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Tea 101: Origins – Japan

Jan 14, 2020 | Coffee & Tea 101, Tea

A Brief History of Tea in Japan

While tea ultimately began to spread wherever Chinese sailors set anchor, the monk Saisho – who had been sent to China as an envoy – is typically credited with the earliest introduction of tea in his home of Japan in the 9th century.

But it wasn’t until Saisho’s successor, Eisai – a monk and the eventual founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism – brought seeds from the tea tree to the island of Kyushu, and subsequently Kyoto, that cultivation of the crop began to take root.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, tea in Japan was primarily used in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, implementing the brewing methods common in China. The Buddhist monks that Esai previously studied with had devised a soothing, Zen-like process whisking hot water with ground tea leaves to create a frothy beverage.

In 1214, Eisai penned the first tome focusing on Japanese tea culture to that point, “Kissa Yojoki,” translated as “How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea.” He is also credited with introducing tea as a medicinal beverage to the Samurai, where It gradually became a social underpinning of the warriors’ culture.

From the 14th to the 16th century, the practices of tea drinking – and specifically tea ceremonies – were passed down from generation to generation, ultimately becoming a focal point of Japanese culture and aristocracy. In the 16th century, the priest Sen Rikyu codified the ceremonies that had developed throughout hundreds of years of tradition.

In his book, “Southern Record,” Rikyu established many of the guiding principles of the Japanese Tea Ceremony – harmony, respect, tranquility, and purity – that are still upheld today, as well as the reverence of an occasion that can never be replicated or reproduced.

After Rikyu’s passing, three schools were founded in his name to uphold the legacy of the artform.

A Brief Glance

The renowned Japanese green tea, or “ocha,” is known for its grass-like taste and aroma. A variety of green teas are consumed in Japan, however. The bright green, powdered Matcha continues to be used today in Japanese tea ceremonies. Other common varieties include:

Sencha: The most popular green tea in Japan boasts a golden-yellow infusion and a delicate, sweet aroma and flavor.
Genmaicha: Often referred to as “popcorn tea” for its inclusion of puffed rice, this savory blend of tea and grains is nutty by nature with a bright gold color.
Bancha: This coarse tea created from darker, firmer leaves and stems yields a more astringent green tea than sencha or genmaicha.
Gyokuro: Kept in the shade 20 days before being harvested, the smoothest, most expensive tea in Japan undergoes a rigorous preparation, making it one of the country’s more coveted beverages.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Also known as Chanoyu, Sado, or “the Way of Tea,” a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is focused on connecting with a small group of guests on a spiritual level. Presentation and attention to the most minute detail is every bit as critical as the process of consuming the thick matcha tea used, and the execution of the ceremony requires both a skilled host who has undergone years of training and a serene environment.

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