Japanese Tea History
The history of tea is steeped in nearly 5,000 years of tradition and legend. Most people know that tea originated in China. Tales of the legendary Emperor Shen Nong’s serendipitous discovery of the beverage in 2737 B.C.E., and myths about Bodhidharma’s (Japanese = Daruma, early 5th Century C.E.) severed eyelids sprouting the first tea plants are about all we have concerning tea’s earliest murky origins. What we do know for sure is that wild tea plants existed (and still exist) in Southern China’s Yunnan Province, written references to tea in China began around 350 C.E., and that actual cultivation of tea developed in the next few hundred years after that as the demand for tea gradually exceeded the availability of wild tea. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea becomes a common beverage of the aristocracy. Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, Ch’a Ching is written in 780 documenting this past time of the elite.
Tea Comes to Japan
Tea was originally used for medicinal purposes, and tea’s consumption was limited to the aristocracy and clergy. This use in the Buddhist community was what brought tea from China to Japan by the priests Saicho (767-822) in 805, and Kukai (774-835) in 806. They are credited with being the early transmitters of the tea culture that accompanied Buddhism which was introduced to the aristocracy of Japan. After Emperor Saga (786-842, reign 809-823) was served tea by Eichu (743-816), another priest recently returned from China, at Boshakuji Temple in Omi in 815; he commands that tea cultivation begin. A growing thirst develops among the elite for this medicinal and magical beverage.
A second wave of Buddhism came to Japan in the late 12th Century, this time with a focus on the philosophies of Zen Buddhism that so attracted the warrior class. In this period, it was the monk Eisai (1141-1215) who brought seeds of tea and enlightenment back from China and established cultivation in Uji, an outer district of Kyoto. In 1214, Eisai wrote Kissa Yojiki, (Health Benefits of Tea), the first book in Japan dedicated to tea.
Japanese tea culture went through great localization and development during the 13th-17th centuries. What had been an appreciation for Chinese tea culture had evolved into a completely native Japanese tea culture. The foundations of what we know as the Japanese “Tea Ceremony” (Cha no yu) emerged during this time under the influence of early tea masters such as Murata Shuko (1423-1502), the priest Ikkyu (1394-1481), Takeno Jouou (1502-1555), and most famously Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591,) whose precepts on tea still form the basis of much of modern Cha no yu.
Tea Spreads to the General Population
Still, tea was a beverage and past time of the elite; aristocrats, Buddhist clergy, and warriors. It was also consumed mostly in ground powdered form. It was not until the 1700’s that tea became available to the general populace and that infused leaf tea became commonplace. It was Nagatani Soen who developed sencha in 1738 in Uji. Tea demand, production, and tea culture boomed in the ensuing peace and economic development of the Edo Period (1600-1868) and continued to develop in the modern era. The main cultivar grown in Japan today, and that which commands over 80% of the Japanese tea market, is Yabukita, which was developed in Shizuoka Prefecture by Sugiyama Hikosaburo in 1954. This prefecture alone now produces nearly half of the tea grown in Japan.
Tea in Japan Today
The past several decades have seen a decline in traditional Japanese tea consumption. The westernization of the Japanese diet and the recent increase in cold bottled teas on supermarket and convenience store shelves have dampened the demand for fresh green tea from neighborhood “mom & pop” tea merchants and local farmers. However, recent medical evidence pointing to the nutritional benefits of tea is reinforcing what tradition has indicated all along, an association between tea and good health. These studies have increased the awareness and popularity of tea both outside and inside Asia, bringing us back to the beginning of our 5,000 year-old story with tea being consumed for physical and spiritual health benefits. Although this recent surge, or resurgence, in popularity may be attributed to the health benefits associated with tea consumption; it is also true that tea has already long been the world’s second most popular beverage, after water. Tea has also become infused with the traditions and aesthetics of each culture whose path it has crossed in the 5,000 year-long journey; a journey that begins anew with each cup of tea we enjoy.