Lesson 10/5 : Tea Cultures of the World (5) – History of Tea Culture in Japan

Key Events in the Development of Tea Culture in Japan

1. „First Contact“

While the Tang dynasty (618-907)  in China is considered the “Golden Age of Tea”, tea remained unknown in Japan until the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185). However, Buddhism had already gained a foothold in both countries at that time, so that study trips by Buddhist monks between Japan and China were not unusual. And so it was Buddhist monks who first brought tea to Japan as part of the resulting cultural exchange.

The Japanese monks Eichu (743-860), Kukai (745-835) and Saicho (767-822) played a central role at this. After more than 30 years in China, Eichu brought tea back to Japan in 805, which he no longer wanted to do without. While still in China he had met Kukai and Saicho, who had undertaken comparatively short study trips there. Supposedly, Kukai was personally close to the then Japanese Tenno (= Emperor) Saga and told him about the tea from China. Furthermore, an encounter between Eichu and that same Tenno in 815 is documented in literature, during which the former served the latter a bowl of tea.

Saga, enthusiastic about the new drink, subsequently ordered tea plantations in several places in Japan. Survived to this day have the 50 square meter remains of a tea garden that Saicho himself supposedly planted near the Shinto shrine “Hiyoshi Taisha” at the foot of Mount Hie. However, the tea that is made from these plants today might hardly resemble the tea from Saicho’s time.


The tea of that time was called “Dancha” and was the same as that drunk in Tang-era China. To produce it, the tea leaves were first steamed using appropriate devices made of reed or bamboo. The preserved tea leaves then underwent crushing in a mortar. The resulting “leafy slush” was then formed into portioned balls, followed by final drying over the fire.

For drinking, such a ball was first reheated over the fire. After complete drying, the tea was then ground into a fine powder. This was finally added to boiling water with the addition of salt. The result was drunk unfiltered, although a large part of the free-floating particles settled on the bottom of the vessel from which the tea was poured into drinking bowls.

Schüsselfiguren der Entwicklung der Teekultur in Japan
Key figures in the development of tea culture in Japan

2. Beginnings of Tea Cultivation in Japan – from Togano‘o to Uji

2.1. Eisai – Father of Tea Cultivation in Japan

Due to the political circumstances of the time, diplomatic relations and cultural exchange between Japan and China came to a temporarily halt towards the end of the 9th century. As a result, tea in Japan sank into oblivion for a while again, too. Only when Buddhist monks resumed their study trips to China at the beginning of the 13th century did the Japanese tea culture receive renewed impetus. A Zen monk named Eisai (1141-1215) played a central role at this.

On his return from 2 long stays in China, Eisai not only brought tea back to Japan, but also a new way of preparing it. Because in China, where the Tang dynasty had since been replaced by the Song dynasty, tea preparation had changed. Instead of boiling tea powder in hot water, one would now pour the latter over the former there. Also, the “whisking” of tea powder, as we know it today from Matcha preparation, was already known there.

In addition to introducing the new preparation methods, Eisai inspired new tea plantations in various places in Japan. His perspective on tea focused on the herb’s physical effects rather than on aspects of enjoyment. Accordingly, his book “Kissa Yoyo-ki” (= “Drinking tea for health”) also mainly emphasized the health effects of tea. Beyond this, he described methods of tea cultivation, processing and preparation there for the first time in Japanese literature. In 1214 he presented his work to Shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo (1192-1219), at that time the most powerful man in Japan. He had previously cured him of an ailment due to excessive alcohol consumption with the help of tea. Consequently, the further development of tea culture in Japan benefited from the active promotion of the shogunate.

Development of tea culture in Japan – Eisai’s “Kissa Yojoki” (1214)

2.2. Togano’o – The Cradle of Japanese Tea Culture

Myoe (1173-1232), one of Eisai’s students, eventually planted tea seeds given to him by his teacher with specific instructions, in Togono’o, northwest of Kyoto, on the grounds of Kozan-ji Shrine, whose founder and abbot Myoe was. In retrospect, the entailing developments make Togano’o the actual cradle of Japanese tea culture.

Thereafter, only tea from Togano’o was considered genuine tea, while tea from other regions of Japan was considered “non-genuine”. Contests about distinguishing between the two became a popular pastime among members of the nobility and warrior caste. In other respects, too, drinking tea in Japan at that time was restricted to these two – uppermost – social tiers.

