People have been drinking powdered green tea for over 1,000 years. First in imperial China, then in Japan, where Buddhist monks and samurai warriors began drinking matcha. Japanese tea history dates from at least the 8th century.
In Japan there is a close connection between Buddhism and tea. In one early account of tea drinking in the year 729 CE, Emperor Shomu invited 100 monks to his palace in Nara.
“Come round to my palace and have this awesome new drink called tea” he said (saying “come round to my place” was far too casual for an emperor), and the monks said “sure” (they could hardly say no to the emperor). The monks read scriptures at the palace over four days and drank a powdered tea from China’s Tang court to help sustain them.
Another monk, Saicho, who had been studying in China, brought back some tea plant seeds, sprinkled them around Kyoto, and watched them grow.
Japanese tea production thus got off the ground. It’s astounding that even today the Kyoto area is still number one for Japanese green tea. The Uji Valley, in Kyoto prefecture, produces Japan’s most sought-after tea.
Eventually, Chinese sage Lu Yu’s landmark 8th-century book Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea) became well-known in elite circles in Japan. Emperor Saga ordered tea trees to be planted in suitable areas across the country.
Tea was a centrepiece at poetry readings. People in Japan and China appreciated and respected tea for its health benefits. But tea was still a luxury item.
Then Japanese tea history took an unexpected turn. War and social upheaval meant that folks in Japan–except a few Buddhist monks–slowly forgot about tea for a few hundred years.
Practising Tea: Japanese Tea History Lives On
Fast forward to the 12th century, when the famous priest Eisai reintroduced tea cultivation to Japan and wrote all about tea and its benefits in Japan’s first book of tea, Kissa Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea). In the 14th century, another priest, Shuko, laid the spiritual and formal foundations for the tea ceremony, chanoyu.
Over 1,000 plus years, a lot of different people have shaped Japanese tea history. The most famous individual–the one who gave us the tea ceremony as we know it today–is tea master Sen no Rikyu (aka Sen Rikyu, or just Rikyu).
Rikyu codified the ceremony, stressing wabi: a word encompassing simplicity, contemplation, restraint. In the words of landscape architect and writer Marc Peter Keane, wabi is “the beauty of frugality.”
Reflecting the wabi aesthetic, Rikyu set down seven rules for the Way of Tea (chado, or sado). These are:
Make a delicious bowl of tea:
Lay out the wood charcoal to heat the water.
Arrange the flowers as they are in the fields.
In summer, evoke coolness; in winter, warmth.
Anticipate the time for everything.
Be prepared for rain.
Show the greatest attention to each of your guests.
In other words, aim to be the best host you possibly can!
In one sense, Japanese tea history has come full circle. China is the original home of powdered green tea, but the Chinese gave it up. It was the Japanese who turned tea drinking into an art form. Now though, Chinese consumers are (re)discovering the health benefits of matcha just like their counterparts in Japan, Australia, and North America.
So, isn’t it time to sprinkle a little matcha magic around?
Linda Gaylard, The Tea Book. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2015.
Marc Peter Keane, The Japanese Tea Garden. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2009.
Helen Saberi, Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2010.