Cha-kai and cha-ji

In chanoyu or sadō, the Japanese way of tea (I prefer not to use the term tea “ceremony”) , there are basically two types of tea gatherings, one the more „casual“ ones, called cha-kai or translated tea gathering or tea party (茶会 / which still might not look so casual for beginners) and the very formal cha-ji (茶事).

The three biggest differences are the offered tea and food, duration, and the number of participants and the. Cha-kai takes approximately thirty to forty minutes, while cha-ji takes several hours. Also the number of participants at cha-ji is limited to a small group of people who received a personal invitation by the host, whereas cha-kai can host a huge number of people. Since the number of guests often is quite high at cha-kai, it is impossible for the host to personally prepare tea for all guests. That’s why he prepares only the first two cups and everyone else receives a cup of tea prepared by other members of the tea school (or tea club in case of Universities) who is hosting the event.

At cha-kai, usually usucha (薄茶) or thin tea is used. Usucha is the type of matcha (抹茶) that is most widely spread, which is whipped in hot water. Before drinking usucha, tea confectionery is served. But there is also another type of tea, which is called koicha (濃茶) or thick tea. It is, as it says, a very thick tea. It is not whipped, but mixed to a smooth liquid. Koicha is prepared in one bowl for all guests. When preparing, the host calculates the correct amount of tea for the number of guests, who than hand the bowl of tea around.

During cha-ji, both types of matcha are served to the guests, each one during a different cha-seki (茶席) which refers to one “performance”. Does this sound confusing? Actually, cha-kai consists of only one cha-seki, but one cha-ji consists of two cha-seki, each as a separated “performance”. Not only tea, but also a light meal called kaiseki ryōri (懐石料理) and sake are served during cha-ji and a sumi temae (墨手前), a performance of preparing the charcoal is shown.

What happens during cha-ji in detail?

First, the guests assemble in a waiting room and receive a cup of boiled water to calm down. They are silently greeted by the host and follow him to a dwell in the garden where they clean their hands and mouth at a dwell before entering the tea room. This is more a mental act than physical cleaning, in order to clear the mind and spirit.

The guests sit down in the tea room and appreciate toko no ma (床の間, a sort of alcove) decorated with a scroll, tea flower(s) and incent, and they also have a glance at the utensils. This is called seki iri (席入り). When everyone arrived, the guests watch depending on the season either sumi temae, the preparation of the charcoal by the host, or they receive kaiseki ryōri. (Sumi temae is done later in the hot summer season in order to keep the room cool and in the cold season it is the opposite in order to warm up the room). After the light meal, Japanese confectionery is served.

Then the guests leave the room and wait in the garden for the host to do the preparations for the first cha-seki. This short break is called nakadachi (中立). With the sound of the gong, the guests return, and the first cha-seki begins with the preparation of koicha by the host. In the end, the second chaseki is conducted, during which the guests are sweets and then usucha prepared by the host.

Here’s a line-up of the steps in cha-ji:

  1. seki iri 席入り
  2. sumi-temae 炭手前
  3. kaiseki 懐石
  4. nakadachi 中立
  5. koicha 濃茶
  6. usucha 薄茶

This video gives a good overview on cha-ji. The video is in Japanese, but the pictures speak for themselves. (Credits: millieme5111).

How should I behave at cha-kai or cha-ji?

To sum it up, cha-kai is much simpler, whereas cha-ji are the most formal events in chanoyu. Therefore also the rules for the guests are different. Cha-kai are often held at festivals, like school campus festivals or local city or temple festivals. Outside of Japan, one can often join cha-kai during Japan-related festivals or tourism fairs. During these kind of cha-kai, especially these for international guests, everyone can enjoy the event freely, there are no rules for what to wear or manners one absolutely has to obey. And participants are free to ask their questions on every aspect of chanoyu. But at local festivals in Japan, it is considered impolite to wear short clothes or show the bare shoulders. Therefore, if you prepare for a cha-kai, make sure to dress decently.

In contrast to cha-kai, during cha-ji, there are strict rules for the guests, what to wear and how to behave. White tabi (足袋), Japanese socks are a must. Formal wear, like a suit or elegant wear is recommended. Kimono are also often worn, and also for kimono there are many rules one has to follow. Make-up, nail polish, perfume and accessorizes (except for the hair) are a no-go. About kaiseki ryōri, if you have allergies or if you are a vegetarian, make sure to inform the host beforehand since it is also impolite to leave over the dishes the host served. Also the arrival time has to be appropriate and one should not be too late or too early. The guests have to bring a fan (there are also rules on which fan is appropriate for men and women), kaishi – a type of paper that serves as a plate for the tea sweets and a cutter for the sweets. The guests also have to know the manners during the cha-seki, how to appreciate the utensils or how to drink koicha.

Do you have any questions about cha-kai or cha-ji? Or have you ever visited one of them? Please leave a comment below and share your questions or experiences with us.


Sadō shiryō-kan. Sadō bunka kentei kōshiki tesuto. Cha no yu o manabu hon. Ikkyū, nikyū-yō. Kyōto: Tankō-sha, 2009. 茶道資料館、「茶道文化検定公式テキスト -茶の湯をまなぶ本-1級・2級用」、京都、淡交社、2009年。


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