An exception to this are Buddhist temples, where tea was already known in the 13th century. On the one hand, tea served to sustain meditative practices there. On the other hand, it functioned a medium in temple events, both within the monkhood and in public events. For example, it is said that the monk Eison (1202-1290) served tea to his fellow monks in Nara’s Saidaiji temple from 1239 as part of an annual ritual. The “Ocha-mori” ritual, which would later be made available to ordinary citizens, is just one example of monastic ceremonies involving tea in Japan in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The superiority of tea from Togano’o compared to tea from other regions of Japan was due to the special cultivation conditions prevailing there. Togano’o was a wooded and hilly landscape. As such, it offered sufficient water and good soil, but also optimal light conditions for tea cultivation.

Waldreiche Umgebung des Kozan-ji Tempels in Togano'o
Development of Tea Culture in Japan foresty surrrounding of the Kozan-ji temple in Togano’o

2.3. Uji – The Invention of Tencha

Among others, the invention of controlled shading of tea plants enabled the cultivation of high-quality tea across the entire Uji region. The boundaries between “real” and “non-genuine” tea became blurred. As a result, both the availability and prevalence of tea increased. Tencha was the basis of Uji tea in the 14th and 15th centuries. At the same time, the powder tea made from it began to resemble Matcha as we know it today.

Historical Venues of Tea Culture in Japan (around Kyoto) – Mt. Hiei, Togano’o, Mampuku-ji, Uji

3. The Japanese Tea Ceremony – “Chanoyu”

In the 15th century, tea overcame further social boundaries. The temples in particular contributed to its spread through public ceremonies featuring tea servings. In this way, the tea culture soon reached the class of wealthy merchants and civil servants. Here, however, aspects of health or the beneficial effects of tea in meditation were no longer the focus. Instead, tea and its preparation increasingly became symbols of social status and material wealth.

EDevelopment of Tea Culture in JapanJapanese (Matcha-) Tea Ceremony (“Chanoyu”)

3.1. „Shoin“ Style

The typical form of tea ceremony practiced by the Japanese upper class in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was the “shoin” style. Characteristic of this is the display of an abundance of the most valuable utensils possible in the context of the tea ceremony. In particular, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490) gained a reputation for displaying his power and wealth in lavish tea ceremonies.

3.2. “Wabi” Aesthetic : Sen-no Rikyu

The development of a much simpler approach, closely linked to Buddhism, goes back to the tea master Murata Shuko (1423-1502). The Zen student of Kyoto’s influential Daitokuji temple is considered the real father of the Japanese tea ceremony. A student of the same temple, Takeno Joo (1502-1555), was instrumental in further developing Schuko’s approach. With the wealthy merchant’s son, a citizen who came from neither the clergy nor the nobility nor the warrior caste became a well-known protagonist in the development of tea culture in Japan for the first time.

The development of special rooms dedicated to the tea ceremony also falls into this period. While the utensils used and displayed originally came from China, the emphasis now shifted towards those of Japanese manufacture.

Finally, another disciple of Daitokuji Temple and Takeno Joo’s named Sen-no Rikyu brought the tea ceremony to perfection. The wealthy heir to a large fish kontor and later advisor to the influential general and de facto ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) on tea issues shaped the trend-setting “wabi-sabi” aesthetic for the Japanese tea ceremony, which focuses on the principles of “imperfection” and “transience ” stand. As a visible expression of this, Rikyu reduced both size and furnishings of his tea room to a minimum. 

Sen-no Rikyu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi allegedly had quite different aesthetic views of the tea ceremony. However, these differences might not have played a role in Sen-no Rikyu’s ritual suicide, committed at his master’s behest. In fact, the actual background of the great tea master’s “seppuku” remains a secret well kept by the fog of history. After Rikyu’s death, both his great-grandchildren and his students continued his spiritual legacy. At this, the resulting individual approaches resembled their great role model to different degree. The resulting three schools of Japanese tea ceremony have their names from the respective family branches. They are of outstanding significance for Japanese tea culture to this day: Ura Senke, Omoto Senke and Mushakoji Senke.

