“Even in Kyoto / Hearing the cuckoo’s cry / I long for Kyoto.” ~ Matsuo Basho.
Experiencing a traditional Kyoto tea ceremony has always been high up on my list of things to do in Japan. In case you’re new to my blog, I’m slightly obsessed with learning more about what makes the Japanese culture so unique through cultural experiences.
I’m also a massive fan of getting to know and learn from locals to enjoy more authentic travels. So, when the opportunity to combine these things knocked on my door, naturally I had to take it!
As a lover of matcha (powdered green tea) myself, I was pretty excited to learn more about the Kyoto tea ceremony in the city where it all began centuries ago.
Tea ceremonies are one of the many things Japan is famous for, so who better than to learn from an actual geisha herself? Someone who was a master of this art and helped to uphold the traditions handed down through the centuries?
To accompany this tea ceremony in Kyoto, I undertook a private tour of Kiyomizu-dera beforehand, an icon of the city full of beauty and traditions of its own. Combining these two experiences is a wonderful way to be immersed in Japanese culture and I was so delighted with the knowledge and deeper understanding I had gained afterwards from my local guide.
If you want to learn how to experience a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto and private Kiyomizu-dera walking tour with a friendly local guide, read on for more!
This guide to a private Kiyomizu-dera tour & Kyoto tea ceremony will cover:
This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
What is MagicalTrip?
MagicalTrip is a platform that allows travellers to connect with locals through small, guided group tours in Japan. Local guides are carefully selected for their friendly and outgoing personalities, which makes the tours fun and enjoyable!
Also very keen to meet travellers, the local guides love to share their knowledge about Japanese culture. This win-win concept for tourists and locals is one I’m very passionate about, especially if it’s your first time to Japan and you’re a little unsure of what to expect.
TIP: Exploring a city with a local is the perfect way to blend into the crowds and “be invisible.”
Types of experiences available through MagicalTrip
There are many types of experiences available in major cities throughout Japan, not just Kyoto. It’s no worries if you’re travelling solo, as a couple or with kids. From bar hopping to cycling, foodie tours to cultural walks, there’s something for every type of traveller (even a hidden hiking tour of Fushimi-Inari). I had always wanted to experience a Kyoto tea ceremony, so for me this was an easy decision to make! Which would you choose?:
For my private walking tour of Kiyomizu-zaka and Kyoto tea ceremony, my local guide was Yuki-san. He grew up in Kyoto and was very knowledgeable about his hometown.
I experienced this tour as a press invite from MagicalTrip, but as always this did not influence my opinion in any way and all thoughts are my own. So let’s jump into the review!
Before the tea ceremony: Kiyomizu-dera private walking tour
Before I talk about what to expect at the tea ceremony, please allow me to share what it’s like taking a private tour around the Kiyomizu-zaka area. Feel free to scroll on down to the Japanese tea ceremony if you wish, but I believe these two experiences go hand-in-hand to help you gain a better understanding about Japanese culture.
NOTE: In Japan, it is correct etiquette to add san after someone’s name to be polite. This is why you’ll see me mention -san when addressing the locals I met below.
Meeting at Yasaka Shrine
I first met my local guide, Yuki-san, outside the entrance to the amazing Yasaka Shrine. My nerves about meeting a local were immediately put at ease with his friendly welcome.
On venturing into Yasaka Shrine, we were so fortunate to see parts of the beautiful floats that feature in the Gion Matsuri festival on display, only a few days away. As I had just visited the prior afternoon, our visit was brief and we headed into the quiet streets of the Kiyomizu-zaka area.
Exploring quiet streets in the Kiyomizu-zaka area
As it was just after 9am, I was a little surprised to see the usually busy streets of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka almost empty! For some reason, with overtourism in Kyoto these days I thought they were always busy.
Yuki-san explained the time of my tour had recently changed to the early morning rather than mid-afternoon to avoid the peak of crowds of day-trippers later in the day. I was so pleased to hear that, as it was a luxury to see these streets with barely any people about and it meant we weren’t contributing to the crowds.
We came to the Yasaka Pagoda, a beautiful icon of the Higashiyama district. As the oldest pagoda in Kyoto, Yuki-san informed me that as it was built in 592 AD it’s now been closed off to visitors to help its preservation. Because I was a solo traveller this time, I was thankful someone could take a photo of me with the pagoda as a backdrop!
TIP: Pssst, if you’re interested, you can find out more about me and why I won’t include photos of myself on my blog.
