On Tea & Japan

“Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.”

~Rinzai Zen Priest Eisai (1141-1215)7

Originally brought to Japan from China in the early ninth century by Buddhist priests, tea – specifically green tea – was first used as a form of medicine and as a stimulant for monks who needed to stay awake during long hours of prayer. “Ancient recordings indicate the first batch of tea seeds were brought by a priest named Saicho in 805 and then by another named Kukai in 806.” Tea became the beverage of the religious and royal classes, but by the mid ninth century the practice declined along with many other aspects of Chinese culture imported since the late sixth century.

Tea drinking saw a revival during the Kamakura shogunate. Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, reintroduced tea to Kyoto as medicine when he returned from studying in China in 1191.

The tea seeds Eisai brought back made their way to priest Myoe Shonin, and Uji tea was born. Otherwise known as Gyokuro, or Pearl Dew, the tea grown around Uji was very delicate and sweet. The leaves were rolled and dried, then steamed to brew the tea. Also from the same plant came tencha and matcha teas. Tencha was dried without rolling the leaves. The leaves were them broken and ground into powder for matcha.

Around that time, Shogun Sanetomo Minamoto became ill, asking Eisai for advice. In addition to prayer, Eisai prescribed tea as a remedy. With the Shogun’s recovery, tea’s popularity in Japan was once again on the rise, especially among the samurai classes.2

By the early 13th century, “green tea became a staple among cultured people in Japan — a brew for the gentry and the Buddhist priesthood alike. Production grew and tea became increasingly accessible, though still a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes.”7

A process of roasting tea leaves was introduced to Japan, and the most prized varieties of tea were grown at Toganoo, in the mountains to the north west of Kyoto. “Early forms of the tea ceremony were largely occasions for the ostentatious display of precious utensils in grand halls, or noisy parties in which the participants guessed the origins of different teas.”3 The samurai elite held competitions in identifying which regions certain teas came from by taste, similar to a modern wine tasting. They had a passion for collecting Chinese objects for display during these early tea gatherings. In addition, tea gatherings were an opportunity to discuss poetry, calligraphy, painting, and philosophy.

“Finally through the influence of Zen Buddhist masters, the procedures for serving tea in front of guests were developed in the 14th and 15th century into the spiritually uplifting form in which millions of students practice the Tea Ceremony in different schools today.”1 Chanoyu, or the tea ceremony, evolved, including the rules for tea preparation, serving, consumption, and setting.

The chashitsu, or tea room, also developed. It was a self-contained, one-room world of tea, originally based on the shoin style of living room. The space was at least six to eight tatami mats in size (each woven mat measured approximately 3’ by 6’), and the mats covered the floor entirely. A shoin desk, shelves, and alcove was built into the room, in a style based on the study chambers of Zen priests. Only Chinese utensils were used to prepare tea at this time.

Murata Juko (1422-1502) broke with this style to hold a tea ritual in a humble four and a half tatami mat room, known as the souan style. The mats were arranged in a chase-around type layout, with the half mat at the center. Originally a Zen Buddhist monk, Juko was regarded as the founder of Japanese tea drinking. He said there was no social hierarchy in tea and took the ceremony out of the shoin style study room and into its own freestanding tea hut. With the standardization of the hut’s décor, Juko brought tea from an expensive Chinese style into a definitively Japanese style, choosing simple local elements over fine imported items.4

The son of a wealthy merchant, Sen no Rikyuu (1522-1591), considered the first sage of tea, took Juko’s refinements one step further. Rikyuu’s “background brought him into contact with the tea ceremonies of the rich, but he became more interested in the way priests approached the tea ritual as an embodiment of Zen principles for appreciating the sacred in the everyday. Taking a cue from Juko’s example, and seeking to join Zen and tea drinking, Rikyu stripped everything non-essential from the tearoom and the style of preparation, and developed a tea ritual in which there was no wasted movement and no object that was superfluous.”1

Instead of expensive imported utensils and lavish surroundings, Rikyuu made tea in a thatch hut with an iron kettle, bamboo utensils, and a rice bowl for drinking. Most of the implements he designed himself and crafted from bamboo and other simple materials. “The only decoration in a Rikyuu-style tearoom was a hanging scroll or a vase of flowers placed in the alcove. Owing to the very lack of decoration, participants become more aware of details and are awakened to the simple beauty around them and to themselves.”3

Rikyuu’s ideal space consisted of only two tatami mats and could fit no more than two to three people. In addition, Rikyuu pioneered the use of nijiriguchi, or crawling-in doors. A small, low entrance to the tea hut brought every guest to the same level. Reportedly, Rikyuu was intrigued by a small wharf entrance near his home and appropriated the idea for his tea hut.

Rikyuu introduced raku ware to the tea ceremony in the late 16th century. He was said to be inspired by roofing tiles made by Choujiro, and commissioned the artisan to create the spare, rustic, and imperfect simple pottery items. Raku ware was not turned on a pottery wheel but handmade, and roughly, emphasizing a “quiet, simple, and unassuming aesthetic.” This style was in line with the wabi aesthetic. Wabi, literally “desolation,” said that beauty was to be found in things humble and poverty-stricken, or “specifically, it was an appreciation for the imperfect and irregular aspects of nature.” 6

Rikyuu became tea master to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), considered one of the most significant figures in Japanese history. “Although Riky? had been one of Hideyoshi’s closest confidants, because of crucial differences of opinion and other reasons which remain uncertain, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit ritual suicide.”4

By the end of the 16th century, green tea, and the unpretentious ceremony perfected by Rikyuu, was available to the masses. It became Japan’s most popular beverage. In 1740, another form of tea was developed: sencha. Soen Nagatani developed this unfermented process of tea preparation, in which dried, crumbled leaves are used instead of the powdered matcha. This loose leaf preparation is now a mainstay in Japan. 5

At the end of the Meiji period, in the late 19th century, the warrior class was abolished, making women the primary practitioners of the tea ceremony. In addition, machine manufacturing began replacing handmade teas. By the 20th century, tea processing had become completely automated, but Japanese green teas are still considered the finest on the market. The roasted teas are not very common, but powdered matcha teas are still used in ceremonial fashion.

Rikyuu’s great-grandsons founded two of the largest tea schools of today, Urasenke and Omotesenke, and the tea ceremony is now being taught worldwide to both men and women.7

“Chado, the Way of Tea, is based upon the simple act of boiling water, making tea, offering it to others, and drinking of it ourselves. Served with a respectful heart and received with gratitude, a bowl of tea satisfies both physical and spiritual thirst.”

~Sen Soshitsu, Ura Senke Grand Tea Master6

Works Cited

1. Embassy of Japan, Nepal. 10 May 2006.

2. “Green Tea.” Japanese Food 101. 20 Jan. 2006. 20 May 2006.

3. “History of the Tea Ceremony and Wabi-Cha.” Japan Fact Sheet. 1 June 2006.

4. “Japanese Design, Culture in the Age of Civil Wars.” Sengoku Expo. 25 May 2006.

5. “Japanese Tea Ceremony.” Wikipedia. 18 May 2006.

6. Neighbour Parent, Mary, comp. JAANUS – Teminology of Japanese Architecture and Art History. 2003. 25 May 2006.

7. “Tea History.” Green Tea Lovers. 15 May 2006.

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