What is Senchado?
We all know of Chado or Chanoyu (can also be referred to as Chaji or Chakai), which refers to the traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony. But how many of us know that Senchado (the way of sencha) was a thing as much as Chado at a time? Although now sencha is drunk in much more casual settings, most commonly in the comforts of one’s home or perhaps at a sushi restaurant, it started off as a more or less a ceremony quite similar to gong fu cha.
During the Kamakura period (1185 -1333) Japanese powdered green tea (matcha) became popularized in many different ways. It was the only tea drunk up until the 17th century until sencha slowly started making its way in.
Baisao and the History of Senchado
Senchado is reserved for drinking sencha, and the higher grade gyokuro in particular. Senchado was introduced to Japan in the 17th century by a monk, calligrapher and poet named Ingen, who also happened to be the founder of the Obaku school of Zen Buddhism. The Obaku school was known for having a more Chinese-oriented incline in its teachings than other schools of Zen Buddhism. Senchado was also more Chinese in its nature as it closely resembled gongfu cha (Chinese tea ceremony).
Senchado came to be popularized in the 18th century by a poet and monk named Baisao of the same school of Zen Buddhism. Baisao was known for leaving the temple and selling tea around Kyoto. His name translates as “old tea seller” and he is regarded as the first Senchado master.
Baisao would walk around Kyoto carrying a woven basket made of bamboo thrown on a stick over his shoulder, along with a bamboo tube which he used for donations for serving tea. Baisao resented the elite, rigid structure of matcha ceremonies. He chose to focus on complete simplicity. He prepared loose leaf sencha by quickly simmering it in a pot of boiling water.
Baisao preparing sencha
Although chanoyu was once adapted from the Chinese methods of preparing powdered tea, since then everyone in China has switched to loose leaf tea made in a carefree style similar to gongfu cha. Baisao alongside many of his friends promoted this simplistic way of drinking tea while despising the set of rules matcha drinkers had to follow.
Originally “sencha” was only used to refer to the style of preparing the tea — briefly simmering the loose leaf in boiling water. However later on during the 1700s one of Baisao’s friends, a tea farmer, cultivated a tea which was then steamed and dried which he called “sencha”.
Shortly before his death Baisao stopped selling tea and burned all his tea utensils. He did this as a protest to the pedestaled Chanoyu and fearing that Senchado might soon become the same. Since in Chanoyu the bowls and tools of praised tea masters were highly regarded and sold for somewhat unreasonable prices.
Despite Baisao’s efforts to do otherwise, sencha’s popularity grew steadily after his death. Copies of his teaware were recreated, and a book instructing the proper way of Senchado was written. Gradually sencha came to replace matcha in Japan, and today sencha is still the most popular tea, although drunk casually and not in a “sencha ceremony”. Although today not many Japanese tea drinkers know of Baisao's name the same way they know of Sen No Rikyu (the father of Chanoyu), nonetheless he was able to promote a casual way of drinking tea in Japan.
Today more formal sencha ceremonies are still held across Japan. The setting of the tea house is similar to that of Chanoyu teahouses. There are different schools of Senchado that exist, just like in Chado, and tea utensils vary with school (some use Japanese pots and some Chinese ones). During Senchado two steeps of sencha are served together with some light sweets. Talking is allowed, unlike Chado, and in general a more relaxed atmosphere is promoted.