Sen no Rikyu - Geistiger Vater der japanischen Teezeremonie

Development of Tea Culture in Japan – Sen no Rikyu

3.3. Features and Procedure of the “Chanoyu”

The focus of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony “chanoyu” is on Match tea. In this regard, remember that Sencha did not even exist yet at the height of the Japanese tea ceremony. Accordingly, there was no need to discuss the merits of one over the other. In fact, however, it is the direct affiliation of matcha to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony that justifies the outstanding importance of the green powder tea made from tencha within the tea culture of Japan to this day.

3.3.1. Shared Features

Despite the different approaches, there are a number of shared features for most of them. This is also, why the ceremonies of the individual schools also show a fundamental structural similarity. For example, all approaches combine the performance of certain purification rituals as a prelude to the actual ceremony. For example, participants walk along a path called “Roji” on their way to the tea room. At this, passing the “Roji” symbolizes the discarding of all status differences between the participants. The path also stands for leaving behind everyday life and the associated trivial worldliness.  

Most commonly, the round consists of 5-6 participants, one of whom is the tea master. Of the other participants, typically one has the status of a guest of honor. This is important because the guest of honor takes on certain functions within the framework of the ceremony. For example, the honorary guest funtions as a procedural role model for the other participants. Before tea, theres’s often a serving of specific simple dishes to stimulate the taste buds.

"Chanoyu" - traditionelle japanische Teezeremonie (Matcha)
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – “Chanoyu” – traditional Japaniese Tea Ceremony (Matcha)
3.3.2. “Koicha” / “Usucha”

As a rule, there is no talking during the main part of the ceremony. Rather, the participants’ focus is on the arrangement of the utensils and the preparation of the tea itself. Depending on the type and scope of the ceremony, this can either be “koicha” or “usucha”, or both. At this, the “koicha” corresponds to a viscous foam with a high matcha and low water content. The “usucha”, on the other hand, is a rather thin tea with the appropriate proportions of water and tea powder.

When both types of tea are served, the koicha marks the very heart of the ceremony. In this case, the usucha accompanies the less strictly regulated, “sociable” part following the core ceremony. Light spoken conversation is also a typical feature of that part. However, there are also rules regarding the choice of topic and the way of discourse. In any case, the absence of negative emotions and the mutual respect of the participants are binding.

In the case of Koicha, the tea master only prepares a single bowl of tea for all participants. At this, he performs every movement in slow motion, fluently and with a high degree of focus. For example, cleaning the vessels and utensils used, preparing the tea powder, dosing it into the matcha bowl (“chawan”) with the “chashaku”…

Each activity follows precisely prescribed rules and procedures. When the koicha is ready, the tea master hands the bowl to the honorable guest, who is first in line. After taking a sip, he slightly rotates the bowl, before passing it on to the next participant. This continues until all participants have taken a sip. The set of rules pertaining to the overall procedure and its individual parts is so complex that a detailed description would exceed the scope of this publication. The path to becoming a tea master is therefore not an an easy one. It includes study that is both demanding and lengthy.

Matcha : Pulver / Koicha
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – Matcha : Powder / Koicha
3.3.3. „Cha-Do“

The philosophical foundation of the chanoyu is the “Cha-Do” (= “tea way”). Its most important feature, in turn, is the absence of a goal. In other words, “tea” IS the path, and the path IS the goal… While the formal tea master training in Japan has formal end (certification), the actual tea path has none. However, this also means that formal training is not a mandatory prerequisite for following the path of tea. In other words: Anyone who follows this path with heart and hand can become a tea master!

4. The Discovery of Leaf Tea in Japan

4.1. Ingen Ryuuki – Leaf Tea instead of Powder Tea

Ingen Ryuuki (1592 – 1673) was a Chinese Zen monk who had made a name for himself in his homeland both as a poet and calligrapher and for his idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism. His reputation had even spread as far as Japan, from where he finally received a call in 1654 to serve in a Zen temple in Nagasaki. There, he managed to win the favor of both the incumbent tenno and the Tokugawa shogunate. It was Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna who eventually gave him land to found a Zen temple in Uji, Kyoto. Eventually, the Mampokuchi Temple founded there by Ingen in 1661 would play a key role in spreading leaf tea in Japan.

