Many may recognize what matcha is, but few know how the beverage came to be. Also shrouded in mystery are the individuals who came to define the traditions and ceremonies surrounding the Matcha beverage. Here is a brief history of matcha in Japan!
One thing is fundamental understanding: that tea growth and culture have their roots in China. The same is also valid for powdered green tea, but it could be claimed that the artistry was perfected in Japan. During China’s Song dynasty, tea leaves were processed, steamed, pressed into bricks and cakes. After that, the pressings were shaved off and introduced to a stone grinder (Ishi usu). The fine powder was then whisked until the liquor frothed.
The first evidence of green tea making it to Japanese shores showed up during the Heian period (8-9th century). The first two men credited with bringing tea seeds to Japan were the Buddhist monks Kukai and Saicho. A later account mentions that-in A.D. 815- a Buddhist monk known as Eichu served green tea for the then-Emperor of all of Japan, Saga. Unique to the time, Eichu prepared un-pressed and un-powdered green leaves and displayed the rough presentation for the Emperor. Unlike the sencha-style green tea of today, since the process for formulating that tea was still eight hundred years away.
Powdered green tea caught the eye of a man named Myōan Eisai toward the end of the 12th century A.D. He had made two trips to China due to his disapproval of the state of Buddhism in Japan. On his first trip, he studied Chan’s principles (later transliterated into Japanese as “Zen”), and he later became a certified practitioner. However, his second leg proved to be the more fruitful, as far as tea is concerned. Along with some Zen scriptures, he also brought with him tea seeds and the process of replicating powdered green tea.
Eisai would later write the principle tome on Japanese green tea, Kissayōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Your Health”). Eisai was a firm believer in the health properties and possible religious applications of powdered green tea – aspects he would later put to use in the first attempts at a Japanese tea ceremony.
By the 13th century, during the Kamakura Shogunate, the use of matcha shifted from strictly religious practice to one synonymous with warrior class traditions and symbols of luxury. It then continued into the 16th century, where cha-no-yu (which quite literally means “hot water for tea” but is referred to instead as “the rite of tea” and tea ceremony 茶乃湯) came to be regarded as a status symbol and presented as an upper-class cultural value. Tea made from leaves originating from Kyoto (around the area where Eisai first planted tea seeds) became highly prized. Uji producers were the first to invent the Tana, or shade device that created a roof of straw over the tea bushes to modify the amount of sunlight reaching the tea plants. The arrangement allowed the farmers to cultivate the revered flavor profile that is Uji tea. So much so that it was a decree from the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu that only the region of Uji could employ the shade-growing, straw-covering method. However, that isn’t to say that the principles of Zen were lost entirely.
Between the 1300s and 1500s, when Japanese tea culture-and by proxy, the Japanese tea ceremony-became what we know today. Following the Muromachi Shogunate, matcha was seen as a more spiritual pursuit, one that went hand-in-hand with the quest for simplicity over extravagance. It then later brings us to the most profound influence on the practice of Chanoyu.
The fundamentals of what we consider the Japanese tea ceremony today can be credited to a monk named Murata Junko, but it was one of his students who fully defined the concept of Wabi-cha (the Japanese “Way of Tea” – also known as “Chado” or “Sado” (茶道)). That student was Sen-No-Rikyu.
Rikyu was so revered for his philosophy and preparation of tea, and he became the personal tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the pre-eminent daimyo of the Sengoku period. Such a status was ironic given his practice for austerity and simplicity when it came to tea. Alas, he met a tragic end in the spring of 1591. Although the reasons are uncertain, it is written that he offended Hideyoshi, and the only way to keep his honor was to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). An account of this was recorded in Okakura Kakuzō’s The Book of Tea, and his final act was to throw an elaborate tea party with his closest friends. He then shattered his cup and took a knife to his body.
Yet his legacy, and that of the other practitioners before him, still lives on. Both in the ceremony and the ceremonial grade matcha that they helped perfect. It is a tradition that accentuates memorizing history while embracing the present and not worrying about the future.