Unlike the sodas and industrial drinks we know today, tea is a drink with a history and culture dating back more than a millennium. Crossing medieval Japan, the Edo era, modern and then contemporary Japan, the production and consumption of tea has gradually been introduced into Japanese customs and culture. This know-how passed down from generation to generation by tea masters and Buddhist monks was perfected over centuries in order to refine its flavors and increase its medicinal virtues.
Today, there are more than 5 million tons of tea produced annually in the world. And as we will discover, its quality and its expansion across the globe are strongly correlated with the land of the rising sun. It is therefore with passion and pleasure that we share with you today the wonderful story of one of the most emblematic drinks of Japan: tea .
The emergence of tea in Japan
The year 729 marks the first relationship between tea and the Japanese people. While the 45th Japanese emperor, Shōmu (reign: 724-749), was invited with 100 monks to a Buddhist ceremony in China . They were served green tea which was then called Hikicha no Gi or Gyocha no Gi , literally “to offer tea to someone”. However, they returned to Japan without taking care to bring back some seeds. It will therefore be necessary to wait seventy-six years for Japan to begin to appropriate this plant on its territory.
The first tea plantations in Japan
It was the Buddhist monks Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835) who brought the first Camillia Sinensis tea seeds from China in 805. This importation led to the first tea plantation on Japanese soil in Saga Prefecture. (in black on the map), on the island Kyūshū. However, some theories claim that tea already existed wild in mountainous areas. It was then called Sancha and was used in the form of an infusion and for medical use only.
Source: Google Maps
At that time, tea was still very little known in the country and only wealthy Japanese could afford to taste this extremely rare beverage. But little by little, tea will become popular among aristocratic and monastic circles. So much so that in 815, Emperor Saga (786-842) himself was served green tea by Eichû during one of their interviews in the Bonshakuji temple. However, tea still has the unique reputation of being a Chinese medicinal plant. It is not consumed for its flavors, but for its revitalizing virtues and to promote spiritual awakening.
The decline of tea in Japan
While tea began to intrude into the daily lives and habits of Japanese Buddhist monks, the diplomatic rupture between Japan and China and the fall of the Tang dynasty brought tea into great decline. Although a few tea gardens were planted in Japan in Saga Prefecture, tea remained a drink consumed mainly thanks to its supply from China. China's influence fell suddenly in 838. Fatally, all traces of tea disappeared in Japan and it was not until the end of the Heian period (784-1192) that we found a mention of tea in the history of Japan.
The return of tea to Japan
After more than 300 years of absence, tea finally made its comeback in 1191 in the land of the rising sun. Diplomatic relations with China have improved, and Buddhist monks now often make trips from one coast to the other.
Appearance of matcha tea in Japan
Fatefully, a monk ends up bringing tea seeds to Japan for the second time. He then brought the science necessary to cultivate the matcha tea we know today. This monk is called Eisai (1141-1215). Today he is considered to be the one who imported tea into Japanese territory and who allowed it to develop there. A year before his death, in 1214, he published a work entitled “staying healthy by drinking green tea”. This book was a huge success and it allowed tea to reintroduce itself into the daily lives of the Japanese naturally as a healthy drink, but also, and for the first time, as a drink distinguished for its flavors. It must be said that over the years tea culture had had time to evolve in China and its taste was felt.
The democratization of tea in Japan
When Eisai died, his disciples took up the torch. Myoé Shonin (1173-1232), one of these, planted a tea garden northeast of Kyoto, in Uji. Still, this city maintains an unrivaled reputation for tea production. Another of his disciples, Dôgen (1200-1253), imported many utensils that are usually found with tea, such as the whisk and other tools used in its manufacture or consumption. He will then use this equipment to establish a precise ritual in his cloister detailing how tea should be consumed. Without knowing it, Dôgen had just left the first traces in the history of the famous tea ceremony that we know today in Japan. A little later, it was the monk Musō Soseki (1275-1351) who popularized this know-how and shared it with a greater number of people.
Year after year, Japan begins to reclaim this drink and sets up plantations in Kyoto, Yamato, Musashi and many other cities. The shogun of the time even had it personally delivered and manufacturing methods began to multiply, tea then became democratized for good in Japanese culture. The craze was such that the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu even went so far as to have his own tea gardens, and green tea competitions were organized during the Kamakura era (1185-1333). Similar events are still organized in Japan as we can see in the video below which takes us to the heart of one of these tea rolling competitions which took place in 2015.
Arrival of the tea ceremony in Japan
After such an expansion of tea in Japan, it was not long before a formal tea ceremony was adopted. The tea master Murata Jukō (1392-1502) was the initiator. After him, Takeno Jōō (1502-1555) helped popularize this tasting process by developing numerous tea rooms throughout Japan.
In this way, day after day and year after year, the Japanese adopted this drink in their daily lives. Tea gradually crossed the social layers which until then separated it from the working classes.
The history of tea houses in Japan
The first tea house, Sakaisenke, appeared under the leadership of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), a tea master who helped create the tea path . But this school disappeared shortly after because Sen no Rikyū's son, Sen Dōan (1546–1607), had no heir to take over the reins of this school. However, Sen no Rikyū's adopted son, Sen Shōan (1546-1614), had a son who gave birth to Sen no Rikyū's four grandsons, three of whom inherited or developed their own tea house.
- Kōshin Sōsa (1613–1672) iemoto master (leader who transmits the teachings and methods of the school) instilling the Fushin-an style as leader of the Omotesenke .
