traditional townhouses, hides in Ninenzaka’s neighborhood.

Inside, the tea room air hums with the sounds of soft footsteps brushing against tatami mats, the rhythmic swish-swish of a bamboo whisk against a ceramic bowl, the gentle hiss of a boiling kettle, and the therapeutic clinking of tea bowls.

You are in the right place to find solace in Japanese tea tradition – Camellia Tea House.

At Camellia Tea House, anyone can try the tea ceremony, even without the knowledge of tea culture, as the owner of Camellia, Atsuko Mori, says.

Leave the world behind

The Japanese tea ceremony is all about staying in the present. As you settle in, cluttered thoughts fade, and you start immersing in the ritual.

“In the tea room, talks of politics, religion, and other similar subjects are discouraged, and each guest is treated as an equal,” Atsuko says.

Camellia Tea House

Atsuko founded Camellia Tea House 10 years ago, combining her passion for tea with her experience in hospitality.

“I learned tea ceremony from my mother at a young age,” Atsuko recounts, “but never considered it a career. Only after finding inspiration from my English teaching and airline career, I realized I could turn my hobby into a profession to share the traditional tea ceremony with foreign visitors.”

She started a small tea house in Ninenzaka, at the exact location of what is now a Starbucks (described by many as the most beautiful Starbucks in Japan). Later, she moved ‘Flower Teahouse’ to its current location a few doors down.

In 2016, at the suggestion of the city government, she took over an old property across from Ryoan-ji to preserve it and promote traditional culture.

Camellia now has two locations: one at Ninenzaka (close to Gion) and the other opposite Ryoan-ji temple.

Camellia Tea House is picturesque covered in snow (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Camellia Tea House is picturesque and covered in snow (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

16th-century Tea Tradition

Sen-no-Rikyu is believed to have created the tea ceremony we recognize today. His descendants further codified and shaped the ceremony into its current form.

“Matcha originally came to Japan to keep monks awake during long services. It then evolved into a ritual that became important to the court and the warrior class,” Atsuko explains.

“Tea ceremony wasn’t just a hobby. It was a symbol of sophistication. The ruling classes sponsored tea instructors and collected tea utensils themselves. Slowly, it spread to the general public.”

For centuries, men predominantly practiced tea ceremonies. Nowadays, more women than men are learning the art of the tea ceremony.

Tea ceremony’s essence

The tea ceremony begins with the host cleaning and arranging utensils—the tea bowl (chawan), whisk (chasen), and scoop (chashaku). Hot water is poured into the matcha, whisked until frothy, then served to guests with precision, often alongside traditional sweets.

“It is better experienced than explained,” Atsuko says.

Brewing matcha is more than just combining hot water and matcha. Specific movements and symbolic gestures, each imbued with delicate nuances, turn the process into a ritual.

“Tea ceremony is more than just matcha. It incorporates different elements and disciplines such as lower arrangement, sweets, meal preparation, calligraphy, and pottery,” Atsuko explains.

Tea gatherings often have a theme, either appreciating the season or celebrating a traditional festival or special event.

For those short on time for a full tea gathering, Atsuko recommends a shorter tea ceremony experience that provides visitors with an equally complete and authentic experience. They also cater to formal and private gatherings by request.

Utensils and sweets are set up prior to the ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Utensils and sweets are set up before  the ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

Uji: Home of matcha in Japan

Uji is a historic city in the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan and the undisputed heart of Japan’s matcha production. At Camellia, only the finest Uji matcha is used in the tea ceremonies.

Unlike most teas, matcha is made by grinding the entire tea leaf into a powder. This means you consume the whole leaf, not just an infusion, which is why many believe it has health benefits.

“Matcha is believed to have medicinal properties,” Atsuko explains. “It has a very strong flavor, but good matcha shouldn’t be overly bitter. Instead, it should have a smooth and delicate side. Many guests are surprised by the nuanced taste of fresh matcha, a unique combination of boldness and unexpected smoothness.”

The tea room reflects the world outside

The matcha, sweets, and flowers should all be fresh. Utensils and scrolls change with the season.

“The tea room mirrors the world beyond its walls. Even if you don’t know the season of the year, the room itself gives it away through subtle cues that hint at the current season,” Atsuko says.

Specially designed sweets, utensils, and furnishings are used in the tea ceremony, and many remain unique to it today.

A young guest dresses as a maiko for her tea ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
A young guest dresses as a maiko for her tea ceremony (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

It isn’t just for Geisha and Maiko

Over the past decade, there has been a growing public understanding of the tea ceremony. Central to the tea ceremony, matcha has gradually gained acceptance and become a unique and popular drink worldwide, even for those unfamiliar with the tea ceremony.

Many assume that the tea ceremony is strictly performed by Geisha and Maiko. But in reality, it is open to anyone to participate in and host.

Transcend into a state of  Zen

For tea instructors, the most rewarding moment is seeing guests moved by the experience.

“It’s really rewarding to see how the tea ceremony intrigues the guest from the beginning to the end,” Atsuko says when asked about her motivation in this profession. “The feeling is priceless!”

Performing the tea ceremony puts many instructors in a meditative state. The movements become so memorized that their minds empty, and a sense of calm washes over them.

“I often find myself lost in the tea ceremony. It’s like I disappear into another realm for a bit and then reappear when it’s time to serve tea to the guests,” Atsuko describes.

Sweets are served before drinking matcha (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Sweets are served before drinking matcha (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

Kyoto is the heart of Japanese tea culture

The tea ceremony was refined in Kyoto, and the three main schools of tea ceremony developed here.  The history of both the tea ceremony and matcha is deeply woven into Kyoto’s fabric.

Many businesses in various sectors, including tea producers, confectioners, potters, artists, and architects, continue to support and benefit from the tea ceremony.

“Even in my modern house, we have a traditional space with an alcove that allows me to practice tea ceremony at home,” Atsuko says.

While Kyoto remains the heart of tea culture in Japan,” Atsuko clarifies, “it doesn’t mean tea ceremonies outside Kyoto are any less authentic. There should be no snobbery about the location. It’s simply that tea ceremonies are more accessible and evident in Kyoto.”

Authenticity isn’t a concern

Kyoto is a feast for the senses (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
Kyoto is a feast for the senses (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

Tea ceremony shares a fundamental core across different schools, with only minor variations in aspects such as movements and utensils.

“At Camellia, all our instructors hail from one of the three major Kyoto tea ceremony schools. It’s interesting to see how their styles differ, and none of them claims their school to be more authentic than the others.”

“I don’t see any tea gathering as more authentic than another,” Atsuko points out. “To worry about the authenticity of a tea ceremony is to miss the point of the tea ceremony completely.”

A special occasion for guests

There has been an increase in the use of the tea ceremony for marriage proposals. Though initially appearing odd or inappropriate, over time, Atsuko came to understand its significance.

“Why not pop the question during the tea ceremony? It’s such a special occasion for them, maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” Atsuko says in amusement.

“The tea room is designed to feel intimate and special, so I’m not surprised many people have been inspired to propose here,” Atsuko continues.

Tea ceremony is an immersive art that transcends Zen (Photo by Camellia Tea House)
The Tea ceremony is an immersive art that transcends Zen (Photo by Camellia Tea House)

Tea ceremony offers calm in our chaotic world

“It’s about taking a quiet moment for yourself, at its heart, it’s about mindfulness,” Atsuko explains. “Tea ceremony teaches us to respect each other, to treat one another as equals, regardless of our differences.”

Camellia Tea House
Photo by Camellia Tea House
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