Japanese Tea Culture

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to travel to Japan on business.  It was only for two weeks but I dare say it changed me, far more than any other foreign travel had to date.  Perhaps it was the right time in my life or perhaps it was being a bit overwhelmed traveling solo throughout Tokyo and Kyoto.  Either way, by the end of the trip I found myself a full on tea convert who loved sushi; very big changes in my life, which set the stage for me to look at Japanese tea culture a bit more closely.

Very old painting of Emperor Saga of Japan.

Emperor Saga of Japan (9th Century)

Tea made its way to Japan via cultural exchange back in the 9th century through religious interactions with China.  According to legend, tea was brought to Japan by a Buddhist monk who traveled to China and on returning home served it to Emperor Saga.  For his part Emperor Saga enjoyed tea enough that he supported the initial cultivation of tea plants in Japan even though it didn’t spread widely at the time.

Japanese tea culture really started to take shape in the 12th century.  At this time China had developed a new process which was better suited to the storage and transport of tea without it rotting.  This new process involved steaming, grinding and forming cakes of powdered tea.  One would then break a bit off the cake to make tea.  Another visiting Buddhist monk, Eisai, traveled to China and brought back the powdered tea, seeds, and knowledge to support the preparation of the powered tea.  Eisai is credited with the introduction of the tencha style of tea preparation, where hot water was added to the powdered tea, or matcha, and whipped into a thick froth.  Integration with religious ritual and adoption by ruling classes drove the import of more tea plants from China and cultivation expanded further.

Photo of frothy green tea made by whisking powdered tea and water.

Green Tea Matcha and Whisk by Kefisreal

Over time, the Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as The Way of Tea, chanoyu, chadō, or sadō, developed as a distinct ritual.  Initially developed and performed by Buddhist monks, the ceremony has historically been performed by men.  According to Etsuko Kato, author of The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan, starting in the 20th century, wealthy women and doctors began learning about tea and practicing the ritual, and today about half of those practicing chadō are middle class women and housewives  (Spinks, 2012)

It was around the 13th century that the game of tōcha developed, in which participants would taste teas and try to guess the region from which it came.  Held in a kissa-no-tei and hosted by a teishu, or tea gathering host, it was a betting game with the winners receiving luxurious prizes.  While tōcha started out as a game for elites, it ultimately helped spread tea gatherings across Japan.  (Greater Victoria Gallery of Art, 2014)

Photograph of Japanese Coffee House

Kissaten or Japanese Coffee House by Flickr user Melanie M

Finally, beginning in the late 1800’s, coffee began making inroads into Japan.  (Kuniko, 2002)  Today, there is much less observation of ritual as many in Japan, as in other countries, seem to have shifted toward a faster pace with more coffee.  Where tea and the associated ritual that comes with it used to sit one now finds the kissaten, or coffee houses, favored for the relaxed atmosphere and light fare, and more recently chains like Starbucks throughout.

Despite the increase in coffee however, tea continues to have immense popularity in Japan.  Almost all domestic production is consumed within Japan as loose leaf, matcha, bottled ready-to-drink teas, or other tea products.  In fact, a recent resurgence in popularity for matcha has even resulted in its importation from China.

What’s your take?  Have you been to Japan or are you from there?  Have you noticed any particularly interesting changes in the culture and ritual of modern Japanese Tea Culture?

Works Cited

Greater Victoria Gallery of Art. (2014, March 20). Tocha: A Game of Tea. Retrieved from Tea: A Journey: http://tea.aggv.ca/teachers-activities-tocha.asp

Kuniko, S. (2002, March 15). Coffee Shop Culture. Retrieved from Nipponia: http://web-japan.org/nipponia/nipponia20/en/topic/index.html

Spinks, R. (2012, April 28). Steeped in Tradition: Japanese Women and the Modern Tea Ceremony. Retrieved from ecosalon: http://ecosalon.com/steeped-in-tradition-japanese-women-and-the-modern-tea-ceremony/

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