Japan’s Early Tea History

During Japan’s 8th century Nara period (710-794), Emperor Kammu (r.781-806)
sent various monks and scholars on diplomatic missions to Chang’ An, the capital
of 
Tang era (681-907) China to learn about and get an understanding of China,
and Chinese culture.
These missions, called Kenyoshi,
were to glean information and
understanding of the 
Chinese and their ways.
By acute observation and hands on experience
living among the Chinese, the monks and scholars
returned to

Japan with not only knowledge of
China’s culture, but by also bringing material ob-
jects, scrolls, statues, and paintings back with
them to Japan to learn from.
Around 804 two Japan-
ese monks, Kukai (774-
835) and Saicho (767-
822) went to

China to
study religion and doc-
trine, studying for sev-
eral years and each

perfecting a different religious school of thought.  Upon returning to Japan each man introduced
their school of religion; Saiko-Tenda Buddhism, and Kukai-Zen Buddhism.
They also returned with the first tea seeds along with the first knowledge
and information on the concept of tea drinking.

It is possible, though, that

knowledge of tea could have been introduced
earlier, in fact, as soon as 618, as early Japanese writings refer to “tea
drinking,” but there is no further information on who or where it occurred,
or how the tea was 
brewed or drunk.
There are several recorded tea references starting from the 8th century,
beginning with a written record of Emperor Shomu (r.724-749) reportedly
serving 100 priests in his palace in 729. Tea drinking is also referred to in
814 in a collection of Kukai’s writings compiled by one of his disciples.  In volume 4 of

Shooryosho, in a reference made by Kukai in
806, upon his return from China, it notes that
while studying he drank “hot water with tea,”
or Chanoyu.
Tea drinking was next recorded during the
Heian era (794-1185) under the 52nd imper-
ial ruler, Emperor Saga.  In a book called

Kuiku Kokushi, it is noted that Abbot Eichu
made tea and “with his own hands served it
to the emperor.”
After that point much was written, carefully
documenting and praising tea and the Chin-
ese way of drinking it.

For many years tea drinking in Japan was re-
served for only a few select groups, including
Japanese monks, the imperial family, and nobility.
For the Japanese nobility tea drinking was a way to
rise above dreary everyday life.  For the monks who
had planted small tea gardens on temple grounds,
tea drinking was thought of as a spiritual exercise.

During Japan’s Kamakura period (1192-1333)

green tea drinking
was encouraged for one’s 
health by Myoan Eisai, founder of the
Rinsai sect of Buddhism.  Eisai (1141-1215) later became known
as Eisai Zenji, or Zen Master.  Over his lifetime Eisai made many
trips to China, each time returning with tea seeds for planting,
which he shared with other monks and priests.
These seeds were used to plant tea gardens throughout

Japan, in-
cluding those in Kyoto, 
Uji, and Kyushu, and it’s believed that Eisai
provided the seeds and is responsible for starting the old tea gar-
dens at the Kozanji Temple in 
Kyoto.
The first Japanese book on tea was written by Eisai, called

Kissa
Yojoki, 
which translates to “Tea Drinking Good For Health.”  Claim-
ing tea conquers the five diseases and would remedy all disorders
he declared tea should be consumed by all citizens.
With his written directive tea drinking spread from the aristocracy to the
warrior class.  It was the first time in

history tea drinking in Japan was for
simple enjoyment rather than as a medicinal or healthful drink.
During the Muromachi period (1392-1573) tea drinking and the culture of
tea was firmly established in Uji, a rural area located just outside the
imperial city of Kyoto, so much so that for awhile tea was called ujicha.

Another advocate that marked teas cultural advancement was Shogun
Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the general responsible for starting the Onin War,
nearly destroying Kyoto before handing the leadership over to his son
and quietly retiring.

Afterwards Yoshimasa turned to more peaceful endeavors as the Zen arts, tea, and poetry.  It
was due to his influence that tea entered the secular realm under tea master, Murata Juko,
eventually culminating in the

tea ceremony, Chanoyu.Today tea grows throughout Japan, but the oldest and most fam-
ous tea gardens are still in Uji, where traditional tea making skills
are proudly practiced.

Even though today Japan is a large, industrialized country, with
busy, bustling cities, it still retains its strong culture based on an-
cient Shinto beliefs, and the practicing of Zen, still remembering how to appreciate simple
moments of a complicated life, by quietly sipping a fine cup of tea.  We could learn much from
them.

Enjoy.

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