A Guide To Traditional Tea Houses In Japan

Rituals, dos and don'ts—plus the best tea houses in Tokyo and Kyoto.

By Katie Lockhart

9 January 2020

A Guide To Traditional Tea Houses In Japan

Whether its green tea, genmaicha, or matcha, Japan takes its tea seriously. For many, it’s more than just a drink; it has major cultural significance. If you’re in the Land of the Rising Sun and your Journy trip designer has secured a reservation for you at a traditional tea house (or ochaya), here's everything you need to know before you go.

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What Is A Tea House?

In Japan, a traditional tea room is called a chashitsu. Here, a sacred ritual dating back to the 9th century takes place. Japanese tea ceremony masters prepare and serve tea in accordance with a strict protocol learned at a tea-school. This practice is also referred to as The Way of the Tea.

The style of a tea room is known as sukiya. They are typically made of wood and covered with tatami mats where guests sit during the ceremony. There is also a nook in the room called a Tokonoma, the most important area, where there is a vase of flowers, and a calligraphy scroll is hung.

Today, these chashitsu’s are often reserved for tourists to visit, students at a tea school, or devout monks inside temples. Modern-day tea rooms are often trendy cafes or small coffee shops serving serious cups of matcha or lattes with cute animal designs made of foam.

When Did It Start?

The practice started hundreds of years ago with a Buddhist monk named Eichu. After a trip to China, he prepared tea for the emperor Saga during his visit to Karasaki in 815. Tea was already commonly drunk in China for a thousand years, mostly for medicinal reasons.

During the 12th century, another monk brought back matcha from a trip to China, as well as a new technique to make it. From then on, tea ceremonies became common for monks throughout Japan.

When samurais and warriors ruled Japan 100 years later, tea became a symbol of power. One of the countries leading experts in the 16th century was Sen no Rikyu. He wrote a book about tea and the principles his master taught him during a ceremony: respect, purity, harmony, and tranquility. Three main schools of tea were founded after his death, including the Urasenke School, the Omotesenke School, and the Mushakojisenke School.

These traditions and traditional practices carry on in Japan today with both a formal ceremony and an informal ceremony, varying in protocol and length. They are a beloved part of the culture, something Japan values greatly.

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Tea House Rituals

Tourists are not expected to know the nuances and details involved in a traditional tea ceremony and broader tea culture, so many masters will explain them throughout the ceremony. Some key ones that carry throughout Japanese culture include taking off your shoes before entering a tea house and washing your hands before the ceremony begins. This is in line with the purification aspect of tea ceremonies and the Shinto religion.

During a tea ceremony, sit in a position called seiza. This involves putting the top of your feet flat on the floor while sitting back on the soles of your feet. You’ll surely want to take photographs during your experience, but ask the tea master before you start to avoid any offense.

READ MORE: A Guide To Bowing In Japan: When & How To Bow, Plus Common Mistakes To Avoid

Tea House Architecture

The country’s oldest tea houses were built by monks, samurai, and wealthy merchants with Zen philosophy influences. They were designed to be simple and one with nature using natural materials like wood. Some tea houses also have Zen Japanese gardens in front of them.

When guests enter an ancient teahouse, they must crawl in through a small wooden door, making everyone at the ceremony equal regardless of wealth or title. This also means that samurai had to keep their swords outside, to be the same rank as everyone else.

Today, there are more modern and creative takes on Japanese tea houses, including the Umbrella Tea House, made with fabric from a piece of bamboo that looks like a tent. There is also a famous Glass Tea House in the Shoren-in Temple, which is entirely see-through.

Traditional Japanese tea ceremony | @ti

Best Tea Houses in Kyoto

Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan. It’s here you find those quaint wooden houses lining the uneven streets and the most geishas of anywhere else in the country—in addition to some of the best traditional Japanese tea houses and tea shops.

Camellia Tea Ceremony is one of the best-rated tea ceremonies in the city. Here tourists can do a private ceremony or a group ceremony in English. The tea master will walk through each of the steps; then, each person will have a chance to whisk matcha to foamy perfection in a tradition known as chanoyu.

Tea Ceremony Room Ju-an is an exceptionally beautiful tea house inside the Jotoku-ji Temple. The traditional ceremony is led by a licensed tea master from the Omotesenke school who is passionate about the craft and teaching visitors the steps and history involved.

Although not a traditional ceremony, one of the best places to try matcha is at a tea house within temple grounds. Sanzen-in and Hosen-in are two temples with receptions halls set against lush green garden and peaceful koi ponds. Upon entrance, you pay a $6 to $8 fee, which includes a cup of tea and a Japanese sweet.

READ MORE: The 7 Best Temples And Shrines In Kyoto

Match whisk | @arienneorpa

Best Tea Houses in Tokyo

In the bustling capital, unwind with a cup of tea at Happo-En, inside of a peaceful garden with a 500-year-old bonsai tree. There are six different floors with different tea and function rooms. You can also just stop by for sweets and a cup of matcha.

At Jidaiya, they offer guests a variety of experiences. You can either make your own tea with instructions from your tea master or watch your tea master make it as she explains the history and techniques. If you want to add an extra layer of tradition, you can also opt for the tea ceremony while wearing a traditional kimono.

On the second floor of a 1940s Japanese-style home, visitors can participate in a Chado Workshop, or a tea ceremony at Shizu-Kokoro. Here guests will sip on cherry blossom tea while watching a brief introductory video, followed by a 20-minute tea ceremony performed by the instructor and a 45-minute hands-on lesson where you will make the matcha tea and learn how to properly serve it to guests.

Tea gatherings and ceremony experiences are in high demand in Japan, so it's crucial to reserve a spot in advance and arrive early, as punctuality is another aspect of the country’s iconic tea ceremony tradition.

For more ideas on what to do in Tokyo, bookmark our our ultimate list. And if you're not sure how to start planning, these 15 essential travel tips will guide you the entire way.

Traditional Japanese tea ceremony | @storyofisabelle