Sencha do, the other Japanese tea ceremony

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June 18, 2018

Kaoru Nakai welcomes us into her family’s home. It’s more than 130 years old and cool in the summer.

“And also in winter,” she jokes. Nakai speaks Japanese but between my small knowledge of the language and the translations provided via the employees of the tea farm I’m staying at in Wazuka, we manage a comfortable level of translation.

We’ve come to Nakai’s home where she lives and teaches tea to take part in a rare sencha do tea ceremony. We’ll drink the sencha tea she grows, of course.

Nakai’s family is a tea farming family, through and through. Her son works for a larger tea company called Marukyu-Koyamaen in the neighbouring town of Uji. Their company started during the Genroku period, around 1688-1704.

Marukyu-Koyamaen buys tea from Nakai’s farms, and during May and June which is the busiest harvest season, her son comes home to help.

Their tea farm is one of the first certified organic tea farms in the area. They’ve been pesticide free for about 25 years. Marukyu-Koyamaen buys all their tea. They harvest one huge batch in the spring.

Japanese home garden
The front of Nakai’s house, full with potted plants. A vegetable garden lies around the corner.

Tea Ceremonies in Japan

Normally when we think of Japan’s tea ceremony, the one that most often comes to mind is ‘cha no yu,’ or the tea ceremony involving matcha.

Nakai sensei also does the cha no yu ceremony, but the sencha do she also practices is much harder to find.

She sits in front of us wearing her fukushitsu apron, and begins to explain as she pours the first round of tea.

Sencha(煎茶)is Japan’s most popular tea. About 80% of all tea produced in Japan is sencha. The ‘sen’ part comes from the verb ‘senjiru,’ which means ‘to simmer or brew’. This is because it was one of the first infused or brewed teas in Japan, as opposed to matcha, which was powdered and then whisked with water.

Sencha tea was first created in Japan around 1740, by priest Gekkai Genshō. In 1724, When he was in his mid-forties he left the temple he served at to instead wander the Kyoto region. He took up residence on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, and in his sixties made his living selling this new type of ‘sencha’ tea.

He’s often called Baisaō, or ‘old tea seller.’ And is credited with introducing sencha in the capital city of Kyoto and beyond.  The tea was inspired by loose leaf tea already happening in China, but created using local Japanese plants.

Apparently Baisaō was quite a character, carrying his teaware wherever he wished on long poles and bamboo wicker baskets, setting up shop all around the scenic areas of Kyoto, selling tea. He even wrote a book of verses about it.

From ‘Three Verses on a Tea-Selling Life’:

I

I am not Buddhist or Taoist

not a Confucianist either

I’m just a brownfaced whitehaired

Hard up old man.

People think I just prowl

the streets peddling tea,

I’ve got the whole universe

in this tea caddy of mine.

III

Seventy years of Zen

got me nowhere at all

shed my black robe

became a shaggy crank,

now I have no business

with sacred or profane

just simmer tea for folks

and hold starvation back.

He was definitely the kind of dude you’d want to have a beer with. Or, a tea.

sweet cold green tea powdered drinks in Japan
Before we got started we were welcomed with a round of powdered and sweetened cold green tea drinks.

History of Sencha Do

Shortly after our good friend Baisaō introduced sencha to Japan, the sencha do ceremony was created. ‘Sencha do’ is a kind of Japanese tea service, one where you interact with a host as you’re served tea in a ritualized fashion.

One of the unique things about senchado is that it’s very much an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student. Even in the Japanese language it’s hard to find any instructive manuals on how to perform it.

Nakai sensei started learning sencha do, “maybe 35 years ago,” she reflects.

Before that, in middle school, she studied the traditional matcha ceremony—cha no yu.

Sencha do is also much more casual than cha no yu. Guests are allowed to interact with the host and ask her questions, instead of sticking to the prescribed and formal dialogue in cha no yu.

