The Birthplace of Tea
Primeval tea trees cover remote regions of China's Yunnan Province, where tea is thought to have originated. Some trees are nearly 2000-years-old. In 729, at the beginning of Japan's Nara period, Emperor Shomu entertained a group of Buddhist monks with tea, indicating that by this point tea had already made its way into the imperial court, perhaps through diplomatic missions to China. Tea of this era was exclusively matcha, made from pulverizing steamed and dried tea leaves into a fine powder and mixed with hot water.
Taking Root in Japanese Culture
Tea first became widely known during the early years of the Kamakura era (1185-1333), when it was promoted by Zen monks for its medicinal virtues. But it was not until the Higashiyama phase of the Muromachi era (1336-1573) that it assumed definite cultural connotations.
Higashiyama culture is associated with the reception room style of architecture typified by the Silver Pavilion. The tea ceremony of the period shows the influence of this style of architecture, and is known as shoin daisu cha, serving tea on a stand in a reception room. It was a highly aristocratic affair that favored the use of splendid utensils and sumptuous ornamentation in Chinese style. Nobles and the cream of the warrior class would gather on these occasions to enjoy the aesthetic merits of the paintings displayed and the tea utensils themselves.
The Aesthetics of Tea “Wabi”
The shoin daisu cha style of tea ritual treasured Sinicized splendor to the exclusion of everything else. It was a Zen priest by the name of Shuko Murata who is said to be the founder of wabi-cha, a style of Japanese tea ceremony that emphasizes simplicity.
Until that time the focus had been on Chinese tea utensils. Murata replaced the Chinese utensils with locally made crafts. In addition he popularized building a small tea room exclusively for the enjoyment of tea simply for its taste. It became especially fashionable among the townspeople of Sakai, one of the most important seaports in Japan. The city's free and independent spirit proved fertile soil for this new style.
Tea Ceremony was further refined by the great Sen no Rikyu, tea master to the renowned Samurai rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Sen no Rikyu raised Murata’s Wabi concept to the level of a highly philosophical aesthetic, which can be summed up in the phase “Chazen Ichimi”: tea and Zen are one.
Kahei Yamamoto II and the Spread of Sencha
The age of Hideyoshi came to a close, and control of the country fell into the hands of Tokugawa Ieyasu. At the same time a new method of drinking tea involving sencha or "infused tea" arose alongside the traditional tea ceremony. Sencha is tea made from whole tea leaves as opposed to the matcha powder form.
One theory holds that sencha was transmitted to Japan via the Zen Buddhism of Ming-Dynasty China. A Confucian scholar at the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867) called Ishikawa Jozan is said to have systematized the etiquette used. Another century passed and new life was breathed into the drinking of sencha by a former Zen monk turned tea peddler, Baisao.
It was around this time that Yamamotoyama became involved in the history of sencha. In 1738, Soen Nagatani introduced a new way of tea manufacturing with a technique called aosei sencha, meaning “steamed green tea process”. This process yields a yellow-green fresh color with a balanced sweetness and a mild astringency. It is most similar to the taste of green tea today.
The tea available at this time and consumed by the common people was minimally processed. It yielded a tea brown in color with a slight amount of astringency and sweetness. After spending almost 15 years perfecting his manufacturing technique, Nagatani set out for Edo (modern day Tokyo) to sell his new idea. As this was a truly unique way of drinking tea, nobody seemed to be interested in his new creation, nobody except Kahei Yamamoto II.
Yamamoto II had a small tea business at that time. He was so impressed with Nagatani’s new invention that he started to sell this new “steamed green tea” at his shop. He named it tenkaichi, meaning “the best on earth.” The tea went on to become the shop’s best seller.
Once sencha gained widespread popularity, the formal display associated with tea drinking gave way to an even more simplified method of drinking tea: put the leaves in a teapot, add hot water then consume the resulting brew. Without the ceremonial constrains, this simple ritual could be performed multiple times on a daily basis. The Japanese tea we enjoy today is the living manifestation of that tradition.
Tea, Witness to Eternity
Tea has been loved by the Japanese for over 1200 years. At first the exclusive drink of nobility, it later spread to the samurai, then the merchants and finally to the common people. Over the centuries the way it was consumed underwent numerous changes. It served variously as a medicinal brew, a status symbol, and lastly as an everyday beverage. Today it is enjoyed all over the world by people from all walks of life at any time of the day.
Drink a cup of tea - look back over the turbulent course of history on which it has been carried down to the present day - and it is no exaggeration to say that you can feel the spirit of Japan living on unbroken in every sip. Tea has seen Japan’s mighty rise and fall. It is a repository of the memory of all the innumerable tales acted out by humankind on Japanese soil. It is, perhaps, nothing less than a witness to eternity.