History of Green Tea
History of Green Tea

History of Green Tea

Tea Trees

Two ladies at Japanese tea ceremony having Kyoto Uji Matcha.
The common types of tea include green tea, oolong tea, and black tea, but these are all made from tea leaves which are from evergreen trees of the theaceae family.
The two main types of tea trees are the tall Assam type (large leaves) and the shrubby Chinese type (small leaves). Because of this, in searching for the origins of tea, some people believe in a double origin theory which suggests that one type of tea comes from the eastern Himalayan foothills and the other from southwest China. However, recently a single origin theory, placing the origins of the tea trees around South Yunnan province in China, seems to be the most widely accepted theory.

Humans discover Tea

According to Chinese legend, about 5000 years ago, the emperor Shennong, who established the basis of Chinese medicine, attempted to find plants that were good for the human body. He tested many plants and used tea leaves for detoxication. There are records that tea was already being drunk in China in the B.C. era. Tea-drinking soon spread throughout China: the poet Lu Yu wrote in the Classic of Tea that “Tea is a good tree from the south” in 760.

Tea arrives in Japan

In the ancient records, the oldest record of tea in Japan dates to the Nara period, when a “Tea-going Ceremony” was held. It is well known that around the beginning of the Heian period, the leading Buddhists leaders Saicho and the Kukai brought back tea from their journeys in China, which was in the Tang dynasty at the time, and taught Japanese people the manners of drinking tea (around 805). It is also believed, that around this time, tea trees were already being grown in Japan.
The tea back then was like the tea narrated in The Classic of Tea, called “heicha” or “dancha” in Japanese (compressed tea). It was made by simply pounding boiled tea leaves with a mill and drying them before compressing them. When drinking, you sear the grinded tea leaves, pound them into powder, and simmer them in hot water.

The Arrival of Tencha

In the beginning of the Kamakura period (1191), Esai Znehi who arrived from China (Song Dynasty), introduced the making and drinking of tencha. Esai taught Myoe Shonin of Toganoo Kosanji Temple how to grow and drink tea. After that, he wrote “Kissa Yojo Ki” (Diary of Nurturing Tea Drinking) and taught the effects of tea. From this, the drinking of matcha spread throughout Japan. Whilst in China, tencha grew out of fashion due to the Dysnasty changes and other factors, but in Japan tencha laid the foundation for green tea culture.

The Rise of Uji Tea

Myoe Shonin began growing Toganoo tea, and as he sought an environment suited to producing tea, chose the area of Uji which has a thick river mist. Gradually, the fame of Uji tea spread throughout the country, and the 3rd Shogunate of the Muromachi, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, ordered his subjects to open up the Six Tea Gardens of Uji in 1390. At this time, Uji was widely known as the best place for tea in Japan.

Sado and Matcha

Chanoyu, or the tea ceremony, began in the Muromachi period inside the palace or the study, and was spread to the rest of the country by the likes of Murata Juko and Takeno Jo’o. Eventually, Senno Rikyu advanced the practice by developing several aspects of the ceremony. In that time, a technique to grow tea leaves while covered was developed in Uji, which led to the tea plantations producing good quality matcha. With the spread of chanoyu, all chajin (tea specialists) began to seek Uji matcha.
Japanese lady serving Kyoto Uji Matcha.
This new growing technique involves the use of yoshizu (reed screens) to block the sunlight around the spring when the tea leaves show buds, and are still used today. Toyotomi Hideyoshi supported the tea growers in Uji, and the Tokugawa shoguns held a “Teapot Journey” each year. Thus, the promotion of Uji tea was supported by those in power, and chanoyu and Uji tea became inseparable.

Invention of Gyokuro and Sencha

As the Uji tea makers succeeded in producing high quality green tea, they continued making innovations, and around the mid Edo period (1738) produced the Uji method of sencha (middle grade green tea). This spread throughout the country, and because the basis of today’s green tea making. After that, using the buds from tencha leaves grown in the covered technique in the village of Uji Kokura, “Gyokuro” was invented and introduced to the rest of the world.
Today, along with Matcha, Gyokuro is loved by many as a unique type of high-quality green tea along with Matcha.