Urasenke Tea Ceremony

December 1, 2019

By Sakina Nishitsuji & Yunji Choi

Green tea and matcha (powdered green tea) are both very popular among Japanese things in the world right now. Also, tea ceremony is growing in popularity among young people in Japan. One of the most famous tea ceremony schools in Japan is Urasenke.

What is Tea Ceremony?

Tea ceremony is one of the most popular aspects of traditional Japanese culture. Traditional tea ceremony is called sado in Japan. In sado, the tea master invites guests and serves matcha in a ceremonial way. The ceremony is full of meaning and tradition. It can have a calming and contemplative effect on people who experience it.

Japanese tea ceremony room

History of Tea Ceremony

Tea came into Japan during the Heian period (805). A Heian period monk, named Saicho, and an early Heian period monk, named Kukai, went to China. When they came back to Japan, they brought Tang period tea which they just thought of as a medicine. Later in the Kamakura period (1141∼1215), the priest Eisai, who brought the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism to Japan, also brought back a Chinese tea, which he thought was also medicine. That’s why Eisai wrote a book called Kissa-yojoki. It is a Chinese classics book which is written about the different kinds of methods for making powdered green tea, and tea drinking for promoting health.

In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when Yoshimitsu Ashikaga built Kinkaku temple and Yoshimasa built Ginkaku temple, a tea meeting place was made for art lovers. The art came from China, but there was little respect for spirituality. Murata Shuko (1422-1501), who appeared in the era of eight Shogun, made a four-and-a-half tatami mat room for tea ceremony that uses not only Chinese utensils, but also Japanese-made tea utensils. He came up with a spiritual tea world that disciplined against selfishness and self-attachment. An expert in the tea ceremony, Takeno Joo (1502-1555) inherited this spirit, and Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), a famous tea master during the Azuchi-momoyama period (1568-1600), invented wabicha, which is a style of Japanese tea ceremony that became the origin of modern tea ceremony. He also built Soancha no Yu, which is Sen no Rikyu’s tea room.

The Three Schools of Tea Ceremony

There are three schools of tea ceremony in Japan. Generally, Urasenke is the most famous schools of the three. Most people who study tea ceremony learn Urasenke. Of the three stules, Urasenke is the most casual style. That’s why people find it easier to learn.

The name san-Senke refers to the Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakojisenke schools of the tea ceremony. Omotesenke is the head family. Actually Omotesenke and Urasenke share almost same the basic actions, but there are some minor differences. In the tea ceremony, a fukusa (or cloth) is used for cleaning up tools. Omotesenke uses a vermilion-colored fukusa, but Omotesenke uses a red one. Also, the way to make tea is different. Tea made by the Urasenke school has finer bubbles, almost like a cappuccino. On the other hand, the tea in the Omotesenke style has a stronger taste. People can directly experience the taste of matcha.

Mushakojisenke is the most unfamiliar style of the three. This was started by Soushu, who is a son of Sen no Rikyu, on Mushakoji street in Kyoto. Mushakojisenke set up a branch family from Omotesenke. The way to make tea is similar to Omotesenke. There are no bubbles in the tea. They also use a vermilion-colored fukusa, as in the Omotesenke tradition. Other differences include how to prepare the tea and actions taken during the tea ceremony.



Otemae お点前

The act of making tea is called otemae.

There are two kinds of tea in tea ceremony: koicha and usucha. Koicha is a strong tea. If you drink koicha for the first time, you will experience a very bitter taste. Koicha is also called okoicha. Koicha is uses a lot matcha in the tea. That’s why it looks so thick. On the other hand, usucha is a thinner tea than koicha. Usucha also has another name: ousu. These tea types have other differences, too, like tools used to make them, for instance. When making usucha, chawan (tea bowl) are used. Many of these chawan have beautiful paintings on them that people can enjoy. In the summer, chawan made of glass are used. However, more expensive chawan without any paintings are used to make koicha. People who do not know deeply about tea ceremony, are probably familiar with usucha, as it is more famous than koicha.

Tools Used in Otemae

Chashaku 茶杓: A chashaku is the tool which scoops up matcha from a natsume, which is the box for matcha. It is generally made from bamboo.

Chawan 茶碗: A chawan is the bowl in which tea is prepared and from which tea is drunk. Chawan are very important items in tea ceremony. If you use a good quality chawan, the tea ceremony experience is heightened.

Fukusa 袱紗: It’s a square silk wrapping cloth. It is used in the tea ceremony to set tools on or to wipe them.

Sensu 扇子: Sensu is a folding fan. It is used to fan yourself, but in the tea ceremony, We use it when we greet people, like say hello. It’s kind of a communication tool.

