Uji is the true birthplace of Japanese tea. It was Uji where the first production method of ‘sen-cha’, or middle-grade green tea, was invented in 1738. The ‘gyokuro’ high-quality production process of green tea was established 100 years later. For a time, the tea made in the Togano area in Kyoto was called honcho (literally, “real tea”), and Uji tea was treated as a second-class tea called ‘hicha’. However, sustained efforts to improve Uji tea’s quality by its producers pushed their tea up to the same level as the top-level tea of Togano. Eventually Uji tea came to be considered as the best tea in Japan for over 200 years. At first, tea was only for monks. The drink gradually spread out among the royals and then to common people. Tea, however, still has strong connections to the religious traditions of Zen.
Historically, all of the people famous for their connection with tea were zen monks. That includes Eisai, who brought tea to Japan, and Sen no Rikyu, who mastered the tea ceremony. Do you know the word ‘Zazen (Zen meditation)’? ‘Zazen’ is a kind of mind-concentration activity. When people focus on making tea in the quiet space of a tea room, they simultaneously calm down and are able to take a deeper look at themselves. These two acts have a common similarity. Both of them provide a moment to listen to your inner voice and acquire psychological fortitude. Tea culture isn’t only connected to this aspect of Buddhism, however. Many of the manners associated with tea originated from Confucianism. It’s guidelines regarding directions and positions are from Taoism. And its wrapping clothe called ‘Fukusa (a silk wrapping clothe)’ is from Christianity. In other words, tea culture is influenced by a complex mixture of various religions. As Zen beliefs became prevalent among warriors, tea became increasingly used as a gift. At the time, tea meant powdered green tea called “cha no yu”. Making and drinking tea played a role as not only mental training, but also as a popular pastime for warriors.Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, a powerful figure at the time, was also an avid Zen practitioner. He favoured “cha no yu”, and encouraged people to produce better quality tea by founding Shichimeien in Uji. This also created a favourable situation for Uji tea. One of his children, Yoshimasa Ashikaga, went on to later prompt the construction of the tearoom, prepare expensive tea tools and organise and consolidate the tea ceremony’s many regulations. Tea started to blossom in the form of the tea ceremony’ with these three keywords:
3.Cha no yu (Tea ceremony)
In the past tea was too expensive for the common person. However, as traders started to sell tea for more reasonable prices, the drink became more popular among common folks.
After the Sengoku period, where warriors spent a lot of time warring, the tea rooms of tea ceremonies acted as a place for people to discuss solutions to political problems and disagreements, as well as being used a place for mental training and leisure. Therefore, people in authority became desperate to gain better quality tea. Shoguns such as Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu protected and maintained production of tea in Uji as a designated place. This sped up the recognition of Uji tea as a top-grade brand. It eventually started to be served to shogun families.
As previously mentioned, Japanese tea started in Uji. The production methods of ‘sencha (middle-grade green tea)’ and ‘gyokuro (high-quality green tea)’ were also established in that region. In 1738, a tea maker, Soshichiro Soen Nagatani, improved the quality of sencha over the course of 10 years by integrating the production method of powdered green tea. At the time, this method was widely criticised among conventional tea makers. That’s why his tea, instead of being sold in Uji, was taken to Edo for sale. The tea became a massive hit and instantly spread all over the country. The gyokuro style of tea was accidentally invented by Kahei Yamamoto, who assisted the sales of sencha in Edo. One day Kahei was frustrated with workers who were still following the slow process of mixing tea leaves. He decided to mix and knead tea leaves himself and for some reason the leaves became sticky like candy. The tea he made was surprisingly sweet. Kahei was elated by his finding and sold the product in Edo. It became another big hit and spread across the country.
The tea industry has been threatened many times as the world has gone through different phases. For instance, when trading with other countries started, when Japanese tea was put under an embargo, and when the war started. It’s through the efforts of our ancestors, who have maintained and produced one of the world’s best teas for over 700 years, that we can still enjoy it today. We hope people over the world can enjoy our special products as well.