History of Green Tea

History of Green Tea


History of Japanese Green Tea

805 After studying abroad in China, Buddhist monks Saicho and Kukai returned to Japan with young tea trees.
1191 Another Buddhist monk who had studied in China, Eisai, popularized the idea of drinking tea for good health. Around the same time, Japanese farmers began growing green tea in Uji, Kyoto.
1211 Eisai wrote the first Japanese book about tea, KISSA YOHJYOH KI.
1271 A Buddhist monk, Kohken first planted tea trees in Obuku area in the Ujitawara region of Kyoto.
16th cent. Shading from sunlight with Tana canopy began. It was the origin of today’s Matcha and Gyokuro.
Late 16th cent. Rikyu Sen introduced the tea ceremony.
1738 In Ujitawara, Kyoto, Soen Nagatani developed a new process of steam drying tea leaves. The new process, known as the Uji method, resulted in fresh, flavorful tea. It quickly replaced the traditional method of roasting and drying tea leaves.
1841 In the Ogura area of Uji in Kyoto, Shigejyuro Eguchi perfected the Gyokuro processing method.

The Birthplace of Uji Tea

Obuku is the first place where tea trees were planted in the Uji region of Japan. They were planted by Kohken, a Buddhist monk, around 1271, after Eisai popularized the idea of tea drinking in Japan around 1191.

Obuku is a small area of land with a diameter of just 0.4 miles (600 meters). Even today, Obuku is known for producing very rare, highest grade Sencha. In Japan, there are only a few places where top grade Sencha is produced , and the Obuku area in Uji is one of them. Obuku is located in mountain ravines, where tiny streams run, and the soil is full of minerals. The misty climate, sloping hills, warm days and cool nights provide a very ideal setting to grow the highest grade tea. Indeed, Sencha produced in the Obuku area was presented to the Japanese Emperors for many years. (The tea leaves for our Sencha Pinnacle and Sencha Super Premium are harvested in the Obuku area.)

One special advantage of the Obuku region is that it never frosts, even on very cold winter mornings. Because of Obuku's unique geography, it is always mildly windy. It is said that the wind blows the frost away and that this is the reason why there is no frost in Obuku. Some farmers who own tea farms in the Obuku area wonder if the Buddhist monk, Kohken who planted tea trees at first in the Obuku area had known of these complex geographical features and optimum conditions for tea trees. If so, why and how had he known this such a long time ago?

  • Tiny stream running through the Obuku area

  • The Obuku area is located in mountain ravines

  • A memorial marker is built very near the tea farm where the first tea trees were planted in 1271. It is next to our tea farm for Sencha Pinnacle and Sencha Super Premium.

  • The morning mist in Ohbuku area

  • Tea farm for hand picked in Obuku area

Sohen's Achievements

Sohen Nagatani (1681 - 1778) invented the Uji green tea processing method which is today's processing method of Sencha, Gyokuro and others in 1738 when he was 58 years old. Even today, his original tea processing method is still the standard method used throughout Japan. Before Sohen invented the Uji method, Japanese tea was just Matcha or Bancha (Houjicha). Matcha used to be extremely precious and was produced only in tiny quantities, so only the SHOGUN and nobility were able to drink Matcha. Only a handful of merchants had been approved to process Matcha. And the general populace at large drank only Bancha (Houjicha) that is a brown color. Sohen Nagatani wanted the common people of Japan to be able to have access to not only brown but also green tea.

Thus Sohen Nagatani invented the Uji cha processing method. In order for the farmers in the region to become wealthy, he taught them the secret of the Uji cha processing method without the least regret. Therefore the tea industry has had a tremendous impact on the development of the entire Uji region of Kyoto.

Sohen Nagatani is memorialized in the shrine next door to his birthplace. And Sohen's grave was built on top of the highest hill in the Ujitawara area near his birthplace for his achievements. Japanese tea merchants continuously visit his grave as a sign of gratitude on October 1st of every year.

  • The birth house of Sohen Nagatani has a traditional thatched roof

  • The portrait of Sohen Nagatani

  • The shrine dedicated to Sohen Nagatani

Processing by Skilled Hands

Almost all kinds of Japanese tea are processed by kneading, except for matcha. Tea leaves are dried and kneaded using the application of heat. This process enables the tea to be easily brewed and to form the tea leaves into the proper shape. It is the Uji cha processing method invented by Sohen Nagatani.

A long time ago, tea leaves were processed by hand as shown in the images below. The processing was hard labor even for the strongest workers. It took about 4 hours to complete the initial processing, and a workman could bring just 4kg of tea leaves to completion in an entire day, though now a factory operated by a few men can bring 400kg to 800kg of tea leaves to completion. Today, production efficiency is about 70 times faster than processing by hand.

