Origins of Japanese Tea
According to historical documents a monk by the name of Saisho first brought tea leaves to Japan from China during the Heian period. The tea culture blossomed in the time period from 1141 to 1215. This influence was brought on by a monk named Eisai who brought tea-tree seeds back from his pilgrimage to China. He then planted these seeds on the island of Kyushu and around his monastery in Hakata, from there tea culture began to blossom in Japan. Eisai and his fellow monks would prepare the tea in the same format as the Chinese, with their main use for the tea leaves being for medicinal purposes. The monks would also grind down the tea leaves before pouring the hot water over them, therefore creating a calming, zen process in their tea preparation. It is said that Monk Eisai’s tranquil and zen lifestyle largely had an influence on the basis of the Japanese tea ceremony. These ideas are still a main component to the ceremony almost 1,000 years later.
Following this, more tea tree seeds would be planted on Honshu, near Kyoto. The monks of this region would collect and use the tea leaves in their belief that it helped with meditation. In the years to come, high ranking Japanese intellectuals, statesmen, and Samurai warriors would incorporate tea as part of their daily life.
Starting in the 16th century a new process was introduced to tea growing, shading the plants from sunlight through the use of Tana canopies. This process is believed to be the origin point for today’s strand of Matcha and Gyokuro trees. Next, in the 17th century a Chinese monk by the name of Monk Yin Yuan spread the word of loose leaf tea infusions in Japan.
Between the years of 1641 and 1853 the relationship between the Japanese and Chinese changed drastically. During these years Japan took on their famous policy of isolation, which meant that there was no contact to the outside world for Japan. This policy would cut their ties to the tea producing regions of China, thus limiting their supplies. The isolation policy would force Japan to create its own personal tea culture, one that would differ from the Chinese. Matcha and Gyokuro would become the fastest growing tea in popularity and the growing Japanese tea influencers would begin to create new ways of preparing these teas. One of them, Soen Nagatani, in 1738 would create the method of steaming green tea leaves, a method still used today. Steaming the leaves helps to capture the freshness of the tea leaves. Predominantly, most of the tea produced in Japan is drunk in restaurants(Bancha, Kukicha), in formal groups(Sencha, Gyokuro) and in the tea ceremony(matcha). This does not deter Japan from importing a wide variety of teas from all over the world though.
Tea, the Japanese Way
The technique most used around the world to prevent the leaves from oxidizing is by heating them. Tea growers all over the world heat the leaves on a large heated surface, to give you a picture, imagine a large frying pan. In Japan, they do things a little differently. Japan’s largest focus is on green tea, since 99.9% of tea grown there is green tea. The steaming technique as mentioned above, is the technique of choice.
There are three ways to steam green tea leaves:
Asamushi “shallow steam” or “lightly steamed” - a quick, normally 20 - 40 second steaming.
Chumushi “medium steam” or Futsumushi “normal steam” - a 40 - 80 second steaming.
Fukamushi “deep steam” - a longer steaming of 80 seconds of more.
What's the results?
The time spent steaming the leaves will vary from farmer to farmer, which is why the terms are generalized from shallow to deep instead of giving exact time frames. After the leaves have been steamed they can be rolled and dried and the new name for leaves is Aracha. Once rolled and dried, they are sorted before they are packed, distributed, and enjoyed.