It might be said that the entire story of matcha, however long and fabled, can be summed up with a single phrase: “Ichi-go, Ichi-e”, or “one time, one meeting”. Steeped in Zen Buddhist traditions of Japan, matcha is the very embodiment of the concepts of oneness and living in the present. The star of the chado (or Japanese Tea Ceremony), matcha has played an integral role in creating an environment of mindfulness, sharing, and peace in Japan for over 1000 years.
Here, we’ll break down matcha’s illustrious history into tea-break sized mouthfuls to share with friends the next time you share a cup of matcha together.
The Day Tea Arrived in Japan
Few cultures in the world have recorded their history as meticulously as the Japanese. Completed in 840, the Nihon Kōki is just one of a series of six meticulous records of early Japan. It was here, in 815, that the first mentions of the arrival of Chinese tea to Japan can be found, when the Buddhist monk Eichū served the Japanese emperor sencha (un-ground green tea leaves in hot water) for the first time. At first reserved only for use in Buddhist temple rituals, the upper classes soon clamoured to obtain the finest tea from the palace gardens in Kyoto.
Tea was already a popular beverage during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), used both recreationally and in rituals. Around this time, a new way of storing and transporting of tea emerged, in which leaves were steamed, ground, and formed into small cakes called dancha. In 1191, a Buddhist monk named Eisai arrived back to Japan from a trip to China with this new form of matcha green tea powder, bringing with him the methods of matcha green tea preparation, seeds for the eventual cultivation of Japan’s best matcha, and the beginnings of a uniquely Japanese tea culture. At the time, he wrote:
“Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete. Tea has an extraordinary power to extend someone’s life. Everywhere people plant tea, long life will follow”
By the 16th century, the tea ceremony much as we know it today emerged, with matcha green tea at the heart of its many measured and meditative steps. Tea master Sen no Rikyū (and his teacher, master Takeno Jōō) are most commonly credited with inventing “The Way of the Tea”, as well as its aesthetic principles.
The Way of the Tea
At the center of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is the search for both inner and outer peace, creating an environment in which no one person present is more important than the next, and in which living in the present moment is paramount. In this way, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is made up of four key principles as originally defined by 16th century master Sen no Rikyū: Harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku).
While the reasoning behind the Japanese tea ceremony’s quest for peace can be traced back to Zen philosophy, the etiquette behind much of The Way of the Tea actually betrays a second meaning: The tea ceremony was developed during a time of intense civil war in Japan, and as a rule, no warrior was allowed to enter the tea room wearing a sword.
A typical tea ceremony involves a series of purposeful yet simple gestures, culminating in sharing a single cup of matcha green tea. In the chaji, a small meal is served in preparation for serving the tea. After participants have eaten a small dessert meant to sweeten the mouth before the matcha, three main actions are performed: the purification of tea serving utensils, the serving of the tea, and the cleaning of the utensils. In its entirety, these deceivingly simple gestures typically last 3 and a half to four hours.
The Way of the Tea is still very much alive in Japanese culture, though you don’t need to travel to Kyoto to take part in a tea ceremony. Most major cities have Japanese societies meant to promote traditional Japanese culture, and it’s not uncommon to find a tea ceremony quietly held inside the walls of a roji (garden). While a traditional ceremony can last several hours, most tea ceremonies outside of Japan last about half an hour.
The Scoop on Matcha
Tea was first discovered about 5000 years ago, in the Southwest Yunnan prefecture of China.
Tea arrived in Japan in 815 with Buddhist monks following trips to China.
The method of adding powdered tea leaves to water was developed in Song Dynasty China.
Matcha and its preparation methods were first brought to Japan from China in 1191 by the Buddhist monk Eisai.
The word “matcha” derives from “ma”, meaning powder, and “cha” meaning tea.
In the 13th century, tōcha (or tea-tasting parties) were frequently held, where guests would win prizes for guessing the best quality matcha.
The tea ceremony – still popular in Japan today – was first developed in the 16th century. It’s development is credited to the tea master Sen no Rikyū.
Tea master Sen no Rikyū is also responsible for most of the aesthetic principles of The Way of the Tea, and is said to have invented several utensils used in preparing matcha, including cups, tea-scoops, and flower containers.
Today Japan only exports between 1-4% of its matcha, its most precious of which is saved for traditional tea ceremonies.