Complete History of Japanese Green Tea

The consumption of green tea in Japan has a very long history. Originally, it was brought over from China and a few hundred years later was it planted in Japan for the first time. It was first consumed by the monks, and then by the upper class and only much later on was it consumed by every strata of society. 

The earliest records of tea consumption in Japan date back to the 8th century. During this time, the city of Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, and Chinese teas were consumed by the monks and by the emperor. It was common for Buddhist monks and diplomats to take trips to China and bring back cultural practices as well as literature and art to share with people in Japan. Tea was one of the practices that made its way from China to Japan.

The monks were among the first to consume tea in early Japan, and they found that the tea helped them stay calm and alert during long periods of meditation. We now know that this is due to the combination of caffeine and l-theanine, which is almost unique to the tea plant. The l-theanine stimulates alpha brainwave activity, which are the same brain waves stimulated during meditation.

Although there are records of tea being consumed in Japan as early as the 8th century, the first record of the plant being cultivated in Japan wasn’t until 1191, when the monk Eisai brought back tea seeds from China and planted them on the grounds of Kozanji temple outside of Kyoto. This temple is in the Toganoo mountains. Toganoo tea was once considered the finest tea in all of Japan, and many only considered the tea real if it was grown in this area.

In 1214, the monk Eisai introduced tea to the Samurai class. The value of tea to the samurai was originally limited to helping cure their hangovers, but later they accepted it once they embraced the principles of Zen Buddhism. Tea and Zen Buddhism were often intertwined throughout history. Dogen even included notes on serving tea during Buddhist rituals and Muso Soseki even stated that “tea and Zen are one”

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Before the development of the modern tea ceremony, tea was seen as an

opportunity for the upper classes to showcase their wealth. They held gatherings in opulent tea houses around Kyoto to showcase their exotic tea and teaware. 

Then a man known as Sen no Rikyu came along with a more humble vision for what a tea ceremony should look like. Rather than a gold plated façade, Rikyu advocated for a rustic and small tea house away from the noise of the city. 

The first step of the tea ceremony begins not when you walk inside the teahouse, but actually on the path leading up to it. While walking along this path, guests purify their hearts and thoughts and leave their worldly worries behind. In a symbolic gesture, guests also purify their hands and mouth in this water before entering the tea house. This allows them to wash away the dust from the outside world. The guests then wait outside the tea house to quiet their mind before entering. The tea ceremony is built on the philosophy Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. 

An example of Harmony is shown in the gardens around the tea room. The gardens are to be an extension of the flora surrounding it, living in harmony with nature. 

The next concept is “Kei” or respect. The guests need to respect all things, regardless of their status or position in life. This is demonstrated at the entrance of the tearoom, where guests crawl through a small door. In order to get through the door, they need to bow. Samurai must bow, emperors must bow and commoners must bow. Once inside the tearoom, all guests are equal, regardless of their status outside. 

The third concept “Sei” or purity, is demonstrated by the tea master once the guests enter the room. Through a series of refined movements, the teamaster cleans and purifies the utensils used in the ceremony. The concept of “Sei” does not simply refer to physical purity, but also spiritual and mental purity. The guests need to purify their mind of thoughts and worries when entering the tea house. It is only then that they will be able to enjoy something as simple as a bowl of tea in silence. 

Finally, after all three concepts are discovered and embraced, all people in the ceremony can embody “Jaku” or tranquility. This was the vision that Sen no Rikyu had for the tea ceremony, and his teachings still live on, not only inside the tearoom, but outside as well. 

The inside of the tearoom is modestly decorated. Each tea ceremony follows a theme, and that theme is simply conveyed through the use of a flower arrangement and a scroll. The theme of today’s tea ceremony is “wood” and the flower arrangement conveys the leaves beginning to fall from the trees. 

The scroll on the wall expresses the intention of cleansing our hearts before the upcoming winter Season. The theme of “wood” is also conveyed in the objects used in the tea ceremony. Here is an incense holder made from bamboo gathered around Uji. There is also another small object that is used to produce a specific scent in the tea room. The rest of the objects are used for the preparation of the matcha. 

First we have the Hishaku, a bamboo ladle used to scoop hot water out of the Kama or iron pot. A small square is carved out in the tatami mats to make room for this iron pot and keep the water hot throughout the day. 

Next, we have the tea bowl or Chawan. This is a clay bowl made by hand inspired by Furuta Oribe, a disciple of Sen no Rikyu. The bowl has a weight to it that conveys the importance of what’s inside. 

Next we have the Fukusa, the cloth that is used to clean off the tea utensils before using them. This is a sign of respect for the guests and it is done in a series of graceful movements. 

