More than anything else, Sado (often incorrectly referred to as the Japanese tea ceremony – a more accurate translation would be the way of tea) provides one an insight into the ways in which Japan is an "empire of signs."
Sado is not so much about the drinking of tea (a powdered green tea known as matcha) as it is an experience of aesthetic hospitality. For both householder and guest, the tea is the pretext for an expression of etiquette. Another term relates to this experience: chanoyu [hot water for tea]. The Japanese are masters of euphemism. The ceremony references a number of more complex, traditional Japanese practices such as flower arranging, calligraphy, architecture, etc.
The chanoyu may accompany a meal, also known as kaiseki. There are two forms of Japanese kaiseki cuisine defined by two different ideograms. One refers to the great food served in prestigious restaurants and is designed to offer a moment of pleasure and conviviality, such as the one we sampled at Mr Okuda’s Kojyu restaurant. The second ideogram, based on the concept of simplicity, translates as "breast-stone" and represents the cuisine that accompanied the original Buddhist tea ceremony. During periods of fasting, the monks would place a hot stone on their stomachs in order to stave off hunger. Also underpinning this ideogram is the concept of simplicity.
The Kaiseki cuisine that accompanies the chanoyu is both refined and complex. But in Japan there is an aesthetic based on the principle of examination. The householder will decorate the room in which the tea is taken with flowers gathered from the wild or the garden, rather than purchased flowers that would be deemed inappropriate. The host takes care of arranging the bouquets or preserving the beauty of the garden through the placing of leaves among the stones.
An extended version of the chanoyu can last several hours. Conversely, shorter gatherings of barely less than an hour are just as commonplace. Although, no meal is served in these shorter gatherings, there will be sweets on offer. It seems the Japanese never drink without eating.