|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 hand-
plucked, grown high in the moun-
tains in isolated tea gardens and
brought to rural tea factories to be processed by
hand using traditional 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 em-
phasis on the modern manufacturing process and exacting flavors they
seek to achieve instead.
The 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 Kyoto, Kyushu, 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 Kissa Yojoki
(translated to "Tea Drinking Good for the Health"), he claimed tea would
"conquer the five diseases" and "remedy all disorders," and he recomm-
ended 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 improve
ones health, but now it was considered to be a pleasurable drink.
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 coun-
try with large, fast-paced cities, it maintains 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
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
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