Tea was introduced to the Nara court as medicine or a health tonic



Tea plantation in Uji. Source: Album of photographs of Japan. (http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/?col_id=169) Repository: The New York Public Library no restrictions via Wikimedia Commons. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

It is common knowledge that the origin of tea (C. Sinensis) is China. From the archaeological discovery of 2016, the earliest tea traces was known to date from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing in Xi’an, indicating that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as 2nd century BC.

The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, a book attributed to mythical Shennong, but dated to the late Western Han dynasty (1st century B.C.) includes a reference about tea. The first unambiguous textual reference to the consumption of tea as a beverage can be dated to 59 BCE text during the Western Han Dynasty written by Wang Bao, of Sichuan Province. It provided instructions on buying and preparing tea – entitled A Contract with a Servant – establishing that tea was not only an important part of diet but that it was a commonly traded commodity at this time. Before this, it was thought that tea’s widespread popularity amongst both northern Chinese and people to the west such as Uighurs had spread during the Tang Dynasty (7th–8th century CE.

Lu’s 2016 analysis offered physical evidence that confirmed that tea was tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as 2100 yr BP, imported to Xi’an in the first century BCE, and westwards into Tibet by by 1800 yr BP during the Zhang Zhung kingdom period – as an important component of Silk Road commerce. This was at least four to five hundred years earlier than the the Southwest Silk Road through Yunnan which opened in the seventh century CE, and is known by historians as the “Tea Horse Road. However, the presence of silks alongside tea at Gurgyam Cemetery that originate from either eastern China or central Asia would suggest that they were carried through trade from eastern China. Another 2017 study however indicated that there are two ancestral types of Chinese tea (C. sinensis var. sinensis (China type tea) and C. sinensis var. assamica (Masters) Chang (Assam type tea).), with two possible independent origins for Assam type tea in Yunnan, China: The first ancestral type originates from an area where Southwest China, Indo-Burma, and Tibet meet, from which a tea was likely domesticated in Western Yunnan (as well as in Assam India); the second originates of a yet unknown source of the China type tea but the study proposes that Southern China as the area of domestication of China type tea. 

Historical literature, such as ‘‘Nihonkouki’’ (840), provides descriptions that indicate that tea had been introduced to Japan by the 9th century, if not earlier. The first Japanese contact with tea most likely occurred in the 8th century during the Nara period, when Japan sent several diplomatic missions to Chang’an, the capital of China’s Tang dynasty. These early delegations brought back knowledge of Chinese culture and practices, as well as paintings, literature, and other artifacts. The Chakyō Shōsetsu indicates that Emperor Shōmu served powdered tea to a hundred monks in 729; although the tea originally introduced into China are believed to have been in the form of portable, less perishable bricks of tea(団茶, dancha), the text evidence might indicate that that Lu Yu’s techniques of brewing tea had already been introduced by this time. The world’s first monograph on tea, Lu Yu’s The Classic of Tea, was written a few decades before the time of Kūkai and Saichō. In it, Lu Yu describes the process for steaming, roasting, and compressing the tea into bricks, as well as the process of grinding the tea into powder and stirring it to a froth in hot water prior to consumption. The latter type of process is thought to have evolved into the method of preparing powdered matcha that later emerged in Japan. 

Known as the God of Tea (chashen), Lu Yu’s life and his work were strongly shaped by the religious climate of medieval China as he was brought up by the abbot of a Buddhist monastery and spent most of his adult years mixing in literary and intellectual circles that included the Buddhist monk-poet Jiaoran, the noted Buddhist scholar of Vinaya and famous calligrapher Huaisu (737–799 or 725–785) as well as non-affiliated intellectuals and authors of important Taoist works (. Lu Yu’s influential Classic of Tea had spread tea drinking throughout China, so it is almost certain that the Tang Buddhist/Taoist diplomatic emissaries had introduced tea with the same Chinese religious tea ritual context into the roughly contemporary Emperor Shomu’s court in Japan.

Tea and tea rituals appeared to be a highly guarded treasure among early court royals through the Heian era. According to The History of Tea in Japan:

After that historic exchange of cultural practices between the two Far East countries, tea became popular, especially among the royal classes. At the same time, the Japanese Emperor (Emperor Saga) initiated and encouraged the growth of tea in Japan. Seeds were brought from China in large quantities and cultivation began immediately. The secret about Japanese tea remained guarded within the court and among the high ranking officials for many centuries until 794 to 1185 during the Heian era in Japan.

