If China has the oldest tea culture in the world, Japan probably has the most famous. A nation famed for its tea ceremony and powdered matcha tea, it has a huge influence on the way the rest of the world views tea in the 21st century.
The earliest reliable source relating to the consumption of tea in Japan dates back to the 9th century, when Emperor Saga- a huge fan of everything Chinese- was served tea. Impressed, he ordered that five tea plantations be established. Tea was to become an important part of Japanese life for the upper and religious classes and was particularly important in Zen Buddhism. One monk even went as far to say that “tea and Zen are one.”
Now popular around the world for its health benefits, matcha was first used by Buddhist monks in rituals at the end of the 12th century. It quickly became a status symbol among the upper classes and raucous tea tasting parties would be thrown, where competitions with big prizes were offered for those who guessed correctly the highest quality tea.
By the 16th century, tea drinking was common across Japan and the tea ceremony began to take shape. Sen noRikyū, one of the most revered figures in the history of Japanese tea, set out four basic principles of the tea ceremony that are still followed today, despite there being multiple ‘schools’ of tea: harmony, tranquillity, respect and purity. These values should be adhered to today when conducting a tea ceremony, if things are to be conducted properly.
Today, tea is the most consumed drink in Japan, with green tea being the most popular and it is this that is offered during the tea ceremony. As well as matcha,sencha andgen mai cha are also widely available and green tea will often be offered for free in restaurants.
Rightly revered, there is much more to Japanese tea culture than the traditional image of a geisha pouring tea.