And then tea came to Japan…
In the early 600s AD, tea was introduced to Japan through contact between Zen priests and Chinese Buddhist monks. The Japanese Zen priest, Saichō returned to Japan in 815 after many years spent in China. He brought with him compressed tea bricks and tea seeds, which he presented to the reigning Emperor Saga. Interest in tea remained guarded and centered solely around the court and its high-ranking officials for several centuries, until the Japanese Heian era of 794-1185.
During this time, the Japanese Samurai class rose to power, along with a flourishing of the arts and intellectual pursuits, tea drinking among them. The Zen priest, Myoan Eisai introduced Chinese tea seeds and bushes to the island of Kyushu, and they were then transported to the outskirts of modern day Kyoto, where some of Japan’s finest teas are produced to this day. After many subsequent visits to China and a deep immersion in the tea culture, Eisai wrote, Kissa Yōjōki, translated as, “Drinking Tea for Health,” lauding the medicinal and health benefits of the ancient beverage. Many other writers poetically connected tea to the changing seasons and landscape.
The ethereal character of tea was praised in Japanese poetry, elevating the drink to forms of beauty, high art and a pure experience of otherworldly peace and well-being, experienced in today’s ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. By the sixteenth century this ultimate artistic “Way of Tea” became known as Chanoyu. It is a ritual that combines tranquility, mystery, discipline, beauty, respect, complete attention and harmony in its appreciation of the preparation of tea.
This famous tea ceremony defines the ultimate ritual in the preparation of food and beverage and is revered for its hypnotic manners and mystical entrancement. As a Buddhist priest stated, “The taste of Ch’an (Zen) and the taste of ch’a (tea) are the same.”