Urasenke in Kyoto

Below are some places were you can learn more about Urasenke tea ceremony, and even experience it.

Konnichian 今日庵

Konnichian is a retreat located in the former residence of Urasenke in Kyoto. It was built when a tea master Sen Soutan, the grandchild of Sen no Rikyu, handed the house over to Sen Sousa. Sen Sousa is the third son of Sen Soutan and he is also a tea master of early Edo period (1619∼1672). This retreat is located in Honjoji-mae, Kamigyo-ku of Kyoto City. In 1949, a foundation of Konnichian was established. Their purpose was to preserve and nurture the Urasenke tea ceremony that was inherited from Sen no Rikyu’s tradition, spread the spirit of tea ceremony to the general public to contribute to the development of Japanese culture and also to preserve the remains, artifacts, arts and crafts, and structures that exist at the Konnichian.

Tankosha 淡交社

Tankosha is a publisher located in the Kita Ward of Kyoto City. They publish books that are related to tea ceremony and Kyoto. When Yoshiharu Naya, the ex-president of Tankosha, graduated from Doshishya University in Kyoto, he established a publishing organization to publish the newsletter of Urasenke, called Tanko, in the following year. His father, Soshitsu Sen is a traditional name taken by the business grouping of the Urasenke family, and he is the fifteenth-generation grandmaster of the Urasenke. Yoshiharu Naya’s grand brother, Yoshito Naya, is currently managing the company. The company name comes from the word of a Chinese philosopher, Soshi. The name Tankosha means that the communion between scholastic and respectable people should be a clean relationship like water, and compassion without a selfish motive will not break. The employees of Tankosha publish books and magazines on various fields, such as traditional culture centered on tea ceremony. They are related to Kyoto culture and tourism. In fields other than tea ceremony, there are arts and crafts, history and culture, travel guides, cooking, and hobby life, or they publish books that are related to Kyoto, like ‘Kyoto Encyclopedia’ and ‘Kyoto Tourism Culture Certification Test Official Text Book’. They handle books in languages other than Japanese. Besides publishing, they sell tea ceremony architecture and tea utensils. The first floor of the Kyoto head office (Murasakino Miyanishi-Cho) has a floor for selling books and selling tea utensils.

Kyoto Murasakino 京都むらさきの

Using authentic tea utensils, a standard traditional tea ceremony will be conducted for visitors. An experience of making your own bowl of tea with those utensils is included. You can practice tea ceremony in the Urasenke style. The ceremonies are held only on Saturdays and Sundays, but even then there are days on which the ceremonies are not held, so be sure to check the website before you go. You have to make a reservation on the website at least two days in advance. Here is the homepage URL: https://www.shin-shin-an.com/ 【Address】 6 Kamigoshodencho Murasakino Kita-ku, Kyoto JAPAN

Jinmatsuan 甚松庵

Jinmatsuan is a place to discover and experience Japanese culture. It is located near Gojo station, Kiyomizu temple, and the Gion area. They are open every day, but sometimes they hold special events, so be sure to check the homepage. You can make and drink matcha along with making Japanese tea ceremony sweets, or ohigashi. You can also make a Japanese traditional sweet wagashi and dancing with maiko, the girls who please people in the banquet by the trick such as dancing and Japanese orchestra. Here is the home page URL: https://www.jinmatsuan.com/tea 【Address】 BELK Karasuma 2F, 135 Manjuij-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto City


As you can see, Urasenke tea ceremony is rich in meaning, history, and tradition. There are many people, both Japanese and foreign, who don’t know the history of tea ceremony even though the tea ceremony is very popular overseas. There are many places in Kyoto where you can actually experience the tea ceremony. The general foundation has a lecture on tea ceremony which was introduced at Konnichian. We introduced some places where you can both learn and experience traditional tea ceremony in the Uraksenke style. We hope that you will discover the beauty and tranquility of tea ceremony while you are in Kyoto.


Handing Down Traditional Culture in Kyoto

by Hikari Isaka and Maya Ito

The tea ceremony (chanoyu) is one of many traditional Japanese arts and is often praised for its profound meaning. This art was spread throughout Japan by Sen-no-Rikyu in the middle of the 15th century and continues to be practiced by the Japanese to this day. Kyoto has many of the headquarters of the main schools of the tea ceremony. Today, we can learn how to do tea ceremony by taking lessons or by taking part in tea ceremonies that are held in many places. Kyoto has many places to experience tea and many of them are at famous tourist sites. They are not only held in temples, but also in shops around these complexes. It is easy for tourists to experience here.

