Origins of Matcha

The birth of tea culture remains shrouded in obscurity. Indeed several legends trace its origin, the most known of these telling of the legend of the mythical Chinese emperor Shen Nung. In the year 2737 B.C the Emperor, while taking a rest, is said to have blown several wondrous leaves into the water, thereby altering the taste, colour and effect of the drink in a most delicious way. This account is referring is to tea leaves, of course. The book’s underlying story however dates back to the 4th century B.C, at the earliest. It can therefore be assumed that the cultivation of tea plants is far older and in China actually stretches back 5000 years, probably in the Yunnan province at first.

What is certain is that in the year 221 B.C in China, a tax on tea was already in existence. This however corresponded to a charge on a medically effective remedy.  At the exactly the same time, tea leaves were already being made into a powder by Buddhist monks. However, since more than one reparative effect drew focus, matters of taste were deemed of little importance. That changed in the 7th century, around which time the Chinese upper class came across the taste of the healthy hot drink. Producing the tea still remained the responsibility of the Buddhist monks.

Up until the Japanese monk Esai noticed the tea plant and brought it to Japan in 1191, tea was being used in a very fine powdered form.  Though tea was already being drunk much earlier than this in Japan, it was not yet being grown there. As well as transporting the plant to Japan, the honourable Master Eisei also brought with him the powder preparation method of the original Matcha, as a life-prolonging elixir. In China, this tradition later fell into obscurity. In Japan, however, Matcha was only developed for selected circles at the court for high culture.

Ikkuyu Sojun in the 15th century, and Sen no Rikyu, still highly esteemed today, in the 16th, applied the Japanese Tea ceremony to their spiritual journey out of respect for the simple way of life. The Matcha ritually prepared during this ceremony would become, alongside blacksmithing which can be seen in the famous Samurai swords for example,  part of the defining image of Japan which the outside world took to be true.

Continue to → The Japanese Tea Ceremony