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What Is Chamei?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2016
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Chamei, translated in Japanese, is “tea name.” The same word is written in two different ways to refer to two different things. When a highly regarded tea plantation produces a crop or a blend, it is given a specific name. Additionally, when a person has mastered the protocols and the art of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, he, too, is bestowed a name. The host and master of a tea ceremony has a chamei, and he may proudly announce the chamei of the tea being served to his guests.

For centuries, the Japanese tea ceremony has been a strictly defined, complex ritual. Many people attend years of classes to master it. A student’s progress is measured by a system of ranking in the form of graduating licenses to study successive levels of the art. Along with the philosophies and cultural significance of tea, a beginning student will be taught how to prepare and distinguish two types of tea. One is usucha, a thin or light tea, and the other is koicha, a thick or dark tea.

Both are green teas, produced specially for the ceremony in powdered form. Loose leaf teas are not served in a Japanese tea ceremony. Together with technical skills such as heating a pot of water to the correct temperature, the teas are prepared with the use of specialized tools such as a bamboo whisk. Some students may never graduate from this first level. The highest levels are called the okuden, or deep secret.

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A student who completes these final levels must then apply to a governing body in Kyoto, Japan for the seal of Urasenke Oiemoto, or Grand Tea Master. If approved, the student’s license will include his new chamei, a name under which he is free to practice the tea ceremony on his own, perhaps to teach others. Most Masters choose a one-word name, in a style not unlike the signatures of ancient Japanese woodblock print artists. If pursued as a part time hobby, this may take ten years or more.

The tea that is served at a ceremony is called ma’cha. The dried green tea leaves are finely ground to a powder. Some farms in Japan which have been cultivating the plant for hundreds of years may regard a given year’s harvest and subsequent milling to be worthy of a chamei, a defining name. The name is always a poetic one, often inspired by nature. Translated examples of the names of specific ceremonial teas might be “Light of a Thousand Years,” or “Joyous Pine Trees.”

A Grand Tea Master is also allowed to name teas. In a fashion not unlike a winery which blends the grapes from several different vineyard sources, the Master receives powdered tea from select farms to create his unique personal blends. They are proudly given a chamei, and claimed to be his konomi, or preference. For some Grand Masters of singular reputation, it can be a significant source of annual income.

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