Paintings of processing by hand (The possession of Uji Museum of Historical Materials)

Ocha Tsubo Dohtyu (Journey of bestowing Uji tea leaves to the SHOGUN)

Tea jars filled with Shincha, green tea from the first harvest of the year in Uji, were carried on foot from Uji to Edo (Tokyo), which is a distance of over 500km. The procession was composed of only a small number of people. It took about 12 to 14 days on foot.

The general populace was never permitted to drink Shincha, green tea from the first harvest of the year, until completion of the Ocha Tsubo Dohtyu journey. Ocha Tsubo Dohtyu gave the absolute authority, and the populace had to improve everything - the road, bridge, neighboring plants and buildings - along the way in advance. The general populace and even the feudal lords had to respectfully kneel down on the ground when the procession passed by.

The SHOGUN and nobility held green tea from Uji in the highest regard. Uji was and still is today, known for producing the highest quality green teas in Japan.

Paintings of Ocha Tsubo Dohtyu (The possession of Uji Museum of Historical Materials)

The First Story of Gyokuro

In 1835, the owner of tea company Yamamotoyama, tea merchant Kahei Yamamoto VI (sixth), came from Tokyo to learn Tencha processing (steaming and drying fresh green tea leaves) in the Ogura area, in Uji, Kyoto.

Kahei Yamamoto VI tried to duplicate this Tencha processing method in the same way, but could not succeed. His finished tea was in the unusual shape of small round beads. He brought this tea back to Tokyo, and brewed the same way as Sencha, and was surprised to find that the taste was amazing. He then introduced the tea to his clients, and soon the tea became quite popular. He named the tea Tama no Tsuyu or Bead of Dew (Tama=Bead/Jade, no=of, Tsuyu=Dew).

In 1841, in the Ogura area of Uji in Kyoto, Shigejyuro Eguchi perfected the Gyokuro processing method, based on the process that was currently being used to process Sencha, invented by Sohen Nagatani in 1738. The tea leaves used for Gyokuro were the same as those used for Tencha. (Tea leaves used for Matcha, before they are ground into fine powder, but after stems and veins are removed, are known as Tencha.)

Gyokuro was given its name by Shigejyuro Eguchi. Gyokuro is a different reading of the Kanji characters for Tama no Tsuyu or Bead of Dew. The Kanji for Tama can also mean fine jewels of Jade or Pearl. Therefore, Gyokuro also can be translated as Jade Dew or Pearl Dew. And for green tea, this name fits well, as Gyokuro is a high-grade tea, a precious jewel of green tea.

  • There is a memorial marker at the center of Ogura, the birthplace of Gyokuro.

  • Gyokuro was developed by combining tea leaves for Matcha and the processing method developed by Sohen Nagatani.

Origin of Matcha

Buddhist monk Eisai popularized the idea of drinking tea for good health in the 12th century. At that time, tea was considered precious medicine, and the flavor seems to have been quite bitter. It was very long afterward that tea became flavorful.

Tea popularized by Eisai was crushed into rough powder or tiny pieces and then brewed by boiling in water. It is said that the stone mill was used to grind tea into powder form around 14th century. It is believed that at that time, tea was whisked like Matcha of today.

Today, tea leaves for Matcha are shaded from sunlight by a canopy called TANA, for 20 to 30 days just before harvest, to create a source of mellow taste, Theanine in tea leaves. The shading method started around 15th or 16th century. Though the canopy was close to the Tana canopy of today, the shading at beginning was not to create a source of mellow taste, Theanine, but to prevent damage by frost. Indeed, at beginning tea leaves were covered by canopy in February and March just before sprouts appear. In contrast, modern tea leaves are covered by canopy after sprouts appear. It is believed that tea farmers discovered by accident that tea leaves grown in shade have mellow taste, and then began to shade tea leaves from sunlight after sprouts appear to create the mellow taste.

Rikyu Sen (1522 - 1591) popularized the tea ceremony around late 16th century. Rules of the Japanese tea ceremony governed that Matcha should be served with confections or candy. So, at that time Matcha must have still had a bitter taste.

Judging from transport history of fertilizers, it was around 17th or 18th century that farmers began introducing fertilizing techniques for Matcha. Matcha taste probably became mellow and smooth around 18th century by the popularization of fertilizing techniques and shading techniques. It is said that high quality Matcha at the beginning of the 19th century was very mellow and smooth, similar to the high quality Matcha of today.

  • Traditional stone mill following the traditional design from long ago.

  • Printing of TANA canopy long ago. It looks very much the same as today's HONZU TANA canopy.
    (Reference from UJI SEICHA EMAKI at KONNICHI AN Library)

  • Today's HONZU TANA canopy, following the traditional design, looks the same as long ago.

Kuchikiri no Gi Ceremony

Though today some Gyokuro lovers enjoy newly harvested Gyokuro too, it is the traditional wisdom that Matcha and Gyokuro generally gain an enriched flavor and sweetness over time, and are best some months after harvest.

