If you have ever been to Japan or even seen a movie that featured a Japanese city, you know that tea is a major part of Japanese culture. It is a large industry in Japan today, helping Japan’s economy to grow and thrive. Tea is most often associated with China, as it should be.
Tea originated in China, but as China’s neighbor, Japan also has a rich history involving tea. Tea in early Japan does not have as much mythology or lore like it does in China since it is documented where the Japanese people first started interacting with tea.
There are many who believe tea was used and consumed in Japan long before the first written acknowledgment. Either way, you choose to believe, there is no doubt that tea had and still has a major role in Japanese culture and history.
Ancient and Earliest Japanese Tea History
While it is not known for certain exactly how Japan first learned of tea and started integrating it into the culture, it is widely agreed that it was most likely in the 8th century when missions to China were underway to attempt to foster a diplomatic relationship with China.
During China’s Tang dynasty, Japan sent missionaries to the neighboring country, and the missionaries returned with new knowledge of Chinese culture. They also brought back artwork, books, and most likely tea. This is most likely how tea first became known to the Japanese people.
Japan sent monks to China to study the religion there. One of the monks, Kukai, returned to Japan speaking of something called chanoyu, which became known as a Japanese ceremony of drinking tea. Kukai also upon his return to Japan created 2 schools for teaching Buddhism. It is widely agreed that the monk brought back tea seeds from this Chinese trip and planted them in the ground. This would be the first known time tea was planted for the sole purpose of consumption in Japan.
Buddhist Monks and Tea History
Monks in Japan began planting and harvesting tea in their monasteries and schools at this time. This was not an industrial affair, just for the consumption of the monks and students at the time. It is written in the book Kuiku Kokushi that in 815, a Buddhist abbot was said to have served tea the Emperor, Saga.
This may be the first time in written history that can be confirmed tea was brewed, served, and consumed in Japan. Many believe the monks were drinking tea before 815 when the Emperor was served, but there is no official written documentation of this.
Tea leaves were also starting to be used by Monks for their medicinal properties as a stimulant and digestive aid. There were monks using tea leaves to chew on for comfort and enjoyment as well. It became known that tea was more than just a drink from China, but something more special.
There is more evidence in ancient books that around this time tea started to be grown and farmed on a semi-large scale by Monks, and that the tea was integrated into their religious ceremonies as well. Visiting nobles would also enjoy tea when visiting the Monks, and bring tea back to their homes and villages, but the drinking of tea was not widespread at this time.
In the mid-800s Tea was widely used by Monks and Nobles in Japan but everyday Japanese people were not yet drinking tea regularly. It was expensive and simply not known to exist to most Japanese people.
After the death of Emperor Saga, it is written that the use of tea began to die out. The drinking of tea became less common for the three centuries following his death. People in Japan became less interested in the Chinese Tang Dynasty and so with the dynasty fell the popularity of tea in certain social circles. Although it was still used widely for its medicinal value and recognized as an important plant and valuable resource, its popularity sank dramatically.
The Rise in Popularity of Japanese Tea
Unlike in China, where there is no specific person who is credited with popularizing the use and consumption of tea, in Japan, there is one person who is widely agreed to have brought tea to the masses. Eisai, who is a Zen monk is given credit for making tea the popular drink it is today.
The story goes that he had just come back from a trip he took to China. He returned with a bag of tea seeds which he planted in the mountains of Kyushu, and on the Japanese Island Hirado. It is said that Eisai also gifted some tea seeds to another monk named Myoe.
Myoe had planted his tea seeds in Uji and Toganoo. Uji and Toganoo became the first known large-scale tea cultivation areas in Japan.
Currently, there was tea growing in Kyushu, Hirado, Toganoo, and Uji. Four known mid to large-scale tea growing areas were no operating in Japan.
Elsai wrote the Kissa Yojoki which means Drink tea and prolong life. This book has become well known and widely published. In the book, he wrote that tea is the most wonderful medicine, and he went on to describe how tea promotes good health for the internal organs and is an excellent medicine for the body and mind.
Elsai went on in some detail about specific uses for tea to cure certain ailments such as:
- Heart issues
- Beriberi disease
- Lung ailments
This is the first known Japanese text to mention tea in a medicinal text in any detail.
Elsai is also said to have introduced tea to the Samurai. The Samurai began using tea for many different ailments including hangovers from too much sake. Tea became a big part of the culture in the Samurai class in early Japan thanks to Elsai bringing it to them.