In late Ming China, the prevailing method of preparing tea was by pouring hot water over the tea leaves. Ingen Ryuuki brought this method to Japan and propagated it at Mampokuchi Temple as an alternative to powdered tea. Just like the latter, the leaves’s shelf life could also be prolongued by hot steam treatment. However, the technique of rolling the tea leaves was not yet available at the time of Ingen Ryuuki. His leaf tea therefore bore little resemblance to the Sencha as we know it today.

die “Sencha-Methode” – ein Meilenstein in der Entwicklung der Teekultur in Japan

4.2. Beginnings of the Sencha Culture in Japan

4.2.1 Nagatani Soen – Invention of the “Sencha” Method

It was not until the invention of the method of rolling tea leaves in 1738 that the foundations were laid for Japan’s current Sencha culture. It was Nagatani Soen (1681-1771), a tea farmer from Ujitawara, Kyoto, who discovered the beneficial effects of breaking the leaf pores on the flavor of the tea. At this, his invention might have drawn inspiration from a method already known in China at that time. In any case, his experiments with rolling the tea leaves on the stove during drying resulted in the birth of Sencha.

4.2.2. Baisao – Japan’s first “Sencha-Do” Master­

Baisao (1675-1761), Japan’s first “Sencha-Do” master, deserves special credit for spreading the new tea (Sencha). Born as Shibayama Kikusen, he entered a temple of the Obaku School of Zen Buddhism founded by Ingen Ryuuki at the age of 11. This way, he encountered leaf tea early on, which he raised to his personal preference.

Eventually, at the age of 57, he left the temple and went to Kyoto. From then on he was to lead the life of a mendicant monk. That is, shouldered with 2 wicker baskets hanging from a stick, he wandered the streets of Kyoto. He would stop at tourist attractions and other hubs to prepare tea and offer it to passers-by in exchange for alms. At this, he considered the tea he served to be worthy of rich and poor alike. In front of his stand he put a sign saying:

„The price of tea is anything from 2,000 koban to a half mon. It’s okay if you want it for free, but I can’t sell it for less than free.”

Despite his penchant for the common people, Baisao greatly appealed to Kyoto’s creative elite of his time. That is, well-known writers, artists and philosophers sought his company. If it wasn’t for his tea, then for the philosophic recitations that Baisao used to pass along with it. Ultimately, it weres these people who helped Baisao’s tea and teachings to achieve their enormous reach.

Initially, Baisao’s tea was still the steamed, but not yet rolled leaf tea of Ingen Ryuuki’s time. This changed in 1742 after Baisao’s visit to Nagatani Soen. It is said that Baisao slept at Nagatani Soen’s house that night after exchanging over tea for a whole day.

At the age of 70, Baisao discarded the monk’s robes and took the real name Ko Yugai. He maintained his way of life as a traveling trader exchanging tea for alms until the age of 82. During this time, Sencha tea’s popularity in Japan grew with Baisao’s reputation. Shortly before his death in 1761, he finally burned all his tea utensils. According to his own statements, he intended this action to counteract the emergence of a “Sencha-Do” cult similar to the matcha ceremony.

Development of Tea Culture in Japan – Baisao, Father of the Sencha-Do

Excerpt from
“Three Verses aobut the Life of a Tea Seller”

I’m not Buddhist or Taoist

not a Confucianist either

I’m a brownfaced whitehaired

hard up old man.

people think I just prowl

the streets peddling tea,

I’ve got the whole universe

in this tea caddy of mine.

Seventy years of Zen

got me nowhere at all

shed my black robe

became a shaggy crank,

now I have no business

with sacred or profane

just simmer tea for folks

and hold starvation back.

4.3. The Shading of Tea Leaves – Tencha, Kabusecha, Gyokuro

“Sweetness” and “umami” are terms that best describe Japanese taste preferences. This is the reason for of a whole series of measures to influence the natural growth of the tea bushes. One of these measures is the shading of the tea bushes during their main growth phase in spring.

In the course of its growth, the tea bush produces amino acids, which it pushes into the development of young buds in spring. When sunlight hits the plant, a photosynthetic process begins that converts these amino acids into catechins. While the amino acids basically contribute to a sweet umami taste, catechins taste rather bitter. This means that the less sunlight the plant receives, the fewer amino acids convert into catechins. And the sweeter and “umami” the resulting tea tastes.

The beneficial effects of shading the tea bushes on the tea’s taste had already shown in Togano’o times. Back then, this knowledge had enabled the expansion of tea cultivation from there across the entire Uji region. However, the Tencha in its current form only became possible trough the refinement of shading techniques by Kakei Yamamoto in 1835. Only 6 years later, Eguchi Shigeyuro finally developed a technique for rolling Tencha leaves and called the result Gyokuro. This differs from “Kabusecha” on the one hand by a longer shading period and on the other hand by a higher degree of shading.

