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For many, tea conjures up images of Typhoo and Lipton, a British stiff upper lip and a Boston punch-up that got nicely euphemized into a ‘party’. But Japan’s love affair with tea, the green variety, ocha that is, dates back to its introduction from China, although no one can really agree when that was. Some suggest the Nara period (710 AD to 794 AD), while another source credits the introduction to Buddhist saint and tea lover Saicho in 805.
The Chinese Buddhists had long appreciated the role of a good cuppa is preventing one from nodding off during prayers. Indeed, its very origin is shrouded in Buddhist myth. Basil Hall Chamberlain, the 19th century British humorist and Japan scholar, tells the story in his excellent Things Japanese:
‘Daruma, an Indian saint of the sixth century, had spent many long years in ceaseless prayer and watching. At last, one night, his eyelids, unable to bear the fatigue any longer, closed, and he slept soundly until morning. When the saint awoke, he was so angry with his lazy eyelids that he cut them off and flung them on the ground. But lo! Each lid was suddenly transformed into a shrub, whose efficacious leaves, infused in water, minister to the vigils of holy men’.
But it was not until the 12th century, when Eisai brought back from China not only tea seeds, but the Chinese tea ceremony, that it really took off. Tea became as popular as Zen. At the end of the 12th century, green tea was sowed at Uji, near Kyoto even today a centre of tea production and the Japanese court and aristocracy took wholeheartedly to tea, and its formalized ritual drinking, known as cha-no-yu. It took another half a millennium or so for the rank and file to pick up the tea-ceremony ocha habit. Its popularity was spurred on by the invention of a convenient, new-fangled form – sencha leaf tea. Since then, from exquisite teahouses purpose-built for the job, to factory canteens, to convenience stores, the Japanese have become well and truly ocha tea-struck.
For further reading on green tea, make sure to check out tea master Randy Channell Soei’s regular articles here on Foodies Go Local.