History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony
A product of culture, tradition, art, religion and aestheticism, the Japanese Tea Ceremony is a staple of national identity in Japan. Taking years to learn and over a decade to master, this cultural ritual is a fine art which requires the utmost precision. The Japanese tea ceremony, better known as chanoyu, literally translates to “hot water for tea.” Other spellings include, chado or sado. For over a thousand years, the tradition of chanoyu has been molded and shaped by a variety of tea masters and time eras. From tea parties to a highly stylized performance, chanoyu has endured decades of refinement, and even a reversal of gender roles. Before diving deeper into these subjects, it is imperative that we uncover the furthest historical facts about tea culture in Japan, and in order to do that, we must travel to China.
Journeying way back in history, one may find it hard to believe that Matcha’s roots actually began in China, not Japan. Royalty in China frequently held tea drinking parties to discuss political matters, and Matcha tea was just one of the many varieties they enjoyed. At the time, China was the central hub of all things modern in Asia. From merchant work to religion, China was a well-established country that had a much longer history that Japan. During the Kamakura era, a monk named Eisai traveled from Japan to China in order to expand his knowledge on Zen Buddhism[i]. While traveling in China, Eisai was introduced to Matcha tea, and quickly grew to love the green and gritty drink. He thought Matcha tea would be beneficial to monks because it would keep them awake and focused during prayer practice and long meditation sessions. On his return to the land of the rising sun in 1191, Eisai brought back with him a few Matcha seeds so that he could grow and cultivate his own tea. Matcha tea’s popularity quickly grew among the monastic community as it traveled from temple to temple between monks. The Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu, became its own form of Zen meditation because Eisai stressed that being in the moment and aware of your surroundings aided in the journey to Buddhist enlightenment. Being completely focused on preparing, mixing, and sipping on Matcha tea was its own meditative practice for many monks. Those visiting temples to give offerings or look for medicinal cures were also offered Matcha tea, because Eisai believed that Matcha was the cure for any type of heart conditions. He said that Matcha’s bitterness soothed the excess of sweet and savory foods that humans overate and craved[ii]. In the following periods, three tea masters would solidify the chanoyu ceremony that is performed today: Murata Juko, Takeno Joo, and Sen no Rikyu. Interest in both Matcha tea and the tea ceremony grew among the upper classes of Japanese society.
Want to meet for a cup of Matcha?
When Matcha tea found its way into the eyes of the wealth, many higher-ranking Japanese men such as daimyo, members of the shogunate, and samurais quickly became fans of the beverage. Instead of business moguls meeting to discuss important contracts over a cup of coffee, imagine a round table of men wearing elaborate silk robes sipping on a piping hot cup of Matcha tea. Surprisingly, tea parties began with men only in attendance, and they were not what one may picture the typical tea party to be. Forget about the frilly white gloves, elaborate hats, and sundresses, these tea parties were actually very serious meetings where politics were discussed most of the time.
As more and more wealthy men began to drink Matcha, their wives, families, and friends began to also indulge in drinking Matcha tea. Soon tea parlors and tea drinking parties became the new “Sunday brunch” for those in the upper class. Many of the rich and wealthy began hold tea-tasting parties, where a variety of teas, including Matcha teas, were tasted. People would go around guessing where the teas originated from, demonstrating how refined their tastes were, and whoever guessed the most correct would win[iii]. The tea ceremony also saw a makeover. Those who practiced the Japanese tea ceremony sought out only the finest tea ware. These ceramics held so much worth that a samurai general destroyed his most precious teapot before getting captured by enemies, because he would rather have it shattered than fall into the hands of the enemy. Soon, Matcha tea was riding a wave of popularity in this era, however a massive political upheaval would change that.