There are different schools of sencha do. Kind of like how there are different schools of karate. The one she’s taught is associated with the Sennyū-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This temple is special because it was associated with the imperial house of Japan. Emperors are buried there.

This is also why today is such a special occasion. Normally she only performs this sencha do for royalty. Like when the crown Prince’s younger brother, Prince Akishino visits once a year. Even her apron, the fukushitsu, is worn by women who work for the emperor.

I’m drinking tea from hands that have served royalty. This is very cool and definitely not an everyday occurrence.

The style of sencha do ceremony she’s performing for us today is called ‘kakubon no hiratemae’ (standard ceremony with square tray), but there are many variations on the sencha do ceremony, with various shapes of trays and teaware.

She places a fan between us as a sign of politeness, denoting her respect for her guests, and that she places them above herself.

Unknowingly, I’ve chosen the seat of honour—the spot located to the host’s immediate left. This means I’m the first to be served. Guests seated to my left will look to me to know when to drink—when I start, that’s the cue they can drink too.

I pick up the small tea tray that’s been placed in front of me and use both hands to bring it closer. This is what your hands are supposed to do: With my right hand I place the small porcelain cup into my left hand. I then wrap the right hand around it to bring up to drink with my hands crossed in front.

I only know all of this because I was told to do it at the ceremony.

After we’ve steeped the tea twice, Nakai sensei turns to me, the unwitting guest of honour, and asks me whether the group would like to try a third infusion.

“Yes!” I say in poor, excited Japanese. “Let’s drink more!”

She laughs.

It turns out—her question was supposed to be my cue to politely refuse and end the ceremony.

Whoops. Just another gaijin over here. Nothing to see, folks.

Oh well. She gracefully forgives my foreigner’s folly and brews another round for us all anyway. Nakai sensei is very kind and patient. She’s been brewing tea for a long time.

This corner in Nakai sensei’s house is where she stores her various utensils for different types of tea ceremonies.

Sencha Do Ceremony Steps

The sencha do ceremony has a simple structure that goes like this:

  • Guests enter and are taken to a sitting room. They are often served a drink while sitting around and waiting for the actual ceremony to begin.
  • Guests enter the ceremony room and take their seats.
  • Host enters and prepares the first infusion. First infusion is served to the group.
  • A sweet is passed around, normally ‘higashi,’ a dry sweet made of sugar and flour.
  • Host prepares and serves the second infusion.
  • The host will ask if the guests would like any more.
  • The main guest will politely decline, and the ceremony is over.

Although the steps might seem straightforward, what’s not captured here are all the little intricacies and hand motions. The way Nakai sensei flips the top of the tea caddy exactly two times before putting it on. The way she uses exactly two fingers to hold the lid on the teapot as she pours. The way she folds the tea cloth the same way, every time.

Within this structure, there’s a lot of complex and refined motions happening. Always with a smile, and sometimes while talking as well. The tea ceremony is deceptively simple, with no wasted motions on the part of the host, and what seems to be a relaxed gesture of pouring tea is actually a small ballet of body parts rehearsing tiny motor motions they’ve carried out hundreds if not thousands of times before.

At the beginning of the sencha do a stick of light incense is lit. When the stick of incense finishes, the sencha do should be over as well.

When using bancha, the host only creates one infusion. Bancha is a lower grade tea, and therefore doesn’t do multiple steeps as nicely as a high grade sencha.

When pouring tea, the last drops from the pot are thought of as the ‘golden drops.’ They’re the most delicious, and normally a few will be poured into each cup to share the flavour.

In sencha do, the golden drops actually go to the host, not the guests! The host will also drink a cup for his or herself before serving the guests. Sometimes an assistant will be the ones to bring the cups around instead of the host.

Nakai sensei actually changed things up a bit by offering us a wagashi instead of higashi. Wagashi are wetter, fancier, sweeter. She said we might think higashi are boring! So she didn’t want to bore us. I’m sure we would have enjoyed the higashi, but the thought was sweet.

iris flower wagashi
Our wagashi are in the shape of iris flowers, as they’re in season. Wagashi are often created to represent whatever flowers are in bloom.

