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Sencha do, the other Japanese tea ceremony

Exploring a little-known Japanese tea tradition.

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
7 min read
Sencha do, the other Japanese tea ceremony

Kaoru Nakai welcomes us into her family's home. It's more than 130 years old and cool in the summer."And also in winter," she jokes. Nakai speaks Japanese but between my small knowledge of the language and the translations provided via the employees of the tea farm I'm staying at in Wazuka, we manage a comfortable level of translation. We’ve come to Nakai’s home where she lives and teaches tea to take part in a rare sencha do tea ceremony, where we’ll drink the tea she grows.

Nakai's family is a tea farming family, through and through. Her son works for a larger tea company called Marukyu-Koyamaen in the neighbouring town of Uji. Their company started during the Genroku period, around 1688-1704. Marukyu-Koyamaen buys tea from Nakai's farms, and during May and June which is the busiest harvest season, her son comes home to help.Their tea farm is one of the first certified organic tea farms in the area.

Nakai’s beautiful garden entrance.

Tea Ceremonies in Japan

Normally when we think of Japan’s tea ceremony, the one that most often comes to mind is ‘cha no yu,’ or the tea ceremony involving matcha. Nakai sensei also does the cha no yu ceremony, but the sencha do she also practices is much harder to find. She sits in front of us wearing her fukushitsu apron, and begins to explain as she pours the first round of tea. Sencha(煎茶)is Japan’s most popular tea. About 80% of all tea produced in Japan is sencha.

A tokonoma (床の間, toko-no-ma) is a recessed space in Japanese-style reception rooms, where items are displayed for artistic appreciation. Before drinking tea, you’ll often admire the items in the alcove. Many people change the items seasonally.

The ‘sen’ part comes from the verb ‘senjiru,’ which means ‘to simmer or brew’. This is because it was one of the first infused or brewed teas in Japan, as opposed to matcha, which was powdered and then whisked with water. Sencha tea was first created in Japan around 1740, by priest Gekkai Genshō. In 1724, When he was in his mid-forties he left the temple he served at to instead wander the Kyoto region. He took up residence on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, and in his sixties made his living selling this new type of ‘sencha’ tea. He’s often called Baisaō, or ‘old tea seller,’ and is credited with introducing sencha in the capital city of Kyoto and beyond.

The tea was inspired by loose leaf tea already happening in China, but created using local Japanese plants.Apparently Baisaō was quite a character, carrying his teaware wherever he wished on long poles and bamboo wicker baskets, setting up shop all around the scenic areas of Kyoto, selling tea. He even wrote a book of poetry about it.

“Seventy years of Zen got me nowhere at all shed my black robe became a shaggy crank, now I have no business with sacred or profane just simmer tea for folks and hold starvation back.” — THREE VERSES ON A TEA-SELLING LIFE

He was definitely the kind of dude you’d want to have a beer with. Or, a tea.

History of Sencha Do

Shortly after our good friend Baisaō introduced sencha to Japan, the sencha do ceremony was created. ‘Sencha do’ is a kind of Japanese tea service, one where you interact with a host as you’re served tea in a ritual fashion.One of the unique things about sencha do is that it's very much an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student. Even in the Japanese language it's hard to find any instructive manuals on how to perform it.

Nakai sensei started learning sencha do, "maybe 35 years ago," she reflects.Before that, in middle school, she studied the traditional matcha ceremony—cha no yu. Sencha do is also much more casual than cha no yu. Guests are allowed to interact with the host and ask her questions, instead of sticking to the prescribed and formal dialogue in cha no yu. There are different schools of sencha do. Kind of like how there are different schools of karate. The one she’s taught is associated with the Sennyū-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto.

This temple is special because it was associated with the imperial house of Japan. Emperors are buried there.This is also why today is such a special occasion. Normally she only performs this sencha do for royalty. Like when the crown Prince’s younger brother, Prince Akishino visits once a year. Even her apron, the fukushitsu, is worn by women who work for the emperor.I’m drinking tea from hands that have served royalty. This is very cool and definitely not an everyday occurrence.

The style of sencha do ceremony she's performing for us today is called 'kakubon no hiratemae' (standard ceremony with square tray), but there are many variations on the sencha do ceremony, with various shapes of trays and teaware. She places a fan between us as a sign of politeness, denoting her respect for her guests, and that she places them above herself.

Unknowingly, I've chosen the seat of honour—the spot located to the host's immediate left. This means I'm the first to be served. Guests seated to my left will look to me to know when to drink—when I start, that's the cue they can drink too. I pick up the small tea tray that's been placed in front of me and use both hands to bring it closer. This is what your hands are supposed to do: With my right hand I place the small porcelain cup into my left hand. I then wrap the right hand around it to bring up to drink with my hands crossed in front.

I only know all of this because I was told to do it at the ceremony.After we've steeped the tea twice, Nakai sensei turns to me, the unwitting guest of honour, and asks me whether the group would like to try a third infusion."Yes!" I say in poor, excited Japanese. "Let's drink more!" She laughs. It turns out—her question was supposed to be my cue to politely refuse and end the ceremony.Whoops. Just another gaijin over here. Nothing to see, folks.

Oh well. She gracefully forgives my foreigner's folly and brews another round for us all anyway. Nakai sensei is very kind and patient. She's been brewing tea for a long time.

Sencha Do Ceremony Steps

The sencha do ceremony has a simple structure that goes like this:

  • Guests enter and are taken to a sitting room. They are often served a drink while sitting around and waiting for the actual ceremony to begin.
  • Guests enter the ceremony room and take their seats.
  • Host enters and prepares the first infusion. First infusion is served to the group.
  • A sweet is passed around, normally 'higashi,’ a dry sweet made of sugar and flour.
  • Host prepares and serves the second infusion.
  • The host will ask if the guests would like any more.
  • The main guest will politely decline, and the ceremony is over.
Nakai’s tea ceremony supply cabinet. I wish I had one of these!

Although the steps might seem straightforward, what’s not captured here are all the little intricacies and hand motions. The way Nakai sensei flips the top of the tea caddy exactly two times before putting it on. The way she uses exactly two fingers to hold the lid on the teapot as she pours. The way she folds the tea cloth the same way, every time.Within this structure, there’s a lot of complex and refined motions happening. Always with a smile, and sometimes while talking as well.

Seasonal iris wagashi - sweets to accompany the sencha tea.

The tea ceremony is deceptively simple, with no wasted motions on the part of the host, and what seems to be a relaxed gesture of pouring tea is actually a small ballet of body parts rehearsing tiny motor motions they’ve carried out hundreds if not thousands of times before.

At the beginning of the tea service, a stick of light incense is lit. When the stick of incense finishes, the sencha should also be over. When pouring tea, the last drops from the pot are thought of as the ‘golden drops.’ They’re the most delicious, and normally a few will be poured into each cup to share the flavour.

In sencha do, the golden drops actually go to the host, not the guests! The host will also drink a cup for themself before serving the guests. Sometimes an assistant will be the ones to bring the cups around instead of the host.

Nakai sensei actually changed things up a bit by offering us a wagashi instead of higashi. Wagashi are wetter, fancier, sweeter. She said we might think higashi are boring! So she didn’t want to bore us. I’m sure we would have enjoyed the higashi, but the thought was sweet.

Tea