Tea in Early Japan: A Poetic Beginning

I need only write the word and you will picture entire countries and cultures. Consider samovar or Earl Grey.

Or matcha.

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Bamboo matcha scoop and whisk; copper artwork by Kristin Bartlett

Although it’s not clear exactly when the first tea gardens were established in Japan, by the early 800s Japanese poets were extolling the merits of tea.

This “Song of Tea for the Governor of Izumo” by Koreuji was included in an AD 827 anthology of Japanese poems written in Chinese style, and portrays tea culture in the Heian era (AD 794–1185):

Early spring, the branches of the tea plants sprout buds.
We pluck them to make tea.
An old man near the temple loves it as a treasure.
Alone he faces the golden flames and roasts his gems.
Beneath a wood of bare branches limpid waters flow.
He strains it into his silvery vessel.
With finest charcoal the fire soon glows.
The kettle boils in flowery waves.
Like Pan of ancient Shang in China
Blending in the best salt to bring out the flavor,
In essence it is mysterious and pure,
Nothing could excel it.
After roasting the fragrance lingers.
To drink is to be in white clouds, cares vanished.
Like a Taoist mystic one is pure and brisk. (Sen 1998)

The details of tea-making demonstrate the poet’s knowledge, and the writer connects the tea drinker to the natural world and its beauty.

At this time period, only the privileged would have had the time to (1) learn about tea and (2) write about it, so even though the poet enjoys high status like those who would ultimately drink the tea (that is, royalty and priests), he or she serves as a bridge between the growers and workers of the tea gardens and the elite.

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Japanese tea garden; photo by Lisa McDonald

In these verses, we learn that salt was still being added to tea (having evolved from its earlier use in China as more of a soup). We also see that making tea was viewed as a valued ritual—and that drinking tea was seen as an escape from the world.

Although tea was also used as medicine and an alternative to alcohol, its emotional and spiritual and philosophical dimensions were just as, or more, important. It was a balm for sorrow, a release from daily life, a way of renewal.

Coming as it did from China, Chinese culture heavily influenced its perception in Japan. During China’s Tang Dynasty (Ap 618–ca. 906), Japanese students and monks had traveled to China to study. When they returned home, they brought tea—and its attendant philosophy—with them.

As Sen (1998) puts it:

Predominant in the Chinese intellectual tradition was not so much the attempt to create a real world in which one attained one’s desires through one’s own efforts, but the attempt to create within the real world a spiritual realm in which the actualization of one’s own personal desires mattered as little as possible.

And so, in the beginning, Japanese elite and priests drank tea, emulating the Chinese of the Tang Dynasty. The relationship between China and Japan eventually changed, however, and regard for tea seemed to lapse.

But not for long.

A scholar named Eisai (or Yōsai) changed history. After studying in China, he returned to Japan and accomplished a pretty formidable list, all before his death in AD 1215:

  • renewed cultural relations between the two countries
  • introduced Zen Buddhism to Japan (known as Chan in China) and founded the Rinzai sect of Zen
  • brought tea seeds and knowledge of tea production to Japan, and established a tea garden
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Site of the first tea garden in Japan; photo by Lisa McDonald

His book, Kissa Yōjōki, or Drinking Tea for Health, reignited interest in tea (Sen 1998). And although Eisai focused on the medicinal qualities—

with it [tea] one can cure all manner of diseases (Sen 1998)

—tea was now irrevocably entwined with Japanese culture, at least for the elite.

Those lower classes? They didn’t get tea until centuries later, and then, unsurprisingly, it was lower-quality tea.

In the 1600s, German doctor Engelbert Kaempfer wrote a history of Japan, asserting that European style tea “is now so well known to every body, that it is needless to add any thing about it” (Faulkner 2003).

He went on to describe matcha and the grinding of the tea leaves with a hand mill. Mixed with hot water, it was called “thick Tea” and was drunk by “all the rich people and great men in Japan daily”; the “Country people” drank tea that was made “by a perfect boiling, which goes further than a simple infusion” (Faulkner 2003).

Tea had reached everyone in Japan, and along the way, the Japanese had claimed it for their own, developing the tea ceremony (late 1400s–1500s) that

at its most profound, . . . is a quest for spiritual fulfillment through devotion to the making and serving of tea and, by extension, to the humble routine of daily life. (Faulkner 2003)

From its beginnings as a privilege for the elite, the preparation and drinking of tea evolved into a way of reframing one’s most ordinary existence.

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Sources:
–Faulkner, R., editor. Tea: East and West, V&A Publications, London, 2003.
–Sen, S. The Japanese Way of Tea, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1998.

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