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Recent Blog Post: Nara, Japan

Customs and Traditions

Tea Ceremonies

One of the most familiar elements of Japanese culture is the tea ceremony. Known around the world as a part of Japanese tradition, the tea ceremony involves intricate preparation, presentation and a keen remembrance of Japanese history. The tea ceremony begins with powdered green tea (also known as chado or chanoyu, in Japanese). Zen Buddhism gave root to the practice of the tea ceremony. There are also two types of tea ceremonies, one that is casual and simplistic involving the service of tea as a gesture of hospitality, and the other that is more formal usually served with a full-course meal.

Tea was most likely brought to Japan originally by a Buddhist monk by the name of Eichu, in the 9th century, who had returned from China. Once the tea was brought over, and served to the current emperor, the emperor ordered the cultivation of tea plantations in the Kinki region of Japan.

Tea had been around for more than a thousand years in China, both for consumption and for medicinal uses. The influence of Zen Buddha in that country had proliferated the status of tea. But around the end of the 12th century in Japan, the method of preparing tea called “tencha” (in which the powdered tea is placed in a bowl, hot water is poured into the bowl and the tea and hot water whipped together) was introduced by another Japanese monk, returning from China. This monk, Eisai, also brought back with him tea seeds. These tea seeds were known to produce the highest quality of tea in all of Japan. Buddhists monasteries were the first to use the powdered green tea in their religious ceremonies. During the 13th century, when the Kamakura Shogunate ruled in Japan, and the samurai warrior class ruled, tea became a symbol of status among the warriors.

Three centuries later, tea was known in all levels of society in Japan. The main components of the tea ceremony involve incorporation of the principles of harmony, respect, tranquility and purity. These are principles that are still imperative to the tea ceremony today.

When Western missionaries, Jesuits, arrived from Europe, they quickly noticed and acquired an admiration for the tea practices of the Japanese. However, the Japanese ruler Tokygawa Ieyasu forced Westerners (and the Jesuits) out of Japan out of fear that they would commence attacks. Once forced out, it was almost 300 years before Westerners were allowed back into Japan, and it took approximately an additional 100 years before Westerners would exhibit an interest in tea practices again.

Over the centuries, the venue for the tea ceremony has changed, and now almost anywhere is considered appropriate for a tea ceremony. Tea rooms designed precisely for the purpose of serving the tea “wabi” style (meaning refined taste) are usually small with small floor mats. Rooms larger than 4.5 mats may be used for tea ceremony, or for larger numbers of guests. However, these rooms are often used for other multi-purposes uses, not exclusively the tea ceremony.

The tea ceremony also utilizes the changes of season in their celebration. The tea ceremony recognizes two main seasons: the sunken hearth season, which consists of the colder months and the brazier season, which refers to the warmer months. During each season, there are variations in the utensils used, the “temae” performed (the tea making ceremony), and other equipment used. The way that the floor mats are used and arranged also varies depending upon the season.

There are also two different ways of preparing the tea leaves for the tea ceremony. The two ways are thin and thick. The highest quality tea leaves are used in preparing the thick tea. Thin tea and thick tea are also served in different ways. Thin tea is served to each guest in an individual bowl. Thick tea is served in one bowl, passed and shared among guests.

Marriage Customs

Ancient Japanese legend holds that all creation began with the union of a male and female god. The legend claims that the two gods were joined in marriage and walked over a rainbow bridge from the clouds, creating the island of Japan, the sun, the moon and the stars.

Traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies are held at Shinto shrines. Some couples choose a more modern approach, and a marriage ceremony that is held in a reception hall, or a small chapel. In either case, the marriage is the result of one of two unions: a love marriage, or an arranged marriage. While the arranged marriage idea has been around for centuries, it still has a place among traditional Japanese families who incorporate the arranged part of a marriage with the ‘love’ marriage. Couples today indicate that they may have had a degree of arrangement in finding their mate, but that they also found a ‘love match.’

Prior to the 20th century, when many couples entered into the arranged marriages, the formal interview for a man to get to know a woman was called the “mi-ai,’ and was arranged by the couples’ parents or other third-party. Once the families agreed upon the marriage, the families would meet and have a formal dinner and traditional Japanese gifts were exchanged. Some of the gifts represented virtue, fertility, happiness or good fortune. The go-betweens (or third party involved in the arrangement of the marriage) also are invited to share in a celebratory drink, exchanged with the brides’ parents.

In a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony, the bride wears an all-white kimono or dress. This dates back as far as the Edo period, and the traditions of the brides of the samurai. White, in the case of the marriage ceremony, symbolizes both a beginning and an end. The bride is no longer a member of her father’s family, and so there is a ‘death’ to that family but a beginning of a new family. The bride also usually wears her hair up, in a bun, and it is secured with combs. A white veil, cloth or hood covers the brides head, and the bride’s face is ‘painted’ white. The bride, after the ceremony is complete, changes her outfit at least once into various colored robes that signify her youth and status.

The groom usually wears a black kimono, with his family crest in five separate places on the robe. Many families keep their wedding kimonos from generation to generation, so it is not uncommon to see a groom wearing the same kimono that his father and grandfather wore. Rental of these types of kimonos can cost up to $1,600.

During the ceremony, the bride and grooms’ families sit facing each other, rather than facing the bride and groom. One of the usual highlights of the traditional ceremony, is the drinking of nine cups of sake. This is done to signify the bond between the bride and groom, but also the bond between the families. During the wedding reception, the wedding party and their guests participate in several types of games, skits and karaoke. It is an expectation of any guest that they will contribute “goshugi” (money), in an adorned envelope, to the bride and groom.

A traditional marriage in Japan must be registered with the government at a municipal office. Any type of religious ceremony will not be recognized unless the couple registers with the Japanese government. Interestingly enough, Japan has just one quarter of the amount of divorces that the United States has. Just 3 percent of the Japanese people are unmarried, but the age at which people are marrying is rising to the mid-thirties for men, and late twenties for women.