Zen Buddhism became popular during this time as well, especially among the warrior classes. There is documentation that tea began to be served during Zen Buddhist rituals around this time. There is even a quote from Muso Seseki that Zen and tea are one. This is an early marker that tea was heading to become a major part of the Japanese culture and economy in the years to come.
Ancient Japanese Tea Culture
As early as the 14th century there became a popular pastime, tea competitions began to emerge all over Japan. These tea competitions were not the same as the ones held in China, which were largely focused on the quality of the tea based on flavor and effect. In Japan, these tea competitions, known as tocha, were used to determine the area or region that the tea being considered had come from. The ones with the most accurate answers as to where the tea came from became the winner of the tea competition.
Tea Competitions in Japan
Tea competitions became popular not only because they were fun, but there were very large bets placed and the winners would often come away with vast amounts of money from betting correctly. This betting was considered by some of the moral elite to be vulgar. The tea competitions became known as heathens getting together and doing immoral things. The extravagant betting and carrying on was known as something called basara, which translates to immoral and outrageous.
Chinese artifacts and objects also became widely valued and collected at this time due to their proximity to the emerging Japanese tea culture. Chinese writing and paintings were bought and sold for high amounts of money among tea culture enthusiasts.
Japanese Tea Rooms
The first known tearoom to have been constructed in Japan was built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. It was constructed in the reception tearoom style. One of the identifying characteristics of this tearoom was the writing desk that was built into the wall. The room had decorations everywhere and beautiful wood floors. This first tearoom is said to have set the tone for the popular and more formal tea rooms that emerged later in Japan.
Following this tearoom were others built by notable members of Japanese society and soon having a tearoom in Japan was not that uncommon.
Tea Ceremonies in Japan
You can not mention Japanese tea ceremonies without Sen no Riyu. He served as the tea master to 2 famous Japanese nobles. He was alive during the Sengoku period which was a tumultuous time in Japan where social structures and the political landscape both were changed drastically. The culture began to change and Riyu was popularizing the Japanese tea ceremony.
Riyu was a strong supporter of the Wabi style of tea. This style of tea ceremony is considered to have artistic elements and performed with some reverence, like the Chinese version, though not quite as involved.
This tea ceremony was performed for political and diplomatic purposes. It was even forbidden to be performed by anyone other than his closest family and friends. It was used as a formal greeting and time to take tea with others and to talk of important issues.
Famous Japanese Teas
Japanese tea and tea culture vary widely from that of China. They both focus on the benefits of tea, and both cultures respect and love tea, however, Japan did not just copy China. There are some unique kinds of tea that are associated more with Japan than China.
This is the most famous green tea coming from Japan. It has a fresh light green texture and flavor. It does not have a high level of caffeine so it can be consumed day or night without keeping you awake. It is popular in Japan to make Sencha as an iced tea drink in the summer as well as a hot tea in the colder months. Most describe it as having a vegetable-type flavor and being very refreshing to the palette.
Sencha tea is said to have many health benefits due to the high level of catechins which are important antioxidants. It is said to improve the flow of blood in the body, help you lose weight, and improve the function of the brain, among other benefits.
Gyokuro is another incredibly famous tea from Japan. It is known for its strong aroma. It shares many of the same health benefits as sencha and other green teas from Japan. It is a very mellow and mild tea that appeals to light tea drinkers who do not want a huge blast of caffeine or a super earthy taste.
It is also known as shade-grown green tea. It only uses the small new leaves to achieve the mellow, mild flavor and bouquet. Mental alertness is one of the best-known benefits of this mild tea. It has a super light green color and goes down smooth. This mild tea is also brewed for iced tea in the summer months.
Tencha leaves are better known as the leaves used to make Matcha, which may be the most famous Japanese tea of all time. This is an elegant tea, brewed much the same as Gyokuro tea but the difference between the two green teas is in the processing.
Tencha tea is not kneaded during processing, it is simply brewed with small pieces of leaves.
Although Tencha uses the same leaves as Matcha, the flavor and aroma are different. It has a light green color much like Gyorkuro but a different, lighter, and more distinct, noble flavor.
Guricha is sort of a rare tea, not as common as the others in this list. The leaves are rolled and look like mini cinnamon sticks. This tea is processed using streaming, which is unique. Guricha has an iconic taste that is luxurious and rich. It has a deeper darker green color than tencha. It has many health benefits like other green teas. It is known to have a bit of special aftertaste, which lingers on the tongue for a while. While some may find this unpleasant, it is one of the main reasons this tea is so popular.
