Tea History in Japan

Tea History in Japan

Tea was introduced to Japan in the eighth century by monks who had spent time in China studying Buddhism. At the time, tea was already a popular beverage in China, and the monks used it as a stimulant to stay awake during their long hours of meditation. History records the monk Saisho as being the first to have brought the custom back to Japan, so we have reason to believe that Japan's interest in tea was roused at this time. However; because of the strained relations between China and Japan, it was not until the end of the 12th century that Japan could truly be considered as having a tea culture.

In 1191, the monk Eisai (1141-1215), founderof the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought a few tea-tree seeds back from a pilgrimage to China. He planted these seeds in the district of Hizen, in the northern part of the island of Kyushu, as well as around the monasteries of Hakata (Fukuoka). Eisai spread the idea that tea should be consumed for its medicinal properties. We are also indebted for the first Japanese book on tea, published in 1211. In addition to seeds, he also introduced the Japanesin China at the time, under the Song dynasty (960-1279). The tea leaves were ground to a fine powder (matcha) before being brewed. The importance of rtual and discipline as well as the austere nature of Rinzai Zen philosophy no doubt had a great influence on the rigidly codified evolution of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Later; some tea trees were planted on the main inland of Honshu, near Kyoto, the former capital of Japan. Originally cultivated by monks to stimulate them during their meditation sessions, tea was soon adopted by intellectuals and statesmen. In the 13th century, while noblemen were meeting to drink tea during ceremonial gatherings, the samurai also made it part of their lifestyle. The fashion for tea-tasting contests began, just like those held in China during the same period. More and more enthusiasts got together to test their ability to recognize different Chinese teas for days and nights on end.

Later, Japanese grand tea masters appeared on the scene. In the 16th century, one of them, Sen No Rikyu, codified the tea ceremony (chonoyu), establishing a close relationship between Buddhist values and the various schools of Japanese tea and Japanese Tea Sets of that era.

From 1641 to 1853, Japan remained cut off from the rest of the world. It was a policy of isolation, known as sakoku, which forbade anyone from leaving the archipelago and permitted almost no contact with the outside world. For more that 200 years China alone provided the rest of the world with tea. However, the isolation of Japan was not entirely negative because, in addition to contributing to the development of the unique character of Japanese culture, it led to the perfecting of new ways of tea, Thus, in 1738, Soen Nagatani created a method of leaf dehydration using steam. Thanks to this method, which brings out the fresh aroma of the leaves, he was able to create a green tea that was very different from Chinese green teas and which rapidly gained in popularity.

In 1859, Japan abandoned its policy of isolation and finally opened up to the international market. It began exporting tea overseas, mainly to the United States, which became a major source of revenue. At the end of the 19th century the archipelago began industrializing its production methods, in particular with use of heated rotating cylinders invented by Kenzo Takahashi. The production of black tea on Japanese soil also began at this time.

During the years after the First World War, Japanese tea exports set unprecedented records. At that time, Japan exported up to 22,003 tons (19,961 t) of green tea and 11,178 tons (10,141 t) of black tea. But the explosion in demand was shortlived, and Japanese exports of black tea dropped again very quickly.

As the Americans developed a preference for "English-tasting" tea (full-bodied black tea), it became difficult for the Japanese to compete with the large emerging growers in Sri Lanka, India and Kenya, who could produce tea at very low cost In the face of this competition, the Japanese market gradually turned more and more toward domestic distribution.

Several studies conducted by Japanese researchers in the 1920s revealed scientific proof that tea contained vitamins and catechins. To promote the sale of tea, the government published these results to encourage the Japanese to drink it on a daily basis, as an integral part of their diet After the Second World War, various groups and associations of growers continued to promote the benefits of tea, and all sorts of by-products based on tea began to appear. Later, to facilitate distribution, tea was marketed in tea bags, and a lot of attention was paid to packaging and presentation.

Since then, Japan has increased its productivity considerably by using mechanical harvesting and new techniques for taking cuttings. They have concentrated almost exclusively on the production of green teas.