Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. — Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906.
The Japanese tea ceremony is well established in the United States, although practitioners may be difficult to find outside of urban areas. In Japan the schools of tea are commonly headed by men. But in the United States it has often been women who study the tradition in Japan and then found schools in the United States. An example is Mine Somi Kubose (also spelled Minnie Kubose), who studied at the Urasenke School of Chado (tea) in Kyoto, then created a tea room in her home in Chicago and taught many students there. She was interviewed by folklorist Chungmoo Choi as part of the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project conducted by the American Folklife Center in 1977, a collection available online.
For many Japanese, the tea ceremony is considered an essential part of Japanese culture. It is also thought to promote good health, a cultural idea that is being supported in modern research on the properties of green tea. Young people are encouraged to learn the etiquette of tea along with other arts as part of a formal education. Mrs. Kubose, who was born in the United States, explains that she was introduced to the tea ceremony at the age of ten, and studied in Japan from 1937 to 1941 when she had to leave because of the war, but returned to study again in the 1960s because she wanted to become a teacher. For her, teaching the tea ceremony is part of her spiritual life. She and her husband, Rev. Gyomay M. Kubose, established the Buddhist Temple of Chicago in 1944. (Go to the interview, part one. This recording is distorted at the end.) 
Tea and traditional ways of drinking it are thought to have been brought to Japan with Zen monks from China in about the ninth century. Over time, the Japanese tea ceremony became uniquely Japanese. The tea master Sen no Rikyu is responsible for formalizing the elements and practices of the tea ceremony in the 16th century, a tradition that was passed down through teachers schools of tea maintained through his descendants. Some changes over the generations arose as three main schools of tea descended from Rikyu, and others that arose from schools of tea founded by students of these schools.
Mrs. Kubose describes the sequence of a typical tea at about 14 minutes on part 2. The ceremony is carefully scripted from beginning to end. The tea ceremony begins with a light meal. Mrs. Kubose discusses her food preferences at length at about 8 minutes on the concluding segment of the interview. There are several styles of meals served as part of the tea ceremony. She likes to include fish to represent the ocean, and another food, such as chestnuts, to represent the mountain. Cooked vegetables of the season are always included. (Rev. Gyomay Kubose speaks briefly about the philosophy of tea at the end of part 2 and the beginning of the conclusion.)
The guests traditionally then go out into the garden while the host or hostess prepares the room for tea. The garden surrounding a traditional tea house often reflects the Shinto appreciation of the natural world. Although the plantings are carefully chosen and arranged, the ideal is for it to look as if it grew that way naturally.
A gong brings the participants back to the tea room. At this and other appropriate moments during the ceremony, guests have an opportunity to admire the flower arrangement, calligraphy or picture displayed, and the items used for serving tea. Closely viewing the items in the ceremony is understood as part of the meditation experienced during the event. Sweet rice treats or other sweets are offered while guests wait for the tea to be prepared. The tea is not steeped as is familiar in the United States. A powder of specially selected and grown tea leaves is made by first steaming the leaves to stop oxidation. The dried green leaves are then ground to a fine powder called matcha. The tea is prepared with water boiled and then cooled a bit to reduce the chance of a bitter brew. The first tea made is thick, with enough tea powder to make a thin paste. The guests are offered this in a traditional tea bowl, each taking a sip, turning the bowl, and offering it to the next guest. This thick tea is very potent, so each guest takes only a small amount. Then the host or hostess makes what is called the “thin tea” with less matcha and whips this with a bamboo whisk to give it a froth on the top. In this case a bowl is prepared for each guest one at a time so that each bowl is hot with a fresh frothy top. Tea prepared in this way has more caffeine than tea prepared by steeping, and it is thought that tea made with ground leaves originated with Buddhist monks who drank it to stay awake through long sessions of meditation.
Although strongly influenced by Zen philosophy and both Zen and Shinto aesthetics, the tea ceremony is practiced by people of many backgrounds and beliefs. In an effort to preserve the elements of the tradition as closely as possible, the ceremony seems like a step back in time, with participants wearing traditional kimonos and the tea prepared in a simple manner (Mrs. Kobuse admits to using an electric plate instead of a charcoal brazier as is customary, because she cannot find the right kind of charcoal). But the goal is not so much to go back in time as to suspend time, as is commonly true in rituals. The practice of tea is intended to remove people from the struggles of everyday life to enjoy a meditative meal and tea in aesthetic surroundings. The tea itself is meant to raise the level of awareness to help participants focus on the beauty of the few objects chosen to decorate the room: the implements used to make and serve tea, a flower, an example of calligraphy, and perhaps a painting. The experience of sharing tea with friends is meant to foster the four principles: Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jaku that is, harmony, respect (and gratitude), purity and tranquillity. Mrs. Kubose helps to expand on these ideas at the beginning part 2 of the interview. She tells Chungmoo Choi that it is often difficult to help students think beyond the steps of preparing tea and reach the point where what they learn about the philosophy of tea extends beyond the tea room. Then she explains her view of the goal:
So, it has to become part of your life, your whole life has to become the spirit of tea. And I feel that if we can reach that aim I will feel that I will be satisfied. And, of course, I also am aiming to this state of mind, you know. It is constant striving, you know, constant striving, you never reach a state where you say ‘This is it!’ you know. It is constant striving to the end of your days. To me tea and religion is not separate.
While tea is being served and enjoyed, the participants do not speak in order to focus on this spiritual aspect of the experience. Afterwards there is a time for talking about the implements used to prepare and serve the tea and ask about their history as well as expressing gratitude to the hostess or host.
Mrs. Kubose passed away in 2002. The tradition of teaching the way of tea is carried on by her daughter, Joyce.
- Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea, 1902. Written in English for a Western audience, this essay is available in several places on the internet. Select this link to read it via the Sacred Text Archive.
- Another important American woman who helped foster the Tea Ceremony in the United States was Sosei Shizuye Matsumoto, who studied in the Urasenke School in Kyoto and taught the way of tea to students in the United States. In 1994 she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts for her work. More information is available at the link.
- As this article was being written, I noticed that the recordings of the interview with Mrs. Kubose in the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection are broken into five segments, but only three of these are unique recordings. Segments 3 and 4 are duplicates, but the interview segments now listed as 1, 2, and 5 seem to be the complete interview in the correct sequence. So seems likely that the duplicates were included and numbered by mistake and that “part 5” is actually part 3. More information will be added here when there are updates. The first segment is 18 minutes, the second 31 minutes, and the third (part 5) is 16 minutes.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.
Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection, Library of Congress.
Woodblock Prints related to tea in Japan. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. See for example: “Yayoi asukayama hanami,” by Kitao, Shigemasa (1739-1820), women having tea under the cherry blossoms, and “Wakamizu no fukucha,” (the first tea of the year) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).