The Natsume or tea caddy is the vessel that the matcha tea powder is kept in. Matcha tea has to be protected from light and humidity to maintain its quality. 

The Chashaku is the bamboo spoon used to scoop the matcha powder into the bowl, and the chasen is the bamboo whisk that’s used to mix the powder into water and form a nice foam. 

To prepare the matcha for the tea ceremony, the host first must prepare the tea whisk and the tea bowl. She pours hot water from the iron pot into the tea bowl to warm it up. Then, she will take the tea whisk and gently soak each side of it. This does two things, first, it heats up the tea bowl so that it does not cool the matcha down too quickly, and it also makes the bamboo whisk more pliable. 

The chasen tea whisk is made out of a single piece of bamboo, with very fine bristles that can break if it is too brittle. That is why she gently moves the whisk through the water first before preparing the tea. 

The host then discards the water into a Kensui or waste water bowl.

The bowl is then cleaned with a different type of cloth called the Chakin. Once the bowl has been thoroughly cleaned, it is time to add the matcha. The host adds two large scoops of matcha into the bowl. In this case, the host is preparing Usucha, a normal matcha but she may also use more matcha and less water to create a powerful Koicha, or thick matcha. 

Next, water is added to the bowl using the Hishaku. Finally, the host begins the whisking of the matcha. The bamboo whisk is specifically designed to mix the matcha into the water in the perfect way. The whisk also creates small air bubbles in the tea, giving it a smooth and creamy taste. The host starts by scraping off the sides of the bowl, and then moves into a diagonal movement to create a foamy texture. 

Once the matcha has been prepared, the host presents the bowl to the guest, with the most decorative side facing them. This is a sign of humility and respect, allowing others to enjoy the most beautiful part of the bowl. 

When the guest is finished with the matcha, they place the bowl on the other section Of the Tatami mat.

For hundreds of years, Uji was the hub of tea cultivation in early Japan, and it still maintains much of that status today, particularly for matcha. Many tourists come to Uji every year to take part in tea ceremonies at Taihoan tea house, and to visit the many matcha shops between Uji station and Byodoin temple. In the surrounding areas of Ogura and Ujitawara there are also many historical sights to commemorate the invention of Sencha and Gyokuro tea.

In the 1500s and 1600s, matcha was the primary way to consume green tea in Japan, but that all changed with the invention of Nagatani Soen. This tea grower in Uji discovered that rather than grinding tea leaves into a powder, they could be steamed, rolled and dried to maintain their flavor for long periods of time. They could then be prepared in a teapot and poured into a glass. This discovery allowed Nagatani Soen to popularize the use of Sencha tea, now by far the most common type of green tea in Japan. 

The Childhood home of Nagatani Soen is now a popular tourist attraction and a nearby shrine was built to commemorate his discovery of Sencha in 1737. Larger Japanese tea companies fund the upkeep of this shrine, in order to pay their respects to the father of modern Japanese green tea. If you ever get to visit Uji, it may be worth the short trip over to Ujitawara to see this site for yourself.

An important discovery in the history of Japanese green tea happened at this site in Ogura. A tea merchant by the name Yamamoto Kahei had traveled around Japan to study tea cultivation and he noticed that certain family farms would cover their tea plants to protect them from the cold. By cutting off the sunlight from the plants, it actually made the tea sweeter. He began to implement this method and in 1841 he created a long shaded tea that developed a green residue during the production process. He named this tea Gyokuro or “Jade Dew”

Gyokuro became famous for its trademark sweet and savory flavor, and this sparked a renaissance in the production of Japanese green tea. Farmers now could experiment with different levels of shading, different steaming, rolling and drying techniques to create the wide array of tea varieties we see today. 

In the early 20th century, another important tea production method was discovered and that was roasting. This practice began in Kyoto and later spread out to all of Japan. By roasting the teas, farmers and producers were able to create a completely unique tasting experience, playing off of these warmer notes of coffee, caramel and chocolate. 

Starting in the mid 20th century the tea production process in Japan became more industrialized. The harvesting of the tea could be done by machine, and so could the steaming, rolling and drying. This allows the farmers to produce tea more efficiently with less manual labor. Certain tea factories in Japan are almost completely automated, taking in fresh leaves and moving them through the production with a series of conveyor belts.

In modern Japan, the most common way to consume tea is now in bottled form. These ready to drink teas are sold in vending machines on virtually every street corner in Tokyo. They keep the drinks hot in the winter and cool in the summer. Although these teas aren’t anything close to freshly brewed loose leaf tea, these unsweetened bottled teas commonly outsell sugary soft drinks, which is quite an accomplishment. This shows that the love of tea in modern society isn’t going away anytime soon.