Private tour of Kiyomizu-dera temple
From here, we wandered past the stunning tea shops, souvenir stores and other local businesses along the way to Matsubara-dori. Here, it was time for a snack of my choice so I indulged in a matcha ice cream Yuki-san ordered on my behalf.
Finally we arrived at the incredible Kiyomizu-dera, meaning “Pure Water Temple” and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even though I had visited previously, Yuki-san was a wealth of knowledge so it was great he could fill in some missing pieces about the Japanese religion puzzle for me:
- I hadn’t realised that religion in Japan wasn’t exclusive – for instance, Yuki-san mentioned that about 75% of Japanese follow both the Buddhist and Shinto religions. How cool is that?
- At Otawa waterfall, Yuki-san explained the water is separated into 3 streams, each representing success, love or longevity. Worshippers are only supposed to drink from one, as drinking from them all is thought to be greedy!
- He also explained some religious differences between Buddhism and Shintoism before describing how worshippers pray at Jinshu Shrine, within the Kiyomizu-dera complex. It’s said that if you can walk in a line from one “stone of love” to the other with your eyes closed, you will find true love.
- I now know the significance of the lucky rabbit and hammer depicted on the ema (wooden wishes left by worshippers) at Jinshu Shrine. Anything the lucky hammer hits is thought to make money appear. You can imagine how popular that statue was with tourists!
What to expect at the traditional Kyoto tea ceremony
Now it was time for the part I was most looking forward to and the part you’ve been waiting for – the authentic tea ceremony in Kyoto!
My ceremony was hosted in a traditional tea house right in the city’s heart on Ninenzaka. The teahouse sits above a store specialising in works created in bamboo, but they also sell other kinds of traditional Japanese objects and souvenirs. Leaving our shoes downstairs, Yuki-san and I were greeted by our hostess, Etsu-san, as we proceeded to the tearoom.
Differences between geisha, geiko & maiko
First things first, you may have heard the words geisha, geiko and maiko used to describe Japanese hostesses. They are highly trained entertainers in arts such as calligraphy, Sado, singing, dancing, flower arranging and much more. So, what’s the difference? In a nutshell:
- Geisha is a more general term and means “art person” or “performing artist”
- Geiko is the Kyoto dialect and means “master artist”, therefore, masters of their art
- Maiko is a geiko in training, like an apprentice. It can take 5 years to fully become a geiko.
NOTE: Throughout this article I refer to our hostess Etsu-san as geiko. For further reading, you learn how to spot the differences between geiko and maiko. Now, moving on to the tea ceremony!
The four parts to a tea ceremony in Japan
In very good English, Etsu-san explained what we could expect at our Japanese tea ceremony:
1. Selecting our own tea bowls
Bowls are said to be an extension of the personality of the guest, so Yuki-san and I were able to select a beautiful hand-made bowl each created locally in the Kiyomizu area. I chose Mt Fuji as I am determined to see her peer out from her cloudy blanket on one of my visits to Japan someday!
2. Introduction to the Kyoto tea ceremony: Sado, “the way of tea”
Firstly, we learnt about the true meaning behind the tea ceremony – a Japanese saying, “ichi go ichi e 一期一会”. This translates to “once in this lifetime”, which means we should treasure each individual moment, as it can never be completely replicated. That’s become one of my new favourite sayings.
We also learnt about Sen no Rikyu, considered as one of the Great Tea Masters of the 16th century due to the lasting impressions he incorporated into the tea ceremony. For instance, Rikyu believed the four key principles of harmony, respect, purity and peace should be considered when making and enjoying tea.
I was impressed and pleased to learn these components of a traditional tea ceremony, rather than just witnessing the performance without really knowing what was happening. Such a great benefit of this experience!
3. Performing the way of tea
After the introduction to Sado, Etsu-san began to perform “the way of tea” before we would later create our own. I was handed a small container of matcha powder to briefly examine, its green vibrancy brilliant to see in person.
On handing it back to Etsu-san, she commenced the purification process for the tea utensils by firstly re-entering the room via the sliding door, which she opened in three graceful movements. Then the cleansing ritual was performed with her tea bowl (chawan 茶碗), bamboo whisk (chasen 茶筅) and tea scoop (chashaku 茶杓), each being cleaned with water and a purification cloth.
All steps are done in such a way to keep the utensils clean and pure, for instance even lids are balanced on their sides or on a bamboo stand to avoid touching the tatami flooring.
TIP: I found the number of ways the purification cloth was folded so fascinating to watch. Every step was flawless and carried out with meticulous attention to detail. The sequence of the ways the cloth is folded depends on the school wear the geiko was taught.