In the Japanese tea ceremony, even today people celebrate aged Matcha in the ceremony called Kuchikiri no Gi every autumn. Kuchikiri no Gi means the ceremony of opening a special jar of tea. Matcha and Gyokuro used to be placed in a large tea jar. This tea jar was then sealed and stored in a cool place like the top of a high mountain or in the ground after harvest until autumn. People would first enjoy that year's Matcha and Gyokuro in the autumn after the Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony. And it was said that when the jar lid first opened in autumn, the delicious fragrance of the tea filled the room and was so wonderful that there were no words to describe it.

Today, the Kuchikiri no Gi ceremony is still held by local tea farmers and a school of Teaism at Kosho Temple in Uji on the first Sunday of October every year in order to honor the forerunners who contributed to developing Japanese tea culture.
The ceremony is thus followed:
- Water is gathered by ladle from the river at Uji Bridge in the way of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, kanpaku (powerful ruler) in Japan, who supported Rikyu Sen to indurate Teaism. He always used the water from Uji Bridge every day in order to prepare his Matcha.
- The water is solemnly and mindfully carried to Kosho Temple.
- The tea jar which was filled with tea leaves and sealed in the harvest season is opened according to traditional procedure.
- Matcha is prepared by the present head of the school of Teaism.
- A bowl of Matcha is offered before the tablet of the ancestors who contributed to developing Japanese tea culture.

  • Kosho Temple

  • Carrying the water gathered from the river at Uji Bridge

  • Opening the tea jar

  • Prepared matcha by the present head of the school of Teaism

  • Offered matcha before the tablet of the ancestors

  • The tea jar

Interesting Books Regarding Japanese Tea Culture or Mentality

We would like to introduce interesting books referring to Japanese Tea Culture or Mentality which are written in English and sold outside Japan.

The Book of Tea (by Kakuzo Okakura):
The Book of Tea was written by Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913) who was not only one of the most famous novelists in Japan but also a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Book of Tea was published in 1906 in the US at first, and then it was highly appreciated and published around the world. In the book, Kakuzo Okakura introduces the tea ceremony, Japanese traditional spirit and culture, and the history.

In Praise of Shadows (by Junichiro Tanizaki):
Originally published in 1933. This eloquent work on the Japanese sense of beauty explores the subtle interplay of shade and light in several important aspects of Japanese life: architecture, drama, food, femininity, and literature and traces the retreat of this mature, shadowy aesthetic tradition before the bright and loud products of Western technology. Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1964), one of the most eloquent Japanese novelists, leads readers through "darkness seen by candlelight" replete with a "pregnancy of particles like fine ashes, each particle as luminous as a rainbow." His flowing, wandering meditation cannot fail to delight all lovers of the traditions of the East.

Celebration Gifts in Japan

In Japan, Japanese green tea is often presented as a gift to celebrate for following reasons. We give the gift of green tea for a good health and a long life of your good friends. It is perfect for any special or romantic occasion such as holidays, birthdays, Valentine's Day, weddings, or the purchase of a new home.

- Japanese green tea has been highly valued and treasured as a precious medicine for health and longevity since green tea was introduced to Japan in 805 by Buddhist monks.
- Beginning in 1738, Sohen Nagatani invented the Japanese green tea processing methods which are still used today to pick and prepare the leaves. Green tea has always been the most popular beverage in Japan, believed to contribute to health and well being. Today, we understand some of the reasons why green tea is so healthy. It is full of nutrients such as Catechin, Teanin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A and many others.
- Tea trees are not deciduous; they do not loose their leaves. Even after continual harvesting, the tea trees sprout patiently and energetically, especially in spring. Tea trees are very strong and resilient and live for many years. That analogy transfers directly into the tea leaf and then into your tea cup providing you and your loved ones health and long life.

  • The monument saying the birth place of Japanese tea

  • The birthplace of Sohen Nagatani who invented today's Japanese green tea processing method

  • Processing by skilled hands by traditional way

Shincha and Kuradashi Tea

In the present day, people are able to enjoy fresh tea flavor and aroma throughout the year, because the Japanese tea industry has made remarkable progress in preservation techniques and technology.

Long ago when these special storage facilities did not exist, fresh tea flavor and aroma must have vanished completely from tea leaves before harvest time. In the worst case scenario, some tea leaves must have deteriorated before harvest season. Therefore, people in the old days must have truly celebrated the fresh flavor and aroma of Shincha, the first tea of the year much more than today.

In contrast of Shincha, people continuously tried to keep tea leaves in good condition and to age or enrich the flavor under much poorer technical environment than today. Inquiring minds in Kyoto, Japan developed and improved the farming and processing techniques suitable for Kuradashi tea over many generations. It is the history of the invention of enriched Kuradashi tea.