- Sensō Sōshitsu (1622–1697) iemoto master instilling the Konnichi-an style as leader of the Urasenke .
- Ichiō Sōshu (1605–1676) iemoto master instilling the Kankyū-an style as leader of the Mushakōjisenke .
These three schools (Omotesenke, Urasenke, Mushakōjisenke) known as the San-Senke have fervently transmitted from generation to generation the ideals and knowledge of tea that their grandfather Sen no Rikyū had taught them.
Other schools, the ryū , were then built on the San-Senke system across the country and governed independently by different factions. Today there are a multitude of different tea houses that have been established throughout Japan.
The Perfection of Tea in Japan
In 1654, Ingen Ryūki (1592-1673), a Chinese monk known for having founded the Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism in Japan, was invited to Japan to build the Manpuku-ji temple which was built in 1661. is still the largest Buddhist temple today. During her stay in Japan, Ingen Ryūki shared with the Japanese people a new technique which consisted of directly brewing tea leaves instead of grinding them. In this way, tea no longer had to be consumed quickly. He also brought a special teapot equipped with a side handle which would be the ancestor of the kyusu. The teapots that we use a lot today to consume matcha tea, like the wooden one below:
Discovery of the tea “shading” technique
In 1707 Mount Fuji experienced a terrible earthquake preceding one of its most violent eruptions which took place 49 days later: the great eruption of Hōei. There were no lava flows but the ashes were spread over hundreds of kilometers. The rains that followed caused widespread damage throughout the territory, including the destruction of dams built to protect against avalanches.
Tea cultivation was therefore forced to adapt to weather conditions. No longer able to grow tea in the sky, rice straw shelters were invented to cover the tea during its cultivation. At harvest time, the tea had a completely different flavor than usual. The tea obtained in this way will later be perfected to give tencha tea. The shading technique was invented at the same time.
Discovery of the tea rolling technique
In 1738 Nagatani Soen, a tea farmer from Yuyadani (located in Kyoto Prefecture) invented a new method of making tea which consisted of rolling tea leaves downstream of the steam roasting process. This allows, among other things, to increase the medicinal capacities of tea tenfold. He created the sencha tea we know today.
Discovery of Gyokuro
In 1835, 128 years after the birth of tencha tea, Kaki Yamamoto VI improved the quality of this tea by combining it with the sencha tea rolling technique. This led to the creation of a new family of tea: Tamanotsuyu, then renamed in 1841 by Eguchi Shigejuro, Gyokuro. This tea will be considered during the Edo period (1603-1868) as the noblest there is.
Following these numerous scientific advances in culture, tea ended up being produced in Edo (former Tokyo) and becoming a drink fully integrated into the daily lives of the Japanese, across all social strata.
Exporting tea to Japan
In 1858 the shogun Tokugawa Iesada signed a commercial treaty in Edo with the United States favoring the export of tea to this country. Japan signed similar treaties with Holland, Russia and then France. In 1859, Japan opened its trading ports: in the first year, no less than 181 tons were exported throughout the world. Tea was then placed as the second most exported product in Japan after silk.
The consequences of the fall of Edo on tea
The Meiji Revolution in 1868 led to the fall of Edo, but also to a profound imbalance in the Japanese aristocracy. It caused many powerful families to lose a lot of money and power. Under the advice of the fifteenth and last shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa, many of these families nevertheless managed to make up for these financial losses by investing in the then booming tea market.
Unfortunately, faced with the massive production of tea, traditional tea houses are struggling to get by financially. To compensate for this excessive competition, the Urasenke school therefore decided to combine its houses with large merchants in order to perpetuate this unique know-how. This action will allow it to establish itself as the most recognized tea house in Japan.
Tea culture abandoned by Japanese aristocrats
The lack of know-how in other countries regarding tea pushes them to continually import tea from Japan. The overproduction of tea that the country then experienced will drastically reduce its price. Leaving Japanese aristocrats increasingly indifferent to this declining market. This is how the cultivation of tea passed into the hands of less fortunate farmers who were content with what this crop still brought in.
Modernization of the tea industry
The industrial revolution in the 19th century, accompanied by numerous technological advances, did not spare tea production. Traditional industry was transformed into numerous automated factories, orchestrated by large groups which no longer needed workers.
Tea in Japan today
Tea continues to be a very profitable market in the land of the rising sun today, but surprisingly not as much as one might think. Indeed, Japan is only the 8th largest tea exporters in the world with 90,000 tonnes exported per year.
It concentrates almost all of its production in the 4 regions which are:
- Honshu alone represents more than 40% of the tea produced in the territory.
- Kyusu produces no less than 30% of Japanese tea each year.
- Shikoku is one of the oldest tea-producing regions, today it is the third largest tea-producing island in Japan.
- Uji, although little known because it produces only 3% of tea, continues to produce shade teas of exceptional quality.
Japan: a key country in the history of tea
After all these centuries spent perfecting and refining the flavors of tea, diversifying its culture and popularizing it beyond the seas, we understand better why this drink is often assimilated to the land of the rising sun. Although it is no longer one of the main exporters today, it remains a historical territory which helped to popularize this drink beyond the private circles of the noble Japanese families, but also beyond the Japanese borders when the rest of the At the time, the world was unaware of these irreplaceable flavors.
Finally, in addition to the flavors of its tea, Japan has made it possible to preserve the different artisanal practices of making traditional teapots. Today we find all kinds of them, if you want to know more we recommend that you consult a buying guide for Japanese teapots to determine which one would suit you best.