In 1868, Japan officially opened its doors to the West after years of discussions and eventual threats from Europe. This era would be called the Meiji Restoration, because the emperor gained political power, after decades of Japan being ruled by the Shogun, or head of the military. Japan had been closed off to outside countries up until that point, so not only were they behind on technological advances, but also on forms of art. Japan went through its own renaissance of sorts, and many Japanese artists became enamored with western art, such as photography and painting styles. Traditional arts such as woodblock prints, flower arranging, and the Japanese tea ceremony were left on the backburner, as Japanese artisans were eager to learn how to recreate western artwork. The Japanese arts were seen as old and in the past, everything was about learning how to westernize, because that meant modernization. In the effort to learn the best, new trends, chanoyu’s popularity diminished and interest in learning the art was almost obsolete. The Japanese Tea ceremony was on the brink of extinction.
The Great Wave of Women
If it wasn’t for women, the Japanese tea ceremony might not have survived as long as it has. When the tea ceremony first came to fruition, women were not allowed participate, because only men would partake in tea parties to discuss work and politics. The only exception was the wives of tea masters, and rarely women of the court who were taught by masters. Even so, the few women who did learn were only allowed to participate in select parts of the ritual, because some of the parts of the ceremony for forbidden from being performed by women. They were also prohibited from teaching others, as well as participating in public performances. However, these strict rules would eventually fade.
The Meiji Restoration opened an opportunity for women to study chanoyu, because other merchants and craftsmen were distracted by the allure of westernization. The headmasters of two schools of chanoyu opened up the study of the ceremony to all social classes and women. By learning the traditional arts, it was a way of showing loyalty to the newly reinstated emperor and to the country itself. Afterwards, the Japanese Tea ceremony became an art that mothers would learn in order to help raise children and teach the younger generation the country’s traditions[iv].
It wasn’t long before the traditional arts became a prerequisite for women, as it was seen as a “form of training for marriage.” Eventually, women were granted permission to become certified professionally, and chanoyu became an outlet for women to not only express their feelings artistically, but also one of the first female-dominated career paths in Japan. The opportunity to be employed allowed women to provide another source of income to their families, and also taught financial and managerial skills. It is thanks to the women of Japan that chanoyu is still alive and thriving to this day.
Made in the USA
Matcha lattes, Matcha cake, Matcha cookies, Matcha facials, Matcha lip balm; anything you can think of, Matcha has slowly crept into almost every industry in the United States now. Quick service Matcha bars in lower Manhattan have replaced the four-hour long process of creating the perfect cup of Matcha tea in the chanoyu ceremony. Universities now invite tea masters from Japan to host demonstrations of the Japanese tea ceremony, because there are only a handful of true tea masters left in the world. While schools and students of chanoyu still exist, the fact is that the Japanese tea ceremony is no longer necessary to appreciate Matcha tea. However, at MetaMatcha, we haven’t forgotten our roots, and we have made it our mission to respect and honor Matcha’s history, as well as educate. Our goal is to lead you down a path to a happier life, just like the monks would meditate in hopes of reaching spiritual enlightenment. In this busy day and age, it’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind of life, and sometimes you just need a moment of peace in all of that hustle and bustle. MetaMatcha wants to not only give you that moment of serenity, but also provide a boost in your step to fuel your day. We aren’t the first company to bring Matcha to the Land of Stars and Stripes; in fact, it’s been in U.S. markets for years now. Perhaps Matcha hasn’t been presented in a way that is fitting to most, but MetaMatcha is doing it right.
[i] Ludwig, Theodore M. “Before Rikyū. Religious and Aesthetic Influences in the Early History of the Tea Ceremony.” Monumenta Nipponica 36, no. 4 (1981): 367-90. doi:10.2307/2384225.
[ii] Anderson, Jennifer L. “Japanese Tea Ritual: Religion in Practice.” Man, New Series, 22, no. 3 (1987): 475-98. doi:10.2307/2802501.
[iii] Sōshitsu, Sen, and V. Dixon Morris. “Rikyū and the Fruition of the Way of Tea.” In The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu, 158-76. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998. http://www.jstor.org.duproxy.palni.edu/stable/j.ctt6wqqc8.17.
[iv] Barbara Lynne Rowland Mori. “The Tea Ceremony: A Transformed Japanese Ritual.” Gender and Society 5, no. 1 (1991): 86-97. http://www.jstor.org.duproxy.palni.edu/stable/189931.