Tea, its cultivation and consumption, are crucial to Japan and its culture. Such elegant ancient rituals as the Japanese tea ceremony and unique contemporary creations as green tea ice cream have created the impression that Japan and tea are nearly synonymous.
In fact, Japan accounts for a relatively small amount of global tea production and a surprisingly small percentage of the world’s tea consumption. Japan is the world’s tenth largest producer, and it’s even lower on the scale of consumption: at one kilo per capita per year, the Japanese are 24th in global consumption, while the Turks drink seven times that. Even the British and Irish drink more.
But as in other things, the Japanese make up in style and quality what they lack in sheer quantity. Japan’s green tea is its own unique gift to the world, and to itself.
Most tea drunk around the world, green, red, black or otherwise, comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis, which originated in the southern Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, and in Northern Burma (now Myanmar). The different “kinds” of tea are created through the varied ways in which the leaves of that basic plant are grown, picked and processed. In that way, many cultures have put their own stamp on tea, to the point that many are unaware that Japanese green tea, Indian chai and Chinese oolong come from the same plant.
By far the most popular form of Japanese tea is sencha (“roasted tea”), which is steamed and then pan-roasted to prevent oxidation. It is a relatively recent development, having been created by Soen Nagatani in 1748, but it is estimated to account for 80% of Japanese consumption. Sencha is known for its astringent quality as well as its delicate taste and aroma. If you are drinking tea in Japan, it is probably a form of sencha.
The other popular form of tea made and consumed in Japan is matcha, a green powder that is used in the Japanese tea ceremony, in instant tea, and even in such modern delights as green tea ice cream. But there are many others, and all can be easily sampled in Japan.
Although the Japanese discovered tea when it was brought back from China in the 6th and 7th centuries, cultivation of tea in Japan – which, like nearly everything Japanese at that time, was centered around Nara and Kyoto – didn’t start until actual seeds were brought from China by priest envoys Saicho in 805 and Kukai in 806 C.E. Today, tea is cultivated all over Japan, from the moist, warm areas of the west coast of Kyushu and the west coast of northern Honshu, to the area west of Mt. Fuji, where Shizuoka prefecture produces nearly half of Japan’s tea.
From the start, tea was appreciated by the Japanese for the same reasons it was enjoyed by the Chinese: Its curative properties, the mental focus it gave, and its subtle flavors. In 1211, the Zen priest Eisai (1141–1215) published a book entitled Kissa Yōjōki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea). The book begins, “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.” It was the first of many meditations on, and explanations of, tea in Japan. The subsequent centuries have seen steady developments in the cultivation, processing and ritualization of the modest leaf and its beverages.
The manufacture of tea developed over the centuries, from the 9th century method of steaming it to the 13th century development of powdering it into matcha, and from the 18th century development of sencha to the 20th century use of machine processing. During various processes, the tea leaves can be fermented (or steamed to prevent fermentation), allowed to oxidize or partially oxidize, rolled and powdered, to create vastly different results.
Certainly, the most refined and ritualized expression of the Japanese fascination with tea is the tea ceremony, which, like tea itself, was first imported from China. It has long served as a medium of relaxation, spiritual expression, diplomacy, courtship and ritual for its own sake, and we go into it in more detail elsewhere in Japanology.
The man who first codified the Japanese tea ceremony in the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu (1522-91) was clear that great care was to be taken in brewing and drinking tea, and in his great teachings he was careful to explain a spiritual path that emphasized tea’s four principles: Wa (harmony) Kei (respect), Sei (purity) and Jaku (tranquility).
But in typical Japanese fashion, with modesty and understatement, he added: “Tea is nought but this: First you heat the water. Then you make the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know.”
Or as one common Japanese phrase has it, “Shaza kissa”: “Sit down and have some tea.”