In 804, the Buddhist monks Kūkai and Saichō arrived in China to study religion as part of a diplomatic mission during the Heian period. Kūkai returned to Japan in 806. Tea drinking is also referred to in 814 in a collection of Kukai’s writings compiled by one of his disciples, in volume 4 of Shooryosho, where referencing Kūkai’s return from China in 806, it is noted that while studying he drank “hot water with tea,” or Chanoyu (Kūkai being the first to use the term chanoyu (茶の湯), which later came to refer specifically to the Japanese tea ceremony).

Upon their return to Japan, Kūkai and Saichō founded the Shingon and Tendai schools of Buddhism, respectively. One or both of them are thought to have brought back the first tea seeds to Japan during this trip. Saichō, who returned in 805, is often credited for being the first to plant tea seeds in Japan, Records hold that Buddhist monk Saicho brought tea seeds back from Tang Dynasty China and sowed the seeds at Hiyoshi Taisha Temple in Sakamoto, Omi (present-day Shiga Prefecture). Kukai returned from China with tea seeds and a stone mill. 

330px-Emperor_Saga_largeEmperor Saga The Japanese book “kōshitsu no shihō 1 : kaiga I”, Mainichi Shimbun-sha, 1991, The Imperial Collection, Public Domain


Tea drinking was next recorded during the Heian era (794-1185) under the 52nd imperial ruler, Emperor Saga(嵯峨天皇, Saga-tennō, nee Kamino (神野) in 785 who reigned between 809~823). An entry in the Nihon Koki (Later Chronicle of Japan compiled in 840) for April 22 of Konin 6 (815), notes that on the way home from Karasaki on the west shore of Lake Biwa, at Sufukuji Temple the great Buddhist Abbot Eichu (742-816) made tea and “with his own hands served it to the emperor.” Brick tea or dancha) was the Tang period method of tea preparation – the leaves are steamed, formed into a hard, dried shape, and then shaved into boiling water with seasonings.

Also according to Nihon Koki(a history of Japan written in 840), Emperor Saga commanded that tea trees be planted in five tea plantations in the Kinai areas surrounding Kyoto, Omi and Harima. Subsequently, the emperor is said to have ordered the establishment of five tea plantations near the capital. The reign of Emperor Saga was characterized by his sinophilia, which included a passion for tea. He was fond of Chinese poetry, much of which praised the benefits of tea. Emperor Saga’s poetry, and that of others at his imperial court, also make references to the drinking of tea. Tea became a drink of the royal classes when Emperor Saga encouraged the growth of tea plants. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan began. 

Later Heian period writings indicate that tea was cultivated and consumed on a small scale by Buddhist monks as part of their religious practice, and that the imperial family and members of the nobility also drank tea. The practice, however, was not yet popular outside these circles. In the three centuries after Emperor Saga’s death, interest in Tang Chinese culture declined, as did the practice of drinking tea. Records from this period continued to recognize its value as a medicinal beverage and stimulant, and there are mentions of it being consumed with milk, a practice that subsequently died out. The form of tea consumed in Japan at this time was most likely brick tea, which was the standard form in China during the Tang dynasty. 

The history of tea (O-cha.net) states that “… from 815 AD it seems tea to be forgotten for about 400 years. … At first, the custom of drinking of tea was not associated with the common people. Tea was used as a kind of medicine and in upper social class affairs. Only after Senno-Rikyuu(千利休, 1521-1591)who accomplished the art of tea ceremony, the custom of tea drinking was conveyed from the upper classes to the society of Bushi(武士), and then gradually to the common people.”

The Zen monk Eisai(1141-1215), founder of the Rinzai school of Buddhism, is generally credited for popularizing tea drinking among Buddhist priests as well as their wealthy noble patrons in 12th century Japan. Eisai brought to Japan the Sung Dynasty method of tea preparation that was totally different from the previous Tang brick tea technique, and the former involved the powdered green tea that is familiar the world over today. He wrote the first Japanese tea treatise named Kissa