Matcha – An Initial Encounter

This is part 1 of a 6 post series on matcha contributed to World of Tea by Tyas Sōsen.

While in Japan the consumption of matcha is gradually declining, the tea’s popularity is rapidly growing in the West. Major health benefits have been attributed to the product, which have rendered it a highly desired item for the more health conscious among us. But in contradiction to the more traditional ways of imbibing matcha, its use in the West has seen a major shift to alternative applications such as the use in smoothies, sweets, etc. Although it is widely known that matcha in essence is a green tea that has been pulverized and ground into a fine powder, the essence of what matcha truly is, and how it comes about still remains a mystery for most. In this series of articles, I wish to shed a broader light on what matcha in essence is, and how it is grown and produced, in order to allow for a better understanding of what it is (or what it isn’t) that we are consuming.

The history of matcha in Japan is said to commence in the 12th Century, when Zen monk Eisai [栄西] (1141-1215) brought tea seeds he had gathered on a study trip to China. In the 8-9th Century however, Buddhist Monks Saichō [最澄] (767-822) and Kūkai [空海] (774-835) had already brought tea seeds from China. But at that time tea was processed into compressed cubical bricks or cakes, and it was not until the following century that a powdered kind of tea, resembling what we nowadays perceive as matcha, became the standard. This powdered form of tea was commonly used at Chinese Chan [jp: Zen] monasteries, and was revered for its vitalizing and healing benefits. Besides implementing this application of tea in his own Buddhist praxis, Eisai also wrote a book titled ‘Kissa Yōjōki’ [喫茶養生記], which translates as ‘Drinking Tea for Health’ in which he explains the various health benefits that can be gained from consuming tea.

In 1191, it is believed that Eisai recommended the cultivation and regular consumption of tea to one of his pupils. Myōe [明恵] (1173–1232) was a Buddhist Monk who served as the chief incumbent at Kōzan-ji [高山寺] on the Toganoō [栂ノ尾] mountain north-west from Kyoto. He took the advise of his master very seriously, and tended to the cultivation of tea bushes in his direct temple precincts. In due course, he discovered that the fertility of the soil, and the morning dew forming on the tea leaf as a result from the neighboring Kiyotaki river, were excellent conditions for the cultivation of tea. It is from this point forward that the consumption of tea, mainly in a powdered form, became more widely spread throughout the country, initially for use in Buddhist monasteries, and later also by the military elite.

With a growing demand for tea, it became necessary to expand the area of tea cultivation, and it was the third Shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu [足利義満] (1358-1408), who allowed more tea gardens to be opened in the Kyoto, Uji area. At first the tea produced in Uji was qualitatively lower, but soon manufacturers discovered that in Toganoō, the surrounding forest had been naturally shading the tea gardens. In response, the Uji producers developed an artificial method allowing them too to achieve similar results without having to relocate their farms. By building a wooden structure over the tea bushes, and creating a roof of straw, they could easily adjust and modify the amount of sunlight that was allowed to reach the tea bushes. This method soon rendered the tea produced in Uji the most favored tea in the country, and in succession, it was by a decree from the shogun directly that the Uji region was the only production area in Japan allowed to employ this straw-covering method.