Photo/Illutration Prior to the pandemic, participants in "ochamori" ceremonies shared an exceptionally large bowl to sample "matcha" powdered green tea, which required the help of others to hoist it up. (Photo taken by Sayuri Ide at Saidaiji temple in Nara on Jan. 15, 2019)

NARA--Nara's famed Saidaiji temple here is breaking temporarily with its nearly 800-year tradition of serving "matcha" powdered green tea in huge bowls during "ochamori" festive ceremonies as a precaution against COVID-19.

Traditionally, bowls measuring up to 40 centimeters or so in diameter are shared by participants. But from April, each participant will sip separately from 20-cm bowls.

Saidaiji is the headquarters of the Shingon Risshu sect of Buddhism and one of the "Nanto shichidaiji" (seven great temples in Nara). The ochamori ceremony dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

It originated when the priest Eison dedicated tea to Hachimanjinja, the guardian shrine of the temple, as a token of gratitude for restoring Saidaiji. The leftover brew was then offered to local residents.

It is said that tea was consumed as a medicine at the time, and people drank it from shared large bowls and barrels.

Tea bowls measuring about 20 cm in diameter were used in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Ochamori was reduced in scale during World War II, but revived in the postwar period with the help of Mushakoji Senke, one of the three Senke tea schools.

Before long, large bowls started being used for the ceremony.

Ochamori is held annually in January, April and October.

It is believed that the sharing of tea prepared in a single bowl leads to the realization of the Buddhist ideal of "ichimi wago" (uniting people's minds).


The ochamori ceremonies were canceled in April and October last year due to the pandemic.

In November, the temple decided to resume the ceremony on a trial basis at the urging of local residents eager to see the tradition continue. Tea was separately served in bowls measuring about 20 cm in diameter. Each participant maintained social distancing.

However, the ceremony was canceled again this past January due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Despite criticism that the ceremony loses its original purpose if tea is not served in shared bowls, the temple concluded it would still be meaningful if it was performed in a different way.

For the time being, it has decided to offer tea separately for each participant instead of serving it in large bowls being passed around.

The temple said it will pay close attention to any spike in COVID-19 cases.

"It is difficult to continue the tradition while the novel coronavirus pandemic rages," said chief priest Ryuyo Matsumura. "We also wonder in anguish as we ask ourselves what we can do to carry on the tradition. We hope as many people as possible can visit the temple with their minds at ease."

The spring ochamori is scheduled to be held on April 10-11.