The Japanese Tea Ceremony

While visiting Chinese monasteries, Japanese buddhist monks were intrigued by this drink offered to them during long meditations to keep them awake. They decided to bring back and cultivate some of these Chinese plant in the Uji region near Kyoto, the Japanese imperial capital.

This was over a thousand year ago but Japan never ceased to love this plant and even developed the Japanese tea ceremony. It is one of the most refined and precise ceremony so let’s see how Japanese came up with this ceremony and how you can drink tea like a Japanese!

A Small History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The first written accounts of tea in Japan date from 912 AD. Japanese buddhist monks brought back tea to the Uji region after discovering the boosting benefits of this plant. Tea consumption kept growing and during the 12th century, a Japanese monks named Eisai, brought back Chinese powdered green tea, the Matcha. The Song dynasty in China had developed the habit of grinding green tea between two stone wheels. In order to drink this tea, you obviously have to dissolve it in hot water. This is at the origin of the famous Cha No Yu (literally meaning “tea particles with hot water”), the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The first school of tea responsible for teaching the Cha No Yu rituals was founded by Murata Shuko toward the end of the 15th century. As you can see, Japan is without a doubt serious about tea drinking! You can without a doubt learn a thing or two from the Japanese tea ceremony on how to drink tea 🙂

Mastering the Way of the Tea

Sen No Rykiu (1522-1591) is without a doubt the most famous tea master. He imposed a really precise and spiritual code of the Japanese tea ceremony. Schools still hold his name and teach his principles. Their pupils will learn for several years before holding the title of “tea master”. Japanese are serious about this ceremony and even samourais left their weapons before entering in a tea house.

It is important to note that even if we talk about the Japanese tea ceremony, there are multiple variety of this ceremony as every special occasion (gathering with friend, meditation, art contemplation, etc.) calls for a different set of special and unique preparations.

To drink tea like a Japanese is more than just tea, it is a whole lifestyle including art, calligraphy, floral arrangement, traditional clothing, and much more. For the sake of shortness, we’ll focus almost exclusively on the tea part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Japanese Tea Production

Japan is the sixth largest producer of tea in the world. Japan only produce green tea, often of exceptional quality. Each field is really well kept and manufactures have the latest equipments. If in Japan, you can see big fans in the tea fields to repulse fog and even women with special drying equipment swiping the fields in order to vacuum the few water drops that might compromise the quality of the green tea.

In Japan you’ll find 3 main tea producing regions:

  • The Shizuoka Region

It is the biggest tea region in Japan. The climate is really diverse as the plantations spread from the Japanese sea to the foggy mountains. This force producers to have the latest equipment and keep on the forefront of the tea manufacturing knowledge. About half of Japan green tea are produced in this region and they process 70% of all Japanese tea. The tea produced in this region is the sencha (the “new tea” coming from the first harvest) and the bancha.

The harvest is made manually in the mountains and semi manually in the plains. The leaves are steamed to prevent oxidation and then rolled, shaped, and dried. This is what give them their easily recognizable tube shape and their dark green color. Once manufactured, they are packed in double layer kraft paper and stored at roughly 4°C. This way they keep their freshness and distinctive taste.

  • Kyushu Island

This is the southernmost of the 4 main Japanese island and account for about 25% of Japanese tea production. All types of green tea are present in this region and they go through 4 harvests each year.

The harvest is completely mechanic and give a recognizable round shape to the tea plants.

  • The Uji Region

The first tea trees were planted in this region close to Kyoto, the old emperial city. This is still the most prestigious tea region specializing in the highest quality. The “Jewel Dew”, the famous Gyokuro green tea, is from this region. This tea is considered a tencha, a very high quality green tea. Gyokuro tea have the particularity of being grown under shades rather than exposed to the full sun. This gives it a sweet flavor as well as increased theanine and caffeine.

In order to create Matcha green tea, Japanese will only use those really high quality tencha teas. As you can expect, those only represent a tiny fraction of Japanese production (about 3%) and are therefore quite expensive.

