Tea is the elixir of life.
Eisai was know for treating sick people with tea and writing Kissa Yokoji "Drinking Tea for Health".
Tea was brought over to Japan by Japanese Buddhist monks in the 7th century, who would venture out to Tang Dynasty China together with other scholars on their studies. Captivated by the enchanting properties of this beverage, the Buddhist monks Saicho and Kukai were known as the first to bring back the seeds to be planted in Japan.
It wasn’t until much later on, in the year 1191 that tea really started growing as a culture after being reintroduced by the Zen priest Eisai, who brought the seeds to Kyoto - the capital and cultural center of Japan at the time.
Following the traditions of the Tang Dynasty, tea was mostly drunk as a powder, most similar to present day matcha. And tea was not a beverage to be enjoyed by the commoner. Instead, only nobility, the samurai, and Buddhist monks were able to enjoy it. By the 16th century, the fame of matcha and what we know to be the Japanese tea ceremony spread through Japan and truly got established as a culture.
Nowadays we can find tea plantations across Japan, with Shizuoka being the largest tea producing region. Albeit the first seeds were sowed in Kyoto and tea was produced primarily on temple grounds.
During the Kamakura period (1185 -1333) tea became popularized in many ways.
One of these ways was Tocha, a game popular among the samurai class. In this game, men would gather and try to identify a specific region where matcha was grown. Originally the main purpose was to be able to tell a Kyoto-grown matcha apart from matcha grown in other tea regions in Japan. However, as different tea regions started gaining fame among tea connoisseurs the rules were changed.
During these tea gathering, the samurai were often known to drink anywhere from 10 to 50 cups of tea, getting completely drunk on it.
Not to mention that there was often times sake going around.
Successful participants would often receive expensive jewelry, weapons, and silk as rewards. These tea gamblers came to be known as quite the extravagant bunch... Eventually, tocha was banned, yet its popularity still kept going strong.
Big amounts of matcha were also constantly consumed by Buddhist priests to remain awake during long hours of meditation.
The matcha tea ceremony which is closest to what we know it to be today wasn’t invented until the late 16th century by Sen no Rikyu and was known as wabicha, which emphasizes simplicity.
Today tea in Japan is quite different from what it was before. Most importantly nowadays it can be enjoyed by anyone and it is much easier to obtain tea. Although in modern day culture the appreciation for quality tea has somewhat subsided. It is easy to find lower quality bagged green tea and pre-bottled teas in on every step. But surprisingly it is not as easy to find quality stuff. Japan has slowly become a coffee culture and quality tea exists primarily within more traditional tea houses and amongst connoisseurs.
This is the first of a series on tea history and traditions in Japan.