Early Varieties of Tea in Japan

Tea has become an important aspect of Japanese culture and history since its introduction to Japan in the 8th century. All tea was originally imported from China, and it came mostly in the form of pressed tea. The tea leaves were harvested, steamed, and then pressed into shapes like the brick which you can see here in the gallery. Other common shapes for pressed tea were bowls or small lumps. It was not until the early 9th century that tea plants began to be cultivated in Japan for the purpose of preparing and drinking tea.

The tea that was produced can be categorized into three main groups that are still well loved today. These categories are black, oolong, and green teas, which are divided by the amount of time the tea leaf is allowed to ferment. Black tea is “fully fermented”, and produces a dark red color in water, oolong tea is partially fermented, generating a much lighter color, and green tea is not fermented at all before being prepared for tea drinking.

These teas were first famous in Japan, when Emperor Saga popularized the drink and decreed that some provinces begin actively cultivating tea leaves. Emperor Saga was particularly enamored with China and Chinese culture, and so tea enjoyed reasonable popularity during his reign. However, following his death, tea became less prominent in Japanese culture, and it once again became a drink that was mainly used by Buddhist monks as a medicine and a stimulant during meditation. It was not until the early Kamakura period in the 12th century that there was a resurgence of the popularity of tea, and perhaps more importantly, powdered green tea (called matcha) first made its debut in Japan.

A Japanese monk named Eisai had been studying in China for quite some time, and upon his return to Japan he brought back with him matcha and wrote a book whose English title can be translated as "The Book of Tea and Mulberries". The book describes how one should prepare and drink tea, and from his instructions historians can surmise that he must have been drinking powdered tea, or matcha. Eisai's use of matcha was not inherently linked with the Zen Buddhism he practiced, but because Eisai is also known for introducing Rinzai Zen Buddhism to Japan, the repopularization of tea and the introduction of matcha is generally associated with Zen Buddhism. Of all the tea varieties, matcha is still immensely popular today, not only in Japan but all over the world, and it still holds great importance in Japanese cultural practices such as the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Chanoyu.


Written by Celia Forgacs


Further reading:

Varley, Paul, and Kumakura Isao, editors. Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu. Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press, 1989.

Jolliffe, Lee. Tea and Tourism: Tourists, Traditions and Transformations. Toronto, Channel View Publications, 2007. 

Early Varieties of Tea in Japan