Entwicklung der Teekultur in Japan - Traditionelle Stroh- und Schilfmattenüberdachung von Teegärten in Japan
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – Traditional Straw and reed mats roofing of tea gardens in Japan

5. Modernization of Tea Cultivation in Japan

From 1859, the opening of Japan’s major trading ports for export to the west and subsequent trade agreements with the USA, the Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain and France also brought Japanese green tea to Europe. Demand there soon made it, alongside silk, Japan’s strongest export product.

5.1. Mechanization and Automatization of Tea Production in Japan

5.1.1. Development of Picking Technology

From the beginning of the 20th century, developments in the field of picking technology increasingly replaced traditional hand picking. Less than 50 years passed between the patenting of the first picking shears in 1913 and the market launch of theFrom the beginning of the 20th century, developments in the field of picking technology increasingly replaced traditional hand picking. Less than 50 years passed between the patenting of the first picking shears in 1913 and the market launch of the first hand-held electric (1-person) picking machine. The picking machine introduced in 1971 and held by 2 people achieves 60 times the yield of two (hand) pickers…

From the beginning of the 20th century, developments in the field of picking technology increasingly replaced traditional hand picking. Less than 50 years passed between the patenting of the first picking shears in 1913 and the market launch of the first hand-held electric (1-person) picking machine. The picking machine introduced in 1971 and held by 2 people achieves 60 times the yield of two (hand) pickers… first hand-held electric (1-person) picking machine. The hand-held 2-persons picking machine introduced in 1971 achieved 60 times the yield of handpicking.

In the classic tea-growing regions, the described development had significant social consequences. For example, the custom of women going to the tea mountains for several at picking time disappeared. Also, the technical development had structural effects on the labor market. That is, the greatly reduced need for pickers triggered the migration of workers from rural areas to the cities.

A disadvantage of mechanized picking is the lack of human judgment at selecting the leaves to pick. Altogether, the quality of the tea ultimately suffers from the automation of the picking process. This is why tea masters still prefer picking tea leaves for competition purposes by hand.

Entwicklung der Teekultur in Japan - Mechanisierte Teepflückung : Handgehaltene 2-Personen-Pflückmaschine / Pflücktraktor
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – Handheld 2-Persons Picking Machine / Picking Tractor
5.1.2. Development of Processing Technologyu

Parallel to the picking technique, the processing technique of tea also developed in Japan during the 20th century. As early as 1885, Kenzo Takabayashi (8132-1901) patented the first machine for steaming and rolling tea leaves. The patent for a machine for drying the same followed swifltly after. Today, green tea production lines in Japan are fully automated. Accordingly, human judgment is largely absent in this area as well.

One consequence of the technical development in picking and processing technology is the omission of withering phases in processing. In the past, these were virtually unavoidable. On the one hand, freshly picked tea leaves often had to be transported on foot over long distances from the tea mountain to the processing facility. And on the other hand, the processing by hand could only be done in small batches. Accordingly, tea leaves always had to wait a while after their arrival at the tea factory before they could be subjected to heat treatment for stopping the oxidation process. And because withering processes have significant impact on a tea’s taste, this change is also fundamental one. 

Entwicklung der Teekultur in Japan - Mechanisierte Teeverarbeitung - schematische Darstellung
Development of Tea Chulture in Japan – Mechanization of Tea Production

5.2. Development of Agrochemicals for Enhanced Cultivation Control

Since the early 20th century, the development of increasingly sophisticated agrochemicals has continued to contribute to drastic changes in Japan’s tea cultivation. Initially, the high nitrogen retention of artificial fertilizers promoted the tea’s desired “umami” taste . Then, in the second half of the 20th century, so-called “pesticides” also entered the scene. This is a generic term for means to combat all kinds of “pests”. That means insecticides against insect damage, fungicides against fungal infestation, and herbicides against the growth of “weeds”.

The great advantage of using agrochemicals is the high degree of crop control they enable. Fertilizers can add substances to the soil that promote both the growth of the tea bush and the taste of the resulting tea in the desired way. And the use of pesticides protects tea farmers from drastic yield losses due to pest infestation.