Want to know more about Japanese tea?

Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this look inside the Japanese sencha do ceremony. I’m currently living on a tea farm in Wazuka, Japan, and have more blog posts about life here on the way!

I’d love to hear from you and what you’d be interested in learning or seeing from life here. So far I’m planning to give you a tour inside a Japanese tea factory, and also show you what life is like in a rural Japanese tea farming town.

What else would you like to see? Leave a comment below and let me know!

VIEW & ADD COMMENTS +

This is such a fascinating blog post!!!! All the information is new to me and I enjoyed learning about it. Since you are in Japan, could you comment on the Japanese teacup style called yunomi? I will soon be going to an event where we will drink from yunomi. Thank you!

Hi Lynn! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. ???? Yes! I can definitely talk about yunomi. Yunomi (湯のみ) are tall, ceramic Japanese tea cups without handles, often used for drinking tea in casual, everyday situations. I often see them at Japanese restaurants in the west, for example where they’ll serve genmaicha (brown rice tea) with sushi. The characters that make up yunomi are ‘yu’ or ‘hot water’ (湯) and nomi (のみ) which means ‘to drink.’ Literally, vessels for drinking hot water! Often yunomi can be bought in ‘meoto’ (夫婦) or ‘couple’ sets, where there’s a matching design, with a ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ cup. They’re popular souvenirs!

Ahh I’m already brimming with excitement for when we go to Japan together so I can see something like this first hand! Thank you for sharing your experiences and taking us on this adventure with you! I love the mini history lesson and the photos arranged to show us how the ceremony was preformed.

Can’t wait for the next post!

Yes! Thanks Crystal. ???? I’m glad you liked it. I’m trying to find more unique Japanese tea information like this to share. Girl, if you come to Japan with me you will drink SO MUCH TEA. ????

I’ve been following your Instagram and finally popped by to read one of your japan posts and so glad I did! Sounds like a lovely ceremony! I’m wondering how much japenese one has to know to volunteer/work at the tea farm and to have a decent time in the area! (Even at Naeita airport people who work there barely speak English and I barely speak Japanese!)

Hi Pylin! ????Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! Good question about the level of Japanese required. I think a lot of people wonder about this. My situation is that I speak and read basic Japanese. Enough to get around town, ask directions, and express basically a child’s level of communication. I find having at least some Japanese super useful to help make things easier, sometimes.

That being said! I wouldn’t rule out either volunteering or working on a tea farm if you speak barely any Japanese, or none at all. I think the most important thing is being open to learning. For example, there are some interns here on the tea farm where I’m working now that speak no Japanese, but are picking up some words as they go and are patient and have a good sense of humour when communications problems arise.

You can definitely have a lot of fun speaking no Japanese at all! In terms of getting around, a lot of places (Wazuka included!) have guides available in English online, so you can at least somewhat find your way around the area. Google Maps is also key. ???????? If you’re thinking about coming to the area, I would say go for it! The lovely thing about Japan is that it’s such a safe place to get lost in. Also I recommend getting Google Translate on your phone and downloading the Japanese dictionary for offline use. That way, even if you get super lost, you can always find your closest Japanese person and type in a sentence to ask for help!

Thank you!!!

These are awesome tips thank you! This also sounds like a post idea on “basic Japanese to get around town + tea-related terminologies” (like delicious, cup, hot, cold, etc.) lol 😉

Thanks Pylin! That’s a great idea for a post. I’ll have to put together something like that while I’m here. ☺️

[…] Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this look inside a Japanese tea factory. Did I make you thirsty for Japanese sencha? If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy reading about sencha do, one of Japan’s hidden tea ceremonies. […]

Mel you are wonderful, I am glad we met in Wazuka town. And Nakai sensei is the loveliest person I have ever met. ❤️

She really is the best! So glad you got to experience the sencha do ceremony and Nakai sensei during your time here.

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