Guricha is a sought-after blend. It is harder to come by and be a bit more expensive due to the more complicated processing needed to produce the leaves properly.
Hojicha is often compared with Matcha, but these are two different teas. The most obvious difference besides the flavor is the color. Matcha is known for the bright green color, the brighter the green the better the tea. Hojicha, however, has a red-brown color to it. This color varies from brand to brand depending on how long it was roasted, and other processing factors.
It has a more earthy, deeper flavor than Matcha. There are notes of sweetness, even a slight cocoa flavor. Even with all these differences, people that love Matcha tend to also enjoy drinking Hojicha tea.
Fun Fact- Hojicha only has about 8 mg of caffeine per cup where Matcha has a whopping 70 mg. Imagine drinking a cup of Matcha thinking it was Hojicha, you would be bouncing off the walls wondering what you just drank!
The fragrance is a vegetable-smelling aroma that comes from the processing which crushes the leaves and lets all the cells inside breathe. The aroma is so strong that many tea shops in Japan brew Hojicha to let the smell waft out to the street and attract more buyers into their stores.
Kukicha tea is known as Bocha as well. This nickname comes from the stick shape. This tea is also affectionately known as a twig or stick tea in English-speaking countries. This tea includes some of the stems and twigs from the tea bush, unlike many teas which only use the leaves.
The way kukicha is made is like other teas, but the big difference is that the twigs and stems are not cast aside. In Kukicha tea, they are included in the final product, which adds to the different flavors that this unique tea has become well known for.
It takes longer to brew than other teas and has a strong bitter flavor due to the stems, but it has many more nutrients and comes off as a stronger tea overall. The stems and twigs of a tea bush contain a lot of theanine.
Kukicha gets a bad rap, and it is considered a lower grade tea because it uses parts of the plant that are considered lower quality. You would never be able to tell because Kukicha tea has many raving fans around the world, but especially in Japan.
This is probably the most well-known Japanese tea, it has become trendy in recent years all over the world. It is an extraordinarily strong green tea that will give you a blast of caffeine and get you ready for the day. It is made from finely chopped green tea leaves. It has a vegetable taste with some bitter aftertaste notes.
Matcha, because of how it is brewed is a very flavorful and powerful tea. It is a concentrated tea. Instead of running hot water over leaves, matcha uses way more leaves per cup because they are made into a powder and instead of straining it, you drink the powder itself in the drink. This is unique to any other kind of tea.
The powder is put in a small bowl when the water is added it is whisked with a special little whisk until it is a smooth thick liquid with bright green color and a little foam on top. Many people add milk or another creamy liquid to it and sweeten it with sugar or honey.
Matcha tea has been the go-to tea for Japanese tea ceremonies for hundreds of years. There is a detailed ceremony to make and drink the iconic tea. Because of the complicated process of making it, each step is given its proper reverence and it is drunk slowly, savoring the flavor and aroma.
The Modernization of the Tea Industry
Hundreds of years ago tea was made by hand in villages and towns all over the Japanese countryside. From the Monks back in ancient Japan to the merchants and villagers of a hundred years ago, the process was all done the old school way. The tea was grown in the fields and picked by hand, processed, and packaged by the same farmers or monks who planted it.
While some could argue this produced a higher quality tea, it was much too hard to do this at any kind of scale. As Japan grew into a world superpower, the production of tea needed to be changed to match the money-making potential that was out there for the taking.
As the world’s appetite for tea increased, Japan needed to find a way to fill the market with its tea. Because of the limitations of producing tea by hand, and the invention of machinery that could do much of the processing, Japan began to build factories and processing centers to produce more tea, faster.
Modern Tea Processing in Japan
There are 2 different ways tea is processed, primary and secondary. Primary processing includes rolling, steaming, and coloring the leaves. The steaming process is used to ensure that oxidation does not occur, which changes the color and flavor of the leaves. Green tea is supposed to be green but if the leaves become oxidized, they become a darker brown color.
Rolling is done to let the moisture inside the leaves out, it is basically crushing the leaves and flattening them. The rolling process will change the leaves from a normal leaf shape into more of a straight needle-like appearance.
The drying process is used to remove the moisture that was added in the steaming process. When the leaves are dried, they can be stored for a longer period, which is necessary when processing a high volume of tea every day.
Secondary processing is done to make the tea into a higher quality product. It uses things like blending, cutting, sorting, and even roasting also known as firing. The sorting process is to make sure each type of leaf stays with other leaves of the same type; it also removes some stems and twigs. This way only the best parts of the tea are used in the final product.
