Zen Kyoto

History of Green Tea

Zen Kyoto Title

Japanese tea was thought to have originated in the 12th century, when the Zen master Eisai brought tea seeds from China to Kyoto. This paved the way to the eventual cultivation of green tea in Japan when master Eisai handed priest Myoue some tea seeds. Myoue planted the seeds and transplanted the seedlings to Uji - where the Uji river provides an ideal climate for large scale tea farming.

Shoguns were known for their love of Uji tea. For example, in the Muromachi Era (approximately 1337 to 1573), General Yoshimitsu Ashikaga built a tea farm called 'Uji Shichimeien' in Uji. In the Age of Provincial Wars, each shogun enjoyed drinking teas and requested tea masters in Uji to prepare teas, and Uji tea became increasingly valued.

In the Edo Era (1603 to 1868), the first Uji tea of the season was delivered to Edo via teapot procession ('Ochatsubo Dochu') as sang in the children's song. The cultivation of Uji tea was unique - farms were covered and each leaf was handpicked, and these were done only once a year.

Ochatsubo Dochu (御茶壺道中)

To transport Ujicha to Edo for consumption by the Shogun family, each year the Tokugawa Shogunate will send an “Ujicha messenger” to travel between Edo and Uji with a tea jar (Ochatsubo). This ritual is called Ochatsubo Douchu (The tea jar's travel).

Every year in Uji when the tea season arrives, a Kousatsu saying “no trading of tea until the tea jar arrives at the Shogunate and Shogun” will be erected beside the Uji bridge. Tea masters would then return to their homes in Uji and fill buckets with water to prepare for fires, and tidy up their homes to wait for the tea jar of the Shogun family to arrive.

Ochatsubo Douchu takes place from the end of April to the start of May each year, when the parade would travel 13 to 14 days from Edo to Uji. At the beginning the parade consisted of one leader, two tea masters and some followers. However when the number of tea jars to be transported increased, the number of people in the parade also increased. The Ochatsubo Douchu procession reached its grandest scale from the end of the 17th century to the start of the 18th century.
It was proclaimed that the Ochatsubo Douchu has the same status as the Sekke and Monzeki and the path on which it travelled shall not be obstructed. Its status is second only to the messenger of the Shogun. It was also a common practice to repair the road before the parade walk on it. Children were not allowed to leave their home. Placing stones on roofs were also prohibited. There was a tale that the residents living along the road of the Ochatsubo Douchu would revere the procession and sing “They (the parade) are carrying tea leaves for the Shogun so while they pass, shut all the doors and windows and hide in the house.”

At the time of the 8th Shogun Yoshimune, the policy was changed such that only 3 tea jars were allowed to be carried from Edo to Uji. This was intended to cut costs. The leader post was also cancelled. Instead, the parade was led by the Ooban of the Nijyoujyou during the trip to Uji, and by the Banshi of the Osaka Jyou during the return trip.

The Ochatsubo Douchu, started by the 3rd Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in Kanei 10 (1633), take place every year until it finally came to an end when the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in Keiou 3 (1867).

The development of the tea production method in Uji

Once Japanese tea was limited to two types - Matcha and Bancha. Matcha was the only available green tea which only shoguns could enjoy. The Uji green tea we enjoy today was a result of a recent breakthrough in the tea production method made by Souen Nagatani in 1738 (Genbun 3) during the Edo Era. He replaced the traditional pan roasting method with a “hand-rolling” method - which involved the drying and kneading of tea leaves by the application of heat. Before that time, Nagatani was inspired by the “Kamairi cha” from China which involved roasting tea sprouts in a “Ka”(釜), kneading the results by hand and foot and drying in sunlight. Nagatani Souen improved on this method by steaming tea sprouts, drying them in a “Hoiro” (焙炉), fire-heated rolling table), and finally rolling them by hand. This method is known as “Aosei Sencha Seihou” or “Uji Seihou” (the method of Uji).

The Sencha produced by this method has a greenish color and excellent fragrance and taste. It pleases people all over Japan, mainly in the Edo era. Afterwards, many people inherited this method and further improved upon it, which resulted in the hand-rolling method used today. The methods which were passed down throughout Japan were based on this hand-rolling method from Uji.

When the farmers in the Uji region learned the new processing method, Uji quickly became one of the most important places for manufacturing green tea in Japan. The tea industry also brought wealth to the Uji region.

The method developed by Nagatani was revisited by Eguchi Shigejyuro in 1841. Shigejyuro used Nagatani’s method to process the “Tama no Tsuyu” tea developed by Yamamoto Kahei VI, which used the same tea leaves as Tencha (tea leaves used for Matcha before being ground into fine powder but after stems and veins are removed). Shigejyuro named his tea Gyokuro. Gyokuro can be translated as Jade Dew - a perfect name for a tea with a fresh green color.

With the mechanicalization of tea production today, the traditional hand-rolling method is an increasingly valuable aspect of Uji’s history and culture. Therefore, it has been designated as an intangible cultural asset of Uji and a Committee for the Preservation of Ujicha Production Method was recognized.

In July each year, in the hand-rolled Ujicha factory inside the Prefecture Tea Industry Research Institute, related people will gather to work on preservation of the hand-rolling method.

The traditional hand-rolling method

1. Tools inside a Tencha heat bed factory includes

Tools inside a Tencha heat bed factory includes

  • heat bed which is deeper than those used for producing Gyokuro or Sencha (The stone pits lined with metal wire)
  • “Jyotan” board covered with paper at the bottom (The white board at the back)
  • brush for sweeping tea leaves (In front of the Jyotan board)
  • “bear arm” for stirring tea leaves” (In front of the Jyotan board)
  • winnow for moving tea leaves elsewhere (In front of the Jyotan board)

2. The steps in the production of Tencha

The steps in the production of Tencha

  • The steamed tea leaves are thinly spread over a very hot Jyotan board
  • The temperature inside the room is 125F and the amount of tea leaves for one round of production is 100 monme to 140 monme.
  • The leaves are dried until the stems are dry
  • The leaves are pounded by a “bear arm” and broken up until 70-80 percent of water has evaporated
  • The leaves are then moved to other drying tools

3. Tea selection

Tea selection

Using a variety of methods, the tea leaves which have not yet been rolled but which have been dried undergo a selection process. Only a one-fourth portion of the original batch will be selected. This process is called tea selection.

4. Tea steaming factory

Tea steaming factory

  • The new sprouts harvested from the tea farm is placed in a steaming basket and placed in an oven for steaming
  • The leaves are then spread and fanned to cool
  • The adjustment in the steaming of tea leaves according to its softness is an important factor determining the tea’s color, taste and fragrance
  • A skillful hand is especially required for Tencha and Gyokuro