Tea Culture and Tea Traditions of Japan


Tea Drinking Culture in Japan
Tea History of Japan
The nomadic clergy arrived in Japan with tea as far back as the 9th century and it started off as a beverage of choice among them. During the Chinese Tang dynasty, Japanese diplomats brought the know-how of growing tea back to Japan. A historical record mentions a monk serving tea to Emperor Saga. Emperor Saga then initiated tea cultivation in Japan. He was also affectionate towards Chinese poetry, which praise health benefits of tea. With the royal influence, the practice of tea was nurtured, and monks cultivated and drank tea, while the imperial household followed suit. During this time, tea was not a poor man’s drink. A Zen monk, named Eisai wrote about tea, and introduced it to the samurais. Tea was a central figure in Zen Buddhism and with time, the practice of drinking tea spread to the rest of the country.
Types of Tea consumed in Japan
The Japanese usually consume green tea. There are several varieties of it; Matcha is a special tea that is made from the leaves of tea bushes grown in the shade. This makes the leaves grow large and greener, hence making the tea made from it very bitter sweet. The best of Matcha is used for tea ceremonies.
Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan. It is a loose leaf tea, made from tea plantations open to sun. This makes the tea made from it quite dark and sharp flavoured. It is prepared by steeping the leaves in hot water which results in a yellowish green beverage. Japanese also love their tea as iced tea or iced green tea.
Processing is also applied to some teas, such as Hojicha, which consists of roasted leaves and stems picked towards the latter part of the season. This was created by the tea traders in Kyoto when they used charcoal to roast the tea, creating a mild flavour parallel to coffee.
Genmaicha, Sobacha and Gobocha are all made with roasting various plants, including tea.
Kombucha, on the other hand, is very popular in Western countries. It is made with fermented tea and bacteria-yeast combine. However, the authentic Japanese Komubcha is a tea prepared on top of a kelp or “kombu” base of seaweed, hence “kombu-cha”.
Tea Customs of Japan
Tea makes up a large part of Japanese life. It is served in star-class hotels, top-end restaurants and roadside vending machines alike.
Tea is religious for the Japanese. A tea ceremony has so many underlying meanings, such as guests cleaning themselves before entering the tea house symbolizing cleansing of one’s mind prior to the commencement of the sacred tea ceremony. The entrance is kept low, resulting in guests stooping to go in. This signifies humility and that everyone is similar.
A tea ceremony is meant for the guests to enjoy the calm and quiet, away from the chaos of everyday life. Tea houses are customarily surrounded by a garden; a stone basin of water for the guests to wash themselves before entering is at the door. The room is customarily decorated with an alcove where a hanging of flowers is displayed, and tatami floors. The chief guest sits closer to the alcove and others sit in a circle, in a “seiza” position with knees on the floor, and legs bent under them. Everyone takes another bow before the tea preparation starts.
Tea is carefully prepared and served to each individual separately. One must bow before accepting the tea, and again after finishing it. There are many customs with relation to a Japanese tea ceremony and most of it is spiritually aligned.
Food served at a Japanese tea ceremony is named “Cha-kaiseki”. This includes soup, rice, appetizers, and accompanying dishes with Sake (rice wine). The appetizers are distinguishes as “meat-based”, “plantbased”, “seafood”, and “mountain food”. Sweet items offered with tea are “Goma Mochi”, a rich cake made with sesame, “Monaka” is a Japanese wafer made with rice wafers and bean jam, and “Rubia” a plum fruit.
Tea ceremonies in Japan
Tea master Murata Jukō is known as the father of the tea ceremony. He, along with other tea masters such as Sen no Rikyū, introduced the philosophical and artistic nature of drinking tea. Thus the Japanese tea ceremonies came into existence.
Generally Japanese tea ceremonies are held in specially prepared rooms with tatami floors, sliding doors or “shoji” and wooden windows covered with Japanese paper. Even though there are two types of tea houses Koma and Hiroma, it is possible to have it outdoors, “picnic style”, if the right utensils, space and the ease of making and serving tea, is possible. A year is divided to warm and cold months, and the tea ceremony differs according to that as well.
For every invited guest, a matcha tea is prepared by the host in a special way. Powdered tea is scraped from the tea caddy with a tea scoop, and put into a handmade matcha bowl. Hot water is added and mixed with a bamboo whisk. It must result in a smooth tea, and consumed straightway. The process is repeated for every guest to ensure that everyone has the same tea from a common matcha tea base. There is “thick” and “thin” tea, with regards to their consistency.
The tea ceremony is a solemn practice which has hidden symbolism. It is intended for the guests to clear their minds and arrive at an enlightening experience.
Teaware of Japan
There is a special set of utensils used for a tea ceremony known as “chadōgu”. The chadōgu- made in bamboo - changes in design and themes for different seasons and types of tea ceremonies.
They are handled delicately with great care, cleaned thoroughly before and after using them, and prior to storing them. Some are handled only after wearing gloves. Certain items like the jar which tea is stored in, known as “chigusa” is so respected that in the past they were “named”.
One of the main elements of the ceremonial tea set is the “chakin”, a linen or hemp cloth, rectangular in shape, used to wipe the tea bowl. The tea bowl comes in various sizes, styles and colours.
The thick and thin teas have their own bowls. The shallow ones are reserved for hot summer days and deep ones, for winter. These are named after the owner, creator, or the tea master. Bowls which are more than 400 years old are still used in special occasions and are highly valuable.
Tea caddy is used to store powdered tea, and tea scoop is used to scrape that tea from the caddy. The whisk is used to literally, whisk or mix powder tea with hot water. These spoon-like implements are usually created from a single bamboo piece. It is a practice to use a new whisk for a special tea ceremony.