Tea ceremony, tea gathering, the way of tea, cha-no-yu, chado, sado…no matter what you call it, this elegant, centuries-old practice is often said to be the key to understanding the Japanese spirit of omotenashi—the mindful hospitality that remains a hallmark of Japanese culture to this day. In this special two-part edition of Japanology Plus, we look at how the tea ceremony is performed, its complex set of rules, and its ties to modern Japanese life, in which it serves as the wellspring of omotenashi.
A tea ceremony, very simply put, is a gathering in which a host prepares tea for a guest or guests. But with its myriad rules, customs and steps (a full-fledged version can take hours), the overall experience is as important as the tea itself.
Most people in Japan will associate the Way of Tea with tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). While Rikyu did not invent the tea ceremony, he is credited with establishing many of the most important principles of the ceremony that live on to this day, such as an appreciation of silence and aesthetic simplicity.
Near the end of his life, Rikyu served as the personal tea master for Oda Nobunaga and, later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of the three leaders famed for uniting Japan. Rikyu was especially close to Hideyoshi, becoming a close confidant. This did not end well for Rikyu, however; for reasons not entirely clear, he was eventually ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by the great unifier. The tea master’s influence on Japanese aesthetics and hospitality, however, lives on over 400 years after his death.
Two of the Japanese words for tea ceremony are “chado” and “sado”—and that “do” (pronounced like “dough”) shows a clear relationship between the tea ceremony and other parts of traditional Japanese culture. The character for “do” literally means “way,” and it’s the same one used in martial arts like judo, aikido, and kendo. The connection between swordsmanship and tea, for example, might not be immediately obvious, but each of these “ways” involves both pre-determined forms learned through endless repetition and a mindful hospitality between teacher and student, or guest and host.
This mindful hospitality, or omotenashi, perfected in the way of tea, has extended far beyond the ceremony and become an essential part of Japanese culture. As we see in multiple modern-day examples in part two of the program, omotenashi is the foundation of Japanese customer service. Omotenashi-style service is a fixture of industries from travel to lodging to retail—and, much like the tea ceremony, is less a one-way street than a mutual understanding between the customer and service provider.
One intriguing consequence of Japan’s high-grade hospitality: Japanese consumers have become some of the world’s most discerning. According to a 2017 survey, over half of Japanese consumers “take their business elsewhere after one bad service experience”—that’s compared to just a third in countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
The word omotenashi itself was thrust into worldwide consciousness during Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, when it was used to successfully convince the International Olympic Committee to choose the city to host the games. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the games, travel to Japan is on the rise. As of 2016, Japan has had four years of record-setting international visitors, and one 2016 survey revealed over 93% of visitors were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their trip—a result thanks in part, no doubt, to omotenashi. At the same time, the influx represents an interesting challenge: if, indeed, omotenashi requires a mutual give-and-take between host and guest, can it be adapted to include visitors who may not be familiar with Japan’s version of hospitality?
Then again, if the ideals of Sen no Rikyu have survived over four centuries, it seems fair to assume they’re going to be around for a while yet.