What Kind of Tea Japan Produces?

Japan only produced green tea but they are of varying quality. Those green teas are:

  • Sencha (75% of Japan production – coming from the first harvest)
  • Tencha (high quality sencha with really limited production)
  • Bancha (lower quality coming from subsequent harvests – up to the 4th harvest)
  • Bancha Hojicha (roasted bancha tea instead of steamed – presents lower theanine content)
  • Genmaicha (sencha mixed with grilled brown rice also called “popcorn tea” due to some of the grilled brown rice that popped – it has a really distinctive toasted and sweet flavor due to brown rice)

Japanese Tea Drinking Habits

Japanese have pretty much always consumed almost all their national tea production. They also import teas from other countries in order to meet the high Japanese demand. Japanese are fond of darjeeling tea and reserve from a year to the other tea from their favorite Indian plantations. In the afternoon, they appreciate aromatic black or green tea from Europe and most particularly from France. You can find all the major French tea brands in Japan.

Japanese use tea everywhere. You can find tea in ice creams, cakes, or even noodles. If in Japan, you can find tea vending machines at pretty much every street corners with a selection of different teas served hot or cold! This is definitely a wonderful country for all tea lovers.

Depending on the time in the day, Japanese prefer certain kind of teas. Sencha or tencha teas are consumed in the morning, genmaicha during the day and bancha hojicha at the end of the day.

The Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony

So how does a traditional Japanese tea ceremony look like? It goes pretty much like that.

The master or mistress of tea will welcome you in the house of tea. In order to access to the house of tea, you often go through a zen garden where you always find a small water source. With a ladle made out of bamboo, you will take some water and clean your hands. Then you remove your shoes and jewelry before entering the house. The entrance door being really low you need to bow down to enter as a sign of humility.

Once inside, the silence and calm slowly take over. The setting is elegant but simple. You see tatami mats on the floor, a kakemono (probably a representation of the Fuji-Yama mount) hanging on the wall, and a traditional floral arrangement called ikebana.

When it comes to the preparation of tea, you have the following utensils:

  • a cast iron tea pot (kama) on top of a heater
  • A lacquered wood tea caddy (natsume) containing the matcha green tea
  • A thin tea scoop made out of bamboo (chashaku) to grab the matcha
  • A ceramic tea bowl (chawan)
  • A bamboo tea whisk (chasen) to mix the matcha with the water

A few scoops of matcha are put in the tea bowl, the hot water is poured, and everything is mixed in the bowl using the bamboo tea whisk. Once the tea is ready, it is first offered to the most important guest. You need to drink it all in a few slurps and make sure nothing is left in the bowl.

In order for you to enjoy this thick tea sometimes a bit bitter, you might be offered a small red bean pastry that taste really sweet before drinking your matcha.

Once the ceremony comes to an end, you’ll return to the external world with a brand new sight and a deep inner peace 🙂

A Japanese Tea Ceremony for Friends and Colleagues

If you visit a Japanese family or company, they will serve tea in an interesting but less spiritual manner. This time, the host uses tea leaves (rather than matcha powder) and put them in a small teapot (often made out of clay and with a side handle).

Your host will use the following items:

  • A small tea pot made out of clay or porcelain
  • A tea spoon carved in cherry wood
  • A lacquered wood tea caddy holding a quality sencha
  • A kettle to warm the water
  • A few tea bowls for the service

The tea leaves are placed in the tea pot filter . Water is warmed in the kettle until it reaches about 70°C and then poured in the bowls. Once filled up, the bowls are emptied in the small tea pot; the water temperature dropped about 10°C in this process and the bowls are warm to welcome the tea! Once infused the tea is poured in each bowl while taking care to distribute equally the last drops as the tea is a lot stronger at the end of the pot.

This ceremony gives the opportunity to try out the best Japanese teas in a more relaxed setting.