In turn, a disadvantage is the long-term accumulation of the supplied substances in the soil and groundwater. Another undesirable side effect of agrochemicals is the health risks associated with their use for the field workers. In addition, the pesticide residues on and in the tea leaf is ultimately unavoidable with their use. The consequences of this are hardly calculable health risks for the end consumer, i.e. the tea drinker.       

Moderne Überdachung / Einhausung von Teepflanzen : Plastik statt Schilf- und Strohmatten
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – modern “housing” of tea plants: plastic instead of reed or straw mats

5.3. Replacement of Native Tea Plants with Cultivars

5.3.1. Native Tea Plants vs. Cultivars

Native tea plants are products of the interplay between their genetic makeup and the terroir in which they grow. At this, the “individuals” created by natural reproduction through seeds can develop different properties. These, in turn, can be more or less desirable from a taste point of view. For example, tea farmers in Yunnan market tea made from the leaves of a single tea tree as “danzhou”. At this, to distinguish individual trees of the same tea garden, each tree is given a number.

If a native tea bush has particularly desirable traits, there is an obvious interest in preserving these traits in its offspring. This is possible via asexual reproduction, that is, not by seed but by cuttings. Because the resulting clones are genetically 100% identical to the mother plant. The advantages of such tea bushes with shared characteristics and properties – so-called “cultivars” – are obvious. On the one hand, this gives the tea farmer a product with specific features that buyers consider desirable. And on the other hand, many more descendants of a tea bush can be produced in much shorter time in this way. Because while a native tea bush needs about 7 years to picking maturity, it’s only 2 years for cuttings.

However, what at first glance may seem like a pure blessing also has its downsides. One of them is the different way of root development. While the roots of native tea bushes grow up to 2 meters deep into the ground, the roots of offshoots branch out horizontally. Accordingly, with a maximum vertical reach of around 40cm, they always remain just below the surface. They therefore require a lot more maintenance than native tea plants in terms of irrigation and competing grasses and “weeds”. And they are much more susceptible to climate change and extreme weather events.

Wurzelentwicklung von per Ableger vermehrten Kultivaren im Vergleich zu vom Samen gewachsenen Teepflanzen
Development of Tea Culture in Japan – UDifference in root development between tea bushes grown from seeds vs. cuttings

It’s not even been that long ago that asexual reproduction triumphed over natural reproduction in Japan’s commercial tea farming. In fact, the benefits of cloning for commercial tea cultivation were only discovered and explored in the 20th century.

5.3.2. Cultivars in Japan’s Tea Cultivation

In Japan, the creation of a national registration system for tea cultivars goes back to an initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1953. Since then, a total of 61 cultivars have been registered. Of these, however, only a few play a significant role in Japan’s tea cultivation. On the other hand, the registration of a cultivar is not mandatory, so that many non-registered cultivars are in use on individual tea farms and on a regional basis.

During the 1960’s the Japanese government pushed towards developing a pragmatic standard for the reproduction of cultivars by cuttings. Due to the commercial superiority of the method, by the 1970s, all newly established or replanted tea gardens were using cultivars. And by 1980, cultivars replaced native tea plants in the vast majority of Japan’s tea gardens. Although, it is actually not many, but primarily ONE cultivar that has dominated Japan’s tea cultivation eversince… “Jabukita”.

5.3.3. Jabukita

In 1908, the tea farmer Sugiyama Hikosaburo (1857-1941) cultivated a cultivar north of the bamboo grove in his tea garden, which proved to be particularly fast-growing, hardy and productive. He named the cultivar after the place of its original cultivation, “Jabukita”. At this, the cultivar’s name literally translates to its place of origin, “north of the bamboo grove”. It was the same tea farmer who, as a result of this discovery, found that genetic traits are better transmitted to offspring in asexual reproduction than in seed propagation.

In 1945, the Jabukita cultivar received the status of recommendation from the Japanese government to Shizuoka tea farmers. Finally, in 1953, it was officially registered as cultivar #6 in Japan’s tea cultivar registration system. Since then, the Jabukita cultivar has spread throughout Japan, where at its peak in the 1990s it represented 77% of all tea plants in the country. Meanwhile, the Jabukita cultivar also serves as the official benchmark for ranking other cultivars in the time-to-pick category.

