In the year 804 two Japanese Scholars and Buddhist-monks, Kūkai and Saichō, brought tea to Japan after they returned from China on an official royal embassy. They returned with deepened knowledge of Buddhism, with accounts of Chinese tea culture, actual powdered tea cakes and even tea seeds! Though the aristocracy took to serving this amazing beverage at fancy parties, monks are said to be the first in Japan to cultivate tea gardens and develop homegrown culture around tea drinking.
From monks to emperors, from the Aristocracy to Samurai to the common citizen, tea gradually grew in popularity in Japan. In the 12th century Myōan Eisai, a very famous Buddhist monk, wrote the first Japanese book on tea titled “Tea drinking good for the Health.” In it he claimed that tea would “remedy all disorders” and should be consumed by all citizens. As tea cultivation spread across Japan, through monestaries and temples in Uji and Kyoto. So did the tradition of planting tea seeds in horses hoof prints. Subsequently Koma-no-Ashikage or “Colts Hoofprint” became the name of one of these gardens. (from “The Story of Tea” by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss)
Characteristic full leaf steamed sencha, instead of the original powdered cake form, came about in Japan only in the 18th century. In 1737 a tea maker by the name of Nagatani Sōen invented the process of steaming tea. Steaming preserves enzymes and fixes the dark color. Now steamed teas are characteristic of Japanese tea culture. While originally tea seeds and methods of brewing came directly from China, tea in Japan today is an invention of their own cultural aesthetic, ingenuity, and unique land terrain!
Aside from Sencha, there are multitudes of very famous teas born from Japan. Have you ever heard of shade grown tea? Kabusecha and Gyokuro are two of these uniquely Japanese teas, grown under shade for a few weeks and up to one month. The tea leaves become deep green and brew to an ultimate smoothness. In Japan they take care to utilize all parts of their harvest, including the stems. Kukicha is made as a bright green tea, while Hojicha or Hojikukicha is roasted stem tea. Genmaicha, or “brown rice tea”, adds toasted rice to sencha, giving a nutrient rich cup that balances the bright green taste of sencha with a sweet toasted rice richness. This tea originated as a way for both fasting monks, and those of modest means to drink tea and receive much needed nutrients.
When I sit down to a cup of fresh High Mountain Sencha, or a bowl of rich Matcha, or a nice robust pot of roasted Hojicha, I swear that I can taste the richness of this tea history! Can you? Please join me this week on facebook as I taste my way through some of Stone leaf Teahouse ‘s ordinary and extraordinary Japanese Teas. Don’t be shy though, pitch in with your own tasting notes and photographs!