The History Of Tea: Japanese Green Tea, British Afternoon Tea, And More

Japan has a long history of practicing the zen arts in the tea ceremony, and the British have kept their afternoon tea as a hallowed custom.

Since its discovery in ancient China, tea has beckoned people to pause in their day and take a moment to relax as they imbibe. Unlike coffee, which is usually consumed early and quickly in the morning, afternoon is the traditional time for enjoying tea.

The British have created a meal around the beverage--their tea-time typically includes sandwiches and cakes and can be as light or as hearty as one might wish. The American confusion about the term 'high tea' amuses the Brits no end--it's not 'high' as in fancy, but as in 'it's high time we ate something'. High tea, in Britain, at any rate, tends to be on the heavier side. American hotels and tearooms, on the other hand, continue to misunderstand and offer tidbits of fancy pastries and cakes on delicate china when they offer a "high tea".

Zen Buddhists have made the art of serving and drinking tea a meditative practice in Japan, and one that is becoming more popular in the US. The steps for guest and host are prescribed and strictly followed--this ritual allows for the activity to enhance a meditative state. The guest should remain always aware of the great honor of being served, and act accordingly. The host, for his or her part, remains aware of the honor being allowed to serve. The guest edges, in a seated position, into the tearoom. Once in the room, the guest walks carefully into the alcove where tea is to be served, and bows deeply. After gazing appreciatively at the surrounding (traditionally a scroll and flowers in a container), the guest bows again. The guest walks quietly and with dignity to the teakettle and takes a seat. After the host offers him a sweet, the guest responds "I will partake of the sweet," and apologizes to any other guest for going first. The container that holds the sweets is referred to as a kashiki. This container is lifted as a gesture of thanks by the guest who then takes the farthest sweet in the box, then the nearest sweet. These are placed on a piece of folded paper in front of the guest. He then passes the box on to the next guest, who repeats the performance. After the sweets are served, one may eat.

The host will then bring out the tea. The teabowl is presented and taken, with apologies to any guest that must wait for the first, and bows. The guest thanks the host while bowing and raises the teabowl with his right hand, resting it on his left. The guest bows his head to express thanks again before turning the teabowl around so that the front will not touch his mouth. The tea is then consumed in one draught, and the bowl wiped clean with right thumb and index finger. The guest then uses the folded paper to dry his hands, and turns the teabowl around so that the front again faces him before setting it down.

Americans are finding the idea of tea, whether from the British or Japanese standpoint, increasingly appealing. Tearooms are gaining in popularity, and many Buddhist centers and universities with Asian Studies departments offer classes in the Zen method of serving tea. Either method allows people a moment to appreciate the delicacy of the beverage, as well as the good fortune to be able to enjoy it.

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