The Origin of Tea
Tea drinking in China has its earliest references in connection to the mythical emperor Shennong, who is regarded as the father of Chinese medicine and agriculture. Shennnong is said to have tasted hundreds of wild herbs, including tea leaves, to ascertain their medicinal value. According to this legend, the discovery of tea dates back to around 2700 B.C., the era in which Shennong is said to have lived.
During the late Western Han dynasty (1st century B.C.), The Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic, a book attributed to Shennong, includes a reference about tea. This suggests that even at this early point in history much knowledge about tea had already been accumulated. In 59 B.C., Wang Bao, of Sichuan Province, wrote the first known book providing instructions on buying and preparing tea - entitled A Contract with a Servant - establishing that tea was not only an important part of diet but that it was a commonly traded commodity at this time. This book is said to be the first written reference to tea utensils. At the time, tea drinking was still a luxury enjoyed by the elite classes of Chinese society.
During the Tang dynasty (around 760), writer Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea), an early work on the subject. The book's opening passage is about tea's origins in the south, showing that this has been a long-held theory.
Tea's Transmission to Japan and Its Entry into Japanese Culture
During the Nara and Heian periods, many envoys were sent to Tang-dynasty China. On several occasions, these envoys were accompanied by Japan's leading Buddhist scholars, including Saicho, Kukai and Eichu. These Buddhist monks brought back with them tea seeds from Tang China, which are said to be the origin of tea in Japan.
In the early Heian Period, Emperor Saga is said to have encouraged the drinking and cultivation of tea in Japan. Tea drinking was first referred to in Japanese literature in 815 in the Nihon Koki (Later Chronicles of Japan), recording that Eichu invited Emperor Saga to Bonshakuji temple, where he was served tea. At this time, tea was extremely valuable and only drunk by imperial court nobles and Buddhist monks.
In 1191, in the early Kamakura Period (1185-1333), Eisai, founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought back a new type of tea seeds to Kyoto from Sung-dynasty China. In 1214, Eisai wrote the first book specifically about tea in Japan, Kissa Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea). According to the medieval chronicle Azumakagami, Eisai learned that the Shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, was afflicted by alcoholism, and sent his book as a gift to the Shogun.
Although there is a theory that Sancha (mountain tea) originally grew wild in remote areas of Japan's mountains and that this tea was consumed, the first tea grown in Japan is said to have been planted in Seburisan, Saga Prefecture, from seeds brought from China by Eisai. Later, Eisai gave tea seeds to Myoe Shonin in Kyoto. These seeds are said to have become the basis for Uji tea after being sowed at Toganoo in Kyoto. Tea growing soon spread throughout Japan .At this time, tea was steamed and dried without being pressed (Tencha), and became a part of the social intercourse of Samurai culture.
In writings of the Nanboku-cho Period, the tea-growing regions of the time are recorded. In several parts of Kyoto as well as in Yamato, Iga, Ise, Suruga and Musashi, tea came to be grown at temples and on temple estates. In the 14th century, tea growing began in Okukuji, Ibaraki, which is said to be at the northern limit for tea growing.
Emergence of Tea Ceremony Culture
Eisai's book Kissa Yojoki played a major role in spreading tea culture in Japan. In the late Kamakura Period, the practice of Tocha (tea competitions), which originated in Southern Song-dynasty China, became popular among the Samurai class and tea gatherings were common.The tea ceremony rapidly spread, including Chakabuki.
From the late 15th century to the late 16th century, tea masters such as Murata Shuko, Takeno Joo and Sen no Rikyu developed a new tea ceremony, referred to as Wabicha. This style of tea ceremony gained a strong following among Samurai and is the origin of the tea ceremony practiced today.
Reform of Tea Processing and Distribution
In each region there were a wide variety of tea processing methods. In Kyoto, where the Tencha method of steaming had been prevalent, Soen Nagatani of Ujitawarakyo developed a high-quality Sencha in 1738, which is said to be the forebear of modern Sencha. In 1835, Kahei Yamamoto invented the method for making Gyokuro, which became the "Uji method," and this sophisticated technique spread throughout Japan.
In the late Edo Period, distribution methods developed considerably. Tea was traded by permission of the government in tea merchant areas of Edo. From there, tea was distributed to other parts of Edo and Japan.
The first export of tea from Japan was in 1610 by the Dutch East India Company from Hirado, Nagasaki. The shipment of Japanese tea (pot-roasted tea, such as Ureshino) was sent to Europe.
In 1858, the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan, and this was rapidly followed by similar treaties with The Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain and France. In 1859, when the ports of Nagasaki, Yokohama and Hakodate were opened to foreign trade, tea became one of Japan's main export commodities, along with raw silk thread. In that year, 181 tons of tea were exported. Kei Oura, a woman merchant in Nagasaki, exported six tons of tea to Great Britain in 1859.
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the export of tea expanded under the support of the government, particularly focusing on the United States. Accompanying this, the steaming method of tea processing spread throughout Japan based on the popular "Uji method" of tea production.
Establishment of the Modern Tea Industry
Until the end of the Edo Period, tea was grown in Japan's mountainous regions, however, from the early Meiji Period, owing to opportunities presented by various measures instituted by the new government, including its program to assist the economic reintegration of former Samurai, expansive areas of flat land, such as Makinohara Upland, were formed into large groups of tea plantations. However, the former Samurai families who had opened up the tea plantations gradually dispersed and the plantations were taken over by farmers. The reasons the former Samurai left included a significant slump in tea export prices and the large costs incurred in establishing the tea plantations.
The formation of large groups of tea plantations was not limited to the establishment of the plantations themselves but also encompassed the development of distribution systems, tea merchants, intermediary traders and tea wholesalers as well as the invention of various types of machinery. Mechanization rapidly advanced during this period, contributing to laborsaving and more reliable quality.
In recent years, thanks to such technology as sensors and computer control, even novices are able to grow tea. Nowadays, hand rolling is mainly preserved as a cultural artifact and shown at tourist attractions.
Tea in Modern Japan
The lifestyles of modern Japanese people have changed substantially. To alleviate feelings of "dissatisfaction caused by having only green tea" in ordinary households, oolong tea started to gain significant attention as a tea suitable to go with oily foods and as a tea that could be consumed in large quantities. In 1979, ITO EN launched a product by adapting Chinese oolong tea to Japanese tastes. This triggered a boom in oolong tea in Japan. Subsequently, to meet the needs of a fast-paced modern lifestyle, ITO EN developed a ready-to-drink tea beverage product, something that had been previously unthinkable. In 1981, the Company launched its canned oolong tea, and this was followed by canned green tea and canned black tea in 1985.
Later, ITO EN developed products in PET plastic bottles and cardboard cartons, which became top-selling lines. Nowadays, the entire beverage industry has followed ITO EN's lead, and a huge tea beverage market has taken shape. In every era, there is a need for teas to suit the times and ways of drinking beverages that match lifestyles.
Tea is now used in a myriad of ways, which are not limited to just beverages. Applications include catechin dyeing technology, Chahaigo board and supplement products, which utilize the active components of tea.