Origin of Japanese Tea
Tea drinking has been an integral part of everyday life in Japan for nearly a thousand years. But it is still a mystery where the tea plant came from. Some people believe that the tea plant, camellia sinensis, was brought from China, whereas others believe that it was also indigenous to Japan. (*1) What is certain is that people were already growing tea in Japan as early as the 9th century. "Nihon Koki" (*2), written in 815 A.D, mentions the growing of tea plants in the Kinki and Chugoku regions of Japan. This is the first known record of tea in Japan.

12th to 16th Centuries
Contribution by Eisai
Regardless of whether the plant originated in Japan, the custom of drinking tea came from China. In 1214 a Buddhist monk, Eisai (1141 - 1215 A.D.), returned to Japan after having studied Buddhism in China and wrote the first book on tea called "Kissa Youseiki".
(*3) The book discusses a variety of subjects related to tea such as how to make "Tencha" or "Maccha" (see "Tea Varieties & Facts") and the health benefits of tea. Eisai's book "Kissa Youseiki" made a significant contribution to the development of tea drinking in Japan and was the single most influential piece of work on the subject for many years.

A Favorite Pastime

Initially tea was available only to the elite classes such as, Monks, the Nobility and Samurais, but it quickly spread to the rest of society. Books written in the mid- to late- 14th century suggest that tea drinking was becoming a favorite pastime of ordinary people. There is a historical record that in 1336, during the late Kamakura period, tea parties among ordinary people became so popular that Shogun Ashikaga banned such parties as they often became too loud.

16th to 18th Centuries
Development of the Tea Ceremony
By the 16th century the tea ceremony, believed to stem from tea-drinking etiquette practiced by Buddhist monks, was becoming an art form. Masters such as Sen no Rikyu and Murata Juko are known for establishing and perfecting this art. The tea ceremony is a unique art of serving a cup of tea to your guest(s) using highly choreographed movements which reflect the spirit of Zen Buddhism. It was fashionable among the 16th century Samurai warriors to practice the tea ceremony and today it is one of the most widely practiced of the traditional art forms, enjoyed by people from all walks of life.

The 18th to 21st Centuries

Creation of Japanese Teas
Although the techniques for growing and making tea from the tea plant were initially modeled after those of the Chinese, over the course of history, the Japanese developed their own methods of growing and making tea which were distinctly Japanese. There are Sencha, Hojicha, Bancha, Kukicha and Gyokuro to name a few (see "Tea Varieties & Facts"). Regarding Sencha and Gyokuro, which were developed relatively recently in history, we know when, where and by whom they were first produced. In 1738 a tea producer named Soen Nagatani (*4) in Uji (on the outskirts of Kyoto) invented "Sencha" which later became the most popular of all Japanese teas. "Gyokuro", which is considered the most luxurious, was developed in 1835 by another tea producer in Uji, Kahei Yamamoto. These superb creations of Uji producers played a huge role in the development of Japanese teas. Their sophisticated techniques were adopted by tea producers throughout Japan. As a result, the popularity of tea spread to an even greater extent among ordinary people and tea truly became a part of everyday life.

Exporting Tea
Tea became a major export product after Japan made trade agreements with the U.S., Russia, England and France in 1858. In 1859, tea represented 20% of all exports to the West. As the demand for tea grew, production increased. The main trade partner for green tea, at that time, was the U.S. To further increase the revenue from the export business, the Japanese government implemented an act to produce black tea in Southern Japan in 1875. In 1955 the production of black tea reached its peak of 8.5 tons. But due to the greater affordability and the superior quality of black teas produced by countries such as India and Ceylon, the Japanese black tea business began to phase out in the late 1950's. Production of black tea is almost non-existent in Japan today.

Since World War Two
The production of tea, which had plummeted during the war, began to pick up once again a few years after the war was over. Tea export peaked in 1954 at 17,000 tons and then fell dramatically to 3,700 tons in 1963. But domestic consumption, particularly of high quality teas, grew steadily and Japan currently produces roughly 85,000 tons of tea annually, less than 10% of which is exported.

*1: It is known that Camellia sinensis was indigenous to China and India (Assam region).

*2: Japanese historical text.

*3: The main message of "Kissa Yoseiki" is "Live longer by drinking Tea".

*4: The Nagatani company still exists. It produces tea related food products instead of tea.

Sources:   "Ujicha Daisuki" by Kyoto Tea Association publication
  Japan Tea Instructor Association
  "Ocha no Jiten" by Narumidou Press

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