After the purification process, Etsu-san placed some matcha powder into her tea bowl using the tea scoop, added hot water with a bamboo ladle (hishaku 柄杓) and explained that the tea needs to be whisked quickly 30 times so it becomes frothy.
Etsu-san then presented me with her tea and described the correct way to drink:
- Carefully examine the beauty of the design on your bowl as you rotate it in clockwise direction three times
- Take three sips to drink the tea ensuring you make a loud slurp on the final sip to show appreciation to your hostess (slurping is considered polite etiquette in Japan)
- Rotate the bowl three times counter-clockwise to finish with the design facing you again
- Finally, say “otemae chodai itashimasu” – thank you for making tea.
4. Experience making and enjoying the tea
Yuki-san and I were then given some delicious locally-made sweets before we went on to make the tea for ourselves. Called tsuboneya-risshun in Japanese, our sweets were associated with Kiyomizu-dera temple and change depending on season. They are best enjoyed before drinking the tea to prepare your palate.
Now all eyes were on me! Taking everything I just learnt on board, I had to implement the tea-making process for myself. It’s not as easy as Etsu-san made it look, I was so worried about spilling the contents of my water ladle all over the place as its stem was quite long! Thankfully, Etsu-san was by my side to help and ensure this didn’t happen.
On returning to my seating area, I then had to whisk my tea around 30 times to produce the desirable bubbles. The more, the better! Yuki-san then proceeded to do the same. Etsu-san then checked both our tea and said she was surprised this was my first Kyoto tea ceremony experience as she exclaimed my bubbles were perfect! Lastly, Yuki-san and I could enjoy our tea in the traditional way.
After we had all finished, Etsu-san demonstrated the utensil cleaning process. It followed a similar sequence to the cleansing ritual performed before the tea was made. Once finished, Etsu-san kneeled to open the sliding door in three elegant moves again and left the room to conclude the ceremony. She then returned to answer any questions we had.
Fun fact: Did you know that samurais are said to have enjoyed matcha to calm their nerves and help prepare them before battle?
Final thoughts on my Kyoto tea ceremony with MagicalTrip
I was thoroughly impressed with my Kyoto tea ceremony and Kiyomizu-zaka walking tour! Here are my overall thoughts on things I loved and the benefits of using a local guide with MagicalTrip in Japan:
- The ability to ask my guide questions about anything to do with cultural traditions or things I saw that other guides or expats might not have been aware of, or known the answer to. It’s all about the benefits of local knowledge
- The absence of awkwardness in meeting a new person! Sometimes it can be hard to break the ice, but if your guide is anything like Yuki-san it’s like speaking with an old friend who has grown up in the area and is excited to show you around their hometown
- The tour was structured yet personalised in the sense that if I had already seen something prior, Yuki-san was able to offer an alternative or provide me more information I didn’t know previously
- My guide Yuki-san had a genuine interest in getting to know what I liked about Japan (quick answer: wagyu and sake) and told me about a special local sake I hadn’t previously heard of. I then made it a mission to find this sake, which turned out to be easier than I thought – more on this in my guide to finding hidden pubs in Kyoto!
How to book your own Kyoto tea ceremony
Is a Kyoto tea ceremony on your list of experiences to have in Japan? Booking is really simple and only takes a few steps:
That’s it! You’ll then receive an email confirmation and more details about your experience. The hardest part is waiting until it’s time for your trip to roll around!
Even though I’d visited Japan before and I have quite a good understanding about Japanese culture, I enjoyed this experience immensely and learnt so much more from both Yuki-san and Etsu-san. I highly recommend it!
TIP: I am a firm believer that small groups exploring with a local guide are a sustainable way to experience a new city in a more personalised, authentic way that large tours just don’t have the ability to offer.
A huge thanks to MagicalTrip for kindly inviting me on this experience and making this article possible. I am so appreciative that I had two locals to share their knowledge and love of their hometown with me during my time in Kyoto!
While you’re here, my comprehensive guide to modern and traditional Japan cultural experiences has even more interesting ideas for things to do during your trip.
Want to learn my strategies for how to “blend in” anywhere around the globe? Find out by reading my #1 Amazon New Release Book!
Have I provided you with some insight as to what you can expect at a tea ceremony in Kyoto? Would this be something you’d like to try someday? Let me know in the comments below! If you found this helpful please share it with your friends or take a look at all my travel guides and itineraries for Japan. I’d also love if you could join me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok for more Japan inspiration!
Until next time,
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