 5.3.4. Establishment and Registration of new Cultivars

Originally, cultivars with desirable characteristics were selected from tea gardens with native tea plants. In the meantime, however, cultivars are often “laboratory products”, bred by artificial crossing of outstanding lineages.

Registering a tea cultivar in Japan involves conducting certain tests according to a set scheme. The evaluation of specific characteristics such as hardiness, yield, time-to-pick, number of annual picking periods takes place on the basis of the results of these tests. The cultivar is also classified according to its suitability for the production of Sencha, Kamairicha, Gyokuro/Tencha and /or Black Tea. Finally, the taste of the resulting tea is evaluated. The criteria for this are “astringency”, “umami”, “bitterness”, “sweetness”, “aroma”, “infusion color” and “appearance” (of the dry tea leaf)..

5.4. Homogenization and Loss of Natural Character   

Overall, the mechanization and automation of picking and processing processes, the use of agrochemicals, and the replacement of native tea plants with cultivars, mainly jabukita, drastically changed the picture of tea cultivation in Japan over the course of the 20th century. In particular, the Japanese preference for “sweetness” and “umami” has caused a strong tendency towards uniformity of Japanese green tea. Furthermore, its increasing alienation from the former natural product through the high-tech processes controlled according to market specifications is striking. In the second half of the second millennium, conventional tea cultivation, which was geared towards ruthlessly maximizing yields, can be regarded as a downright environmental sinner. An example of this would be the clearing of forest areas for the cultivation of tea bushes pruned back to a pick-friendly height of 40cm. Another example is soil and groundwater contamination from the agrochemicals used.

6. Current Developments of Tea Culture in Japan

6.1. Diversification of the Product Porfolio

On the positive side, the massive yield increases have enabled an omnipresence of Japanese green tea far beyond Japan’s borders. This also includes that Japanese green tea and matcha powder often appear as ingredients to other food products. In fact, they have established as healthy ingredients in a plentitude of foods, ranging from hard candy to baking mixes. Typically, it is rather inferior, inexpensive tea qualities that are used for such purposes.

Also, Japan is now also focusing on greater diversification in the classic area of Japanese leaf and matcha tea. For example, we are observing an expansion of the portfolio of cultivated processing categories, e.g. black tea and oolong tea. Plus, there’s a tendency to more diversification in cultivars… After the end of the productivity cycle (30-45 years) typical of Japanese tea cultivars, more and more Jabukita plants are now giving way to other cultivars.

6.2. Technical Development

At the same time, we see the development of increasingly sophisticated machines in Japan in the Y2K’s. The most modern picking machines are only slightly inferior to the human eye when it comes to distinguishing between leaf qualities. And the production lines allow increasingly detailed control of the parameters of each individual processing step.

6.3. Ecological Tea Cultivation

Furthermore, with increasing awareness of environmental and climate protection on the consumer and producer side, the efforts towards more ecological tea cultivation have increased drastically in recent years. Many of the Japanese green teas available on the western market are certified organic now. And today’s (Japanese) JAS standards for green tea are largely on par with the corresponding EU standards.

6.4. International Renaissance of the Ancient Japanese Tea Culture

Parallel to the tendencies described, we are experiencing a kind of renaissance of classic Japanese tea culture at the beginning of the 21st century. And the phenomenon is not limited to Japan. Rather, the different types of Japanese tea are also enjoying growing popularity among tea lovers in many western countries. At the same time, the internet has helped the popularity of ritual tea preparation to an unprecedented degree.

More and more people understand that experiencing tea goes far beyond the mere superficial taste experience. Rather, it is the fascinating and endlessly diverse world that tea creates around itself that today’s tea lover feels called upon to explore.

Recommendation on “Development of Tea Culture in Japan”

Tea Crane and its operator Tyas Sösen have specialized in a range of Japanese Sencha teas that are not only cultivated without the use of any agrochemicals, but also in the most authentic way represent the natural types of sencha, kabusecha and gyokuro tea prevailing before the large-scale industrialization of Japan’s tea cultivation. Even experienced lovers of Japanese green tea will discover taste dimensions of the same that may have remained hidden from them until now.

Siam Tea Shop therefore offers a selection of pearls from Tea Crane’s portfolio. You can now find these teas at Siam Tea Shop, also coming in a dedicated sample box format:

The Tea Crane Sampler @ Siam Tea Shop

For detailed insights in the different types of Japanese green tea, please also read: