Tea in Japan – the Early History

Just as in China, Japan is best known for its green teas.  Although both coun-
tries have a long history of creating unique, tasteful 
green teas, the way in
which they are grown and produced is worlds apart.
Chinese teas are carefully
handplucked, grown high in
the mountains in isolated
tea gardens and brought to rural tea fac-
tories to be processed by hand using tradi-
tional methods of manufacture, some of
which are centuries old.
Japan’s methods, however, lie at the other
end of the spectrum, with their carefully
groomed gardens located at lower elevations
on softly undulating hills, their tea uniformly
plucked by machine, then processed with
high-tech machinery in bright and shiny
state-of-the-art processing facilities.
There is no artistic interpretation of the tea leaf, but it is rather
made by a closely followed “recipe” of sorts using a set blend and
process so as to achieve the same specific flavor profile each and
every time, with the emphasis on the modern 
manufacturing pro
cess and exacting flavors they seek to achieve instead.

beginning of tea drinking in Japan goes back to around the
eighth century Nara period (710-794 AD) introduced by Buddhist
priests who returned to Japan after studying in China.  A written
account tells of Japanese emperor Shomu having served tea to
100 Buddhist monks in 729 AD at his palace in Nara.
Later in the ninth century another Buddhist monk, Dengo Daishi returned home after studying in
China, bringing with him tea seeds which he planted in his monastery garden.

For the next five years the monk carefully
tended to his tea plants, and when they
were finally ready to harvest, he brewed
the first batch of tea for Emperor Saga.
The emperor was so delighted with the
wonderful flavor, he ordered tea to be
grown commercially on five plantations.

In 1911 another Japanese monk, Myoan
Yeisai returned home after studying Zen
Buddhism in China, bringing with him more
tea seeds as well as a new method of tea
production.  Eisai (1141-1215) later became
known as Eisai Zenji or Zen Master.

The new method of tea production
called for whisking the

powdered tea into hot water, and included serving and drinking
rituals developed by the Chinese Rinzai Zen Buddhism sect that Eisai founded upon
returning home.
Throughout his lifetime Eisai made many trips back to China,
returning each time with more tea seeds.  He shared these with
other monks and priests who in turn planted them in various
locations throughout Japan, including

KyotoKyushu, and Uji.Belief is that Eisai provided the tea seeds used to plant the old tea
gardens located near Kyoto Kozanji Temple.

In the first Japanese book on tea written by Eisai, called

 (translated to “Tea Drinking Good for the Health”), he
claimed tea would “conquer the five diseases” and “remedy all
disorders,” and he recommended that tea be drunk by all people.  This caused tea
drinking to be taken up by the masses – everyone from the aristocracy to the warrior
classes enjoyed drinking tea.
Up to that time tea had been drunk as a medicinal tonic or to im-
prove ones health, but now it was considered to be a pleasurable

It was during the Muromachi period, however, (1392-1573) that
Japan’s true roots of tea culture and practice took hold strongly in
the small rural area of Uji, located outside the imperial city of Kyoto.
So strong was the tie to tea culture in Uji, that for a time tea was
referred to as ujicha.

Some of the oldest and most famous tea gardens are
located in Uji, where even today traditional tea making
skills are taught and practiced.

Another important figure that helped to advance the tea
culture in Japan was General Shogun Ashikaga
Yoshimasa (r 1449-1474), who started the Onin War,
nearly destroying the city of Kyoto in the process.
Handing the country over to his son, General Yoshimasa
retired to live a quiet life in his Kyoto palace, devoted to
Zen arts, poetry, and the culture of tea.

It was under the general’s influence that tea was brought into the secular realm after having
been introduced to the great tea master Murata Juko, who began tea’s elevation into an art
form which eventually led to the ceremony known as Chanoyu.
Even though today Japan is a fully industrialized country with large, fast-paced cities, it main-
tains its strong culture based on ancient Shinto beliefs and quiet Zen moments of simplicity and
beauty.  Underneath the crazy hustle and bustle of Japan’s cities lies the simple beauty of the
designed dishes, served according to the established rules of style, manner, and tradition.

So, while Japan is very much in the present, you can still take a step back in time, where tradi-
tional tea making skills are practiced, and delight in the simplistic beauty of an age old ceremony.