I never feel more out of place than when I do not know the rules or expectation of a setting. Therefore I will try to give a short introduction to being a guest at a koicha event. Just as singing you can’t learn tea by reading, but you can be a bit more prepared. The purpose of this post is just give you a quick overview of what to expect, and the basic social conventions of a koicha gathering.
Remove all rings before entering the room. They may damage the tea-bowl and other items you will be handling.
There are a few items that you might find useful to bring.
- Kaishi – A small stack of papers that can be used as a plate to eat the sweet from.
- Ko-chakin – A small paper napkin that can be used to wipe the tea-bowl with. If you do not have one kaishi can be used instead
- Ko-chakin basami – A small pouch to put the dirty napkins in after wiping the bowl.
The host might have placed some of these utensils outside the tea-room where you can easily find them. These are intended for your use if you have forgotten or do not have them yourself.
The order the guest enters the room in is significance. This decides their order for the event; first guest, second guest, …, last guest. In the most formal events the invitation will state which number you are. If it didn’t then it is up to the guests the decide among them selves. As a rule of thumb let the most experienced be the first guest, and let the second most experienced be the last guest.
Upon entering the room each guest will have an opportunity to look at the alcove, and then at the kettle. After all guests are seated the host will serve a sweet. Each guest should take one sweet and pass the container on to the next guest. The last guest will place the sweet container in front of the hosts door. The sweet should then be eaten immediately.
While the host prepares the tea there should be no talking. The first words spoken should be the host asking the first guest how the tea was.
Once the tea is done and the tea-bowl is placed out by the host the first guest move over to it and brings it back to his seat. The bowl is places between first and second guests and all the guest bows together. First guest then place the bowl on his left palm supporting with right he lifts it in appreciation, and then turns it slightly to avoid drinking from the front. He takes one sip. Then the host will ask if the tea was ok. The first guest keeps the bowl on his left hand, and puts right hand in front of him in a bow and replies. Then the first guest takes two more sips.
Once finished he places the bowl on the mat in front of him and uses a small paper napkin to wipe of where his lips touched the bowl. He then picks up the bowl and turn half way towards the next guest. The next guest also turn half way towards the first guest. The bowl is passed between the two guests, from hands to hands. Both turn back to face forward again. Then there is a bow between the first and the second guest. The second guest bows holding the tea bowl in both hands. The second guest does all the first guest did except the host will not be asking about the tea. Lift in appreciation, take three sips, wipes of the bowl and passes it on to the guest after you. This continues until the last guest. Meanwhile the first guest will ask the host about the tea and the sweets. The last guest will try wipe the inside of the bowl. The goal is not the remove all the remaining the, but make sure that at least half way down the sides are clean.
Once the last guest is done he will bring the tea-bowl to the first guest. The first guest now looks at the bowl, keeping it always as close to the ground as possible. So that if he drops it there is a chance that it will not break. Once he is done he will put the bowl between himself and the next guest. The next guest looks in the same manner as the first guest and pass the bowl on until it reaches the last guest. Then the first and the last guest meets just in front of where the host put the bowl out in the first place. The last guest places the bowl in front of the first guest. The first guest returns the bowl to the host. Both guests return to their seat.
Once the bowl is returned to the host there is a bow with the host and all guests. Now the first guest may ask questions about all the items being used.
Towards the end it is customary for the first guest to ask to see the tea container, the tea scoop and the pouch. The host will prepare them an put them out at the same spot as the tea-bowl was placed. Once the host leaves the room for the first time carrying items to the kitchen the first guest will move to pick up the items. Once the host has left the room for the last time the first guest will start looking at the items. First tea container, then scoop and last pouch. They are passed down from guest to guest by placing them on the tatami in front of the next guest. Just as with the tea-bowl keep the items close to the ground so that the chance of breaking them is small. Also similar to the bowl the last guest and the first guest will meet and the last guest returns the items to the first guest who then places them back where he found them.
One variation that is not uncommon is to use two tea-bowls if there are many guests. Then the host will tell how many guests he intend the first bowl for and make a second one for the rest. The only changes is that instead of the last guest cleaning the bowl and bringing it to the first guest it is the last person drinking from that bowl that does it. Also the first person drinking from the second bowl has to go fetch it himself. Other than that it is all the same. All guests gets to look at both bowls. The last guest and the first guest will meet twice in front of where the bowls are placed by the host. Once for the first (main) tea-bowl and once for the second tea-bow.