Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tea Around the World – Japan

By Jess Hodges

When trying to summarise tea culture in Japan it's a particularly daunting task to know where to start, so I'm forced to fall back on tradition and go to the beginning. It has an illustrious history, beginning as a drink of the religious classes, accompanying the rise of Zen Buddism. The first written reference to tea in Japan comes from a 9th century Buddist Monk and the first batch of seeds was imported from China and planted by another monk in 805. The tea was used to help the monks stay awake during meditation.

From these humble beginnings it soon became a drink for royalty when it gained favour with Emperor Saga. In the sixteenth century the Samurai began to adopt another Chinese tradition, the tea ceremony, a peaceful and formal way of drinking tea whilst appreciating art or debate. It was used as a political tool to help seek peaceful resolutions between feudal clans. The Way of Tea emerged, pioneered by Sen no Rikyū, a tea master and owner of the first independent tea house. It's four key principals are harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity and will often be found rendered in beautiful calligraphy and hung on the walls of many establishments.

As the modern tea ceremony began to evolve, tea itself became more and more available to normal people until it was a part of everyday life and the most popular drink in Japan. The tea ceremony is still taught and carried out in Japan as part of it's cultural heritage.

Green tea is ubiquitous to Japanese life and although the country is it's second largest producer only a tiny fraction is exported. They very sensibly keep the majority of their tea for themselves and who can blame them?