In Japan tea is a religion, philosophy, elixir and an art form. You can distinguished a Japanese green tea from any other tea by the suffix cha. Cha is tea in Japanese and most Japanese teas end with cha; matcha, genmaicha, hoijicha, bancha and on…Only the most supreme of all Japanese green tea, Gyokuro (which translates to precious dew), does not not adopt the Cha suffix.
The history of tea in Japan started in the 8th century when Emperor Shomu heard of a medicinal plant used by the Chinese Buddhist monks for mental alertness. The Emperor invited 100 Chinese Buddhist monks to his palace to try tea. Although tea was China’s most precious export, the monks brought seeds of the tea plant as an offering and not too long after, tea was planted and cultivated successfully in Japan.
Traditional ways of producing Japanese tea was started in the 9th century with steaming the tea leaves while the 13th century brought the introduction of roasting tea leaves and twigs – unique from the Chinese method of withering, pan firing and rolling tea leaves.
Throughout the proceeding centuries, the Chinese Buddhist Monks are responsible not only for bringing tea to Japan but also the art of tea ceremonies, calligraphy, painting and philosophy. Chashitsu, or tea houses, which are simply furnished and evoke the Buddhist minimalism of thatched roofs and sparse furnishings leaving ample room for ideology and expressionism over the tea leaves. Through the Buddhist teachings, tea masters learned that tea is not intended for prosperity but is ephemeral and for everyone.
The 12th century brought us our first Japanese tea book, still in print today, Kissa Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea). The opening sentence, “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete” is clearly relevant more than eight centuries later.
Modern day Japanese tea is still rich in tradition and ritual. Sencha, Japan’s most popular tea, was developed in the 18th century. The famous, ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony or ocha is highly influenced by Zen Buddhism and can still be found in modern Japan.