The tea ceremony often takes place in a formal structure known as the teahouse. Its peculiar structure and atmosphere was developed centuries ago. Most teahouses are four-and-a-half mats in size — rather small and not so spacious. What is more, this size is standard for teahouses. There are no lights or furnishings. Therefore, we can hear the characteristic sounds of the tea ceremony naturally in this special space—the boiling of water and the whistle of the tea kettle. That is why the teahouse can heighten our feelings and we can enjoy the tea ceremony by appreciating its aural and visual effects.

The tea ceremony

The tea ceremony

Candies which served in the usucha ceremony

Candies served in the usucha ceremony

The tea ceremony is based on the brewing of powdered green (koicha) and a lighter tea (usucha) in a tea-ceremony room. Koicha and usucha are different not only in taste but also in the manner of preparation. At tea ceremonies in a traditional teahouse, visitors always enter the tea-ceremony room through a small door. There are three different points between koicha and usucha. At first, at the powdered green tea ceremony, guests eat a confection before drinking the thick and slightly bitter koicha. However, when drinking usucha, guests eat dry confections in the middle of the tea ceremony. Sweet confections are eaten to balance out the bitter flavor of the teas. At the tea ceremony, the confections used are based on the seasons. This makes the visitor happier. Secondly, koicha is usually made for three or four people at a time, therefore guests share the tea from the same teacup. Moreover, the powdered green tea is muddy and dark green in color. For a guest who drinks koicha for the first time, it may taste so bitter, but the more one drinks the more one learns to appreciate the taste of this thick tea. On the other hand, in the usucha ceremony, guests can drink tea by themselves. Thirdly, the implements used in the tea ceremony for these two teas are different. For koicha, people use a tea caddy. On the other hand, for usucha people use a jujube. When people make usucha they do not measure exactly but for koicha, people make exact measurements.

The yea ceremony

The tea ceremony

A Japanese cake in the  koicha ceremony

A Japanese cake in the koicha ceremony

On the 28th day of every month in Kyoto, many tea ceremonies are held throughout Kyoto as it is the memorial day for Sen-no-Rikyu. You can attend many tea ceremonies at subtemples on this day at Daitokuji Temple where Sen-no-Rikyu was a priest. Everybody should try the tea ceremony and enjoy it!

Sen no Rikyu -The Greatest Tea Master

 Airi Kinoshita

What do you associate with the Japanese tea ceremony? Many people may come up with quietness or emphasized simplicity, but how many of them know that these ideas were actually introduced by Sen no Rikyu.  In fact, in the Muromachi period (1337~1573), the upper classes, including samurai and relations of the royal family, enjoyed tea ceremonies where expensive china for the tea cups was used and lots of guests were invited.  However, thanks to the revolutionary thinking of Sen no Rikyu, the Japanese tea ceremony became more refined in style.

 Who was Sen no Rikyu?

He was born in 1522, in what is today’s Osaka prefecture, as the son of a warehouse owner.  He started learning the way of tea at a young age, and by the time he was just nineteen, he had already met the great tea master Takeno Jo-o whose teachings would influence him tremendously throughout his life.  Late in his life, Sen no Rikyu was called to serve Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful general of that time.  After the death of the general, he was employed as a tea master by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Nobunaga and controlled Japan.  Unfortunately, however, there was sometimes friction between Rikyu and Toyotomi, and this eventually led to Toyotomi forcing Rikyu to commit ritual suicide in 1591.     

 What did Rikyu search for to improve the style of the tea ceremony?

Sen no Rikyu and his teacher Takeno Jo-o set about trying to introduce the spirit of wabi-sabi into the tea ceremony.  Wabi–sabi is a traditional Japanese view of beauty, in which something simple, imperfect and transient is valued.  The new style of tea ceremony invented by Rikyu was known as wabi-cha, and became widespread and very popular.  The central idea of Rikyu’s new style of tea ceremony was to let guests feel as comfortable as possible, avoiding the use of strict rules and over-elaboration.

The room the wabi-cha style was held in was tiny compared with those used in other ceremony styles, and designed to allow natural light into the interior.  Furthermore, the garden that could be viewed from the room was also considered to be a part of the tea room, and therefore should be beautiful, well- maintained but quite natural.    

Hospitality in the tea ceremony

One word to explain the spirit of the wabi-cha style is “ich-go-ich-e”, meaning “this occasion and this meeting may come only once in a lifetime, therefore it should be highly valued”.  It is taken for granted that the host make the tea there and then, and prepare different sweets to enjoy with the tea for every ceremony, according to who is invited, what the guest would like, or the season, date and time the ceremony is held.  However, it is not only the food or drink that the host takes care over, but also the furniture, artworks and tea cups.  These are carefully selected to best suit each  invited guest.