Cutting is done to achieve a more uniform look for all the leaves. This comes down to appearance and makes the tea look more appealing to consumers. When tea is blended, it is done to get the right flavor by adding or taking away certain leaves to the mixture.
Big tea companies have recipes for their blends, and they automate how many of each leaf ends up in each batch. This process allows for a uniform flavor across all the products.
Tea Culture in Today’s Modern Japan
here is a well-known tea ceremony is known as Sado in modern Japan. This ritual is performed using the popular Matcha tea. There are many ways to practice Sado. Most people either do it merchant tea style, or warrior style. The merchant style was made famous and popularized by Sen no Rikyu and his family, while the warrior style was popularized by his students.
These rituals have countless variations. Unlike the extremely strict and well-documented Chinese tea ceremonies, the Japanese ceremonies are much more open to interpretation. The Japanese people have morphed the ceremony to suit their tastes. It would be impossible to describe all the different variations of this ceremony. They all include the making of Matcha tea and the slow drinking and enjoyment by a small group of people.
Tea and the Japanese People
Due to globalization, the traditional tea ceremony culture has declined drastically in recent years. The younger generation is not attending traditional tea ceremony schools in the numbers they used to. In Japan, you are more likely to find a Starbucks on the corner than a traditional tea house. These businesses still exist and have plenty of patrons, but Japanese culture has become much more westernized over the past few decades.
With soda and other popular drinks being the norm, tea has taken a back seat to these easier to get, no hassle drinks. In past decades you would go to a tea house and get a nice cup of Matcha and now most people will just hit a drive-through for coffee.
Younger Japanese people are still drinking tea, but interest in the old ways has waned as more people are exposed to the rest of the world and western culture. It is becoming rarer and rarer to find traditional teaware in Japanese homes, especially the homes of younger people.
Bottled tea is selling extremely well in Japan today, however, due to the convenience of being able to purchase a bottle and drink it immediately. The process of brewing and savoring the process as well as the tea has become more of a rarity than it is the norm. The fast-paced modern lifestyle prevalent in Japan is squeezing the life out of the traditional tea culture.
There has been a sharp decline in the population of Japan for over a decade now. Many of the children of Japanese tea farmers are deciding to go after careers in the tech industry and opting to stay out of the tea business. This leads to many traditional tea farms being sold as the old farmers die off. There are not many youngsters stepping up to take the place of the old farmers who are starting to become extinct. In fact, the amount of active traditional tea farms has been cut in half from 2000 until today.
As times change in Japan, so do the tastes of the population. To be blunt, people are bored of the same old green tea. It has been around for hundreds of years and people want something new. To remain relevant, tea makers in Japan are being forced to innovate. Many large tea companies are beginning to add fruits to their tea products, to reignite interest in tea, especially for the younger generation.
Advertisements are featuring fashionable youngsters drinking the new flavors in their ads and on the billboards. Cold brewing tea is becoming more popular in Japan as tea makers are scrambling to fill the market need for fast convenient cold drinks. This is a massive change in the Japanese tea industry, but it was inevitable. As times change, tastes change, and technology changes, products must change if they want to survive.
Boutique Specialty Tea Shops
There is also an emerging boutique tea shop market in Japan. There are tea shops popping up serving hand-brewed single-cup teas made in front of you. This is smart, focusing on the process and uniqueness of the traditionally made teas. If you cannot change for the future, make the past cool again!
This idea is already a big business in the west as boutique coffee shops with locally sourced brews are showing up everywhere. Japan is following suit and entrepreneurs are beginning to see the market potential for fancy specialized tea houses that focus on locally grown tea. Focus on the locally grown angle has increased worldwide, it is not just in Japan. People are wanting to support local businesses to help the local economy, so these small specialty shops are starting to see some great success. The future of traditional tea culture in Japan may lie in these boutique specialty trendy teahouses.
The Future of Tea Culture in Japan
The future of tea culture in Japan lies with the younger generation. If tea makers can find a way to interest them in the old ways, such as by packaging it in a Starbucks-like atmosphere and serving fancy tea drinks with weird names using locally grown tea, there may be a bright future for tea culture in modern Japan. There is no getting away from modernization, but if the old ways can be presented in a shiny new package, the younger generation may take an interest, and the ancient tea culture of Japan could be preserved.
For more information about tea’s history throughout the world check this out!