The history of green tea in japan is long and interesting. Tea first originated in China, but soon after it made its way over to the Islands, it began to change form and become uniquely Japanese.
Nowadays, the tea culture and production of Japan has come to rival its mainland counterpart. In this article, we are going to track the history of tea in Japan and see how it has evolved into the drink we know it as today.
We will also take a look at japan tea ceremony history, and learn how tea has become such an important part of Japanese culture.
Origins, Developments & History of green tea in japan
Before we talk about the history of green tea in japan, we first have to dive into the history of tea in China. Although Japan has a long and rich history of tea consumption, it is important to note that it was brought over from China.
While no one truly knows where the tea plant was first discovered, most agree that the plant first started being used in the Yunnan province of China during the Shang dynasty between 1500-1046 BC.
Just like other herbal concoctions of the time, tea leaves were most likely ground up and put into boiling water to be used as a type of medicinal brew.
This was more like a soup rather than what we would consider a tea by today's standards. Tea was brought all over China, and it was in the province of Sichuan where it is thought to have first taken the form that we recognize today, without being added to other herbs.
2nd century BCE - Earliest Physical Records of Tea Consumption in China
The earliest physical records of tea were found as recently as 2016 in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han. This indicates that tea was consumed by the emperors as far back as the 2nd century BCE, with credible written records suggesting it was drunk much earlier.
No one knows for sure when tea was first consumed as a stimulant, but in 220AD in a medical text Shi Lun (食论) by Hua Tuo, who stated, "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better." This enhanced concentration provided by tea drinking made it very useful to the Chinese monks.
8th century - Chinese Monk exported Tea to Japan
This is where the history of tea in japan really began. 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 influence of the Buddhist culture
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.
12th Century - Monk Eisai & the Samurai
The history of tea in japan really began to get interesting once the tea started being grown on the islands. 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.
The health benefits of tea
The history of tea in japan began to transition from the temples to the rest of country. In 1211, Eisai wrote the book “kissa yojiki” on the health benefits of tea, and for the first time people other than monks and emperors began to take notice.
In 1214, the 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'.
13th century - tea became a symbol of status among warriors and high society
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.
This can be seen in the story of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the primary resident of Ginkakuji or 'the silver pavilion' outside of Kyoto. It was here that he hosted tea gatherings of the upper classes to showcase his knowledge of tea and his expensive teaware in a gold plated tea room.
It was here that japan tea ceremony history began, but it would need to undergo a radical transformation in order to become what we recognize today.
15th century - Japanese Tea Ceremony had a radical value change
There is no person who has contributed more to the japan tea ceremony history more than Sen no Rikyu. Born during the turbulent Sengoku period to a family of merchants, Rikyu set out to make a name for himself during a time of surprisingly high social mobility.
At the time, tea gatherings were a way to reinforce power dynamics. Powerful and wealthy people would have others over to show their prestige and sophistication.
Then 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. It was here that Rikyu would plan out the purpose and the procedure for the tea ceremony, and leave his mark on the japan tea ceremony history.
Sen no Rikyu's vision
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 ceremonial matcha.
17th century - The golden age the tea ceremony
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. Understanding these principles is a crucial part in understanding japan tea ceremony history.
An example of “wa” or 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.
Jaku (elegance and tranquility)
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.
What are the different steps of the tea ceremony?
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.
Adding in the Matcha
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.
Preparing the 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.
Presenting the Matcha
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.
The essential utensils used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony
An important part of understanding japan tea ceremony history is understanding the utensils used in the tea ceremony. Each of these reinforce the principles and purpose of the tea ceremony, so they not only carry practical importance, but symbolic importance as well.
This towel is okay to get wet, which distinguishes it from the Fukusa, which is meant to remain dry during the cleansing of the tea utensils.
The chakin is made entirely from hemp and is used by the tea master to clean off the chawan or matcha bowl during the tea ceremony.
This purification process emphasizes one of the core principles of the tea ceremony, purity, which makes the chakin an even more important part of the Japanese tea ceremony and the history of green tea in japan.
The chasen or matcha whisk is the probably the utensil that most people will recognize. This is the best tool when it comes to whisking up matcha tea.
It is made out of a single piece of bamboo and it has between 80-100 small bristles that move through the water to aerate the tea.
This creates a nice light green foam on top of the matcha, which can give the tea a smoother and creamier taste and consistency. The chasen matcha whisk has been long interwoven with the history of green tea in Japan.
The chashaku is specifically designed to be the best spoon for scooping matcha powder and it is a key part of the tea ceremony.
The design may seem simple at first glance, but it has a few key features that can make it easier to prepare matcha. First off, it has more of a vertical design, compared to the horizontal design of most kitchen spoons. This makes it easier for the chashaku to scoop out of narrower containers like a matcha tin.
The second key design feature is that the chashaku is a pretty good measurement tool. All you need is two heaping spoonfuls from the chashaku and you will have the perfect amount of powder to create a bowl of matcha tea.
After the chasen, the chawan or matcha bowl is probably the second most recognizable tool used in the tea ceremony.
This may look like an ordinary bowl at first, but just like with the chashaku there are a few key features that help to improve the tea ceremony. First, it has steeper walls, making it easier to whisk up matcha tea without spilling.
It also is made out of a thick clay, which helps to convey a sense of importance and it also helps to keep the matcha tea warm as long as it is preheated.
Finally, it usually has a beautiful pattern on the side, which is meant to be turned towards the guest to demonstrate one of the core principles of the Japanese tea ceremony.
One of the core principles of the Japanese tea ceremony is respect, and this is demonstrated by the guest allowing others to look at the most beautiful side of the chawan as they drink the matcha tea.
Unlike the Chakin, this towel is meant to remain dry, and it is used to purify the objects used in the tea ceremony like the natsume and the chashaku.
This cloth is made out of silk rather than hemp and it is usually kept around the waist of the tea master until it is ready to be unfolded at the start of the tea ceremony.
After the tea master is done using the fukusa, she will fold it back up the same way, and place it back on her belt.
The hishaku is the bamboo ladle used to scoop the water out from the iron pot and into the matcha bowl.
The tea master will fill the hishaku halfway up with water in order to prepare the matcha tea.
A Hishaku can also be used outside of temples as part of the purification ritual, but these ones tend to be much larger.
The kama is the iron pot used to heat the water during the tea ceremony. When you walk into the tea room, you may notice a square hole carved out in the tatami mats. This is where the kama or iron pot is nestled inside, and it is lined with a bronze, heat proof material that also contains hot coals at the bottom. These hot coals are how the water is heated throughout the tea ceremony.
The natsume is also called the “tea caddy” and it is the small container used to transport the matcha powder during the tea ceremony. The matcha powder inside here will usually be presifted, saving the host one more step in the tea ceremony. This is usually made out of lacquered or unprocessed wood and it gets the name because it resembles the jujube fruit which is called natsume in Japanese.
18th Century - Switch to Leaf Tea
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.
They also come to learn about the history of green tea in Japan. 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.
19th Innovation and Industrialization
Like most things, the history of tea in japan changed radically during the industrial revolution. An important discovery in the history of Japanese green tea happened at a small 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.
The history of tea in Japan is not over! 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.