Recently people may have become too busy to enjoy the tea ceremony, but the spirit of wabi- cha must not be forgotten.  If you are interested in Sen no Rikyu’ s beliefs, please try to highly value at least one occasion and one meeting in your life more than you might have done before reading this article.  


Japanese Aromatherapy: Kodo

by Rieko Tsubata

The birth of Japanese incense culture

There are three traditional artistic accomplishments in Japan: flower arrangement, tea ceremony and, least well-known in the West, the incense ceremony called kodo. Although the exquisite aromas of incense have wafted through our land for well over 1,400 years, kodo was first established as a refined Japanese art during the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD). Born as a pastime of the upper class, kodo spread widely and then declined in the 19th century when Japan’s feudal system drew to an end, but recently it has enjoyed a popular revival and is spreading overseas. Let me, then, introduce you to the world of Japanese incense culture.

What is Kodo?

Concentrating intently, we enjoy the gently drifting scent of incense in a world of stillness. We appreciate its lovely perfume while observing certain formalized manners.
Generally, we do not light kodo incense directly. We place ash and solid fuel such as charcoal into a small censer bowl, and then rest a little mica plate upon them. Tiny chips of wood from aromatic trees are then heated atop the mica plate, so that when their scent settles over us it is smoke-free. The materials used for this incense can also include plants, shells, spices, and so on, which are usually imported from Asian and African countries.

In kodo there are games called kumikou. In one such game we compete with others to guess what kinds of incenses are included in a blended scent. While this can be challenging, it is more important to enjoy the aroma than to win or lose. Through these games we can also sense the elegance, the customs of other times, and the Japanese flavors redolent of the four seasons. We speak in kodo of “listening” to the incense, not “smelling” it, because we are not just perceiving it with our nose; we should feel the fragrance move our souls as if we were listening to the teachings of Buddhism.




538                                Incense was introduced in Japan from China with Buddhism.   

Aromatic trees happened to drift ashore in Japan.
Japanese people noticed pleasing scents when they burnt wood from these trees in their ovens, but did not know what they were. They offered the mysterious trees to the Imperial Court.


(Nara period)         Incense gradually came to be known among Japanese people. It was used for Buddhist rituals to drive out evil thoughts, or for purification.


(Heian period)  Many kinds of incenses were imported, so Japanese were able to make incenses which blended various species. However the incense culture was only for noblemen at this time. They would impregnate a kimono or their hair with perfume by burning incense. This was to signify their existence by its perfume, or to deaden bad odors when they could not bathe. In addition to these, there are many descriptions related to scents in dynastic literature, words and phrases which represent through scents the things of nature and scenes of the four seasons. Thus graceful   customs were formed.


(Kamakura period)    Incense culture also become popular among samurai. They used aromas before fighting in battles to calm themselves down, and to concentrate.


(Muromachi period) Japan’s own incense culture was established as a refined art. The desire for scents grew more and more strong. Japan succeeded in trading  with China, so high-quality varieties of incense were imported.


(Edo period)             Incense culture was spread among the commonalty. Games known as kumikou came into fashion.

How to enjoy incense

A wide selection of incenses is offered in shops these days. There are cones, coils, sticks, and powdery incense, as well as small sachet-like bags which are stuffed with aromatic ingredients. Moreover, the varieties of fragrances are abundant. Kyara, a kind of aromatic tree, is premium quality. There are also incenses which are created as images of the four seasons.
Kodo is a classic way to literally inspire scents, but you can also enjoy the natural perfumes of incense in your daily life. Use incense in your home or car to create an atmosphere in which to relax. Infuse your clothes with incense aromas when you store them in a closet. Impregnate writing paper with fragrance when you send a letter to a friend, and add a scent to your calling cards.

10 Virtues of Incense

1. Provides a transcendent sense of the exquisite
2. Purges your heart and body
3. Cleanses the unclean
4. Removes sleepiness
5. Mitigates loneliness
6. Comforts you in a busy time
7. Is never obstructive, even in abundance
8. Ample aroma from tiny quantites
9. Will not decay for a long time
10. Harmless even if used every day

The ancient Japanese used incense in their lives, and greatly enjoying it, they created a unique style that comes down to us as today’s kodo. Translating literally as “the way of incense” it is a path that leads us to a mysterious and pleasant world where we listen to scents. Although incense culture came to Japan from China, we established our own way, which differs from other Asian or European countries. It is elegant, artistic, and aesthetically refined, and now kodo is spreading to the West.

Today, the digitization of sights and sounds is surging ahead all over the world, but fragrances cannot be conveyed by media. I highly recommend that you feel the aromas of incense with your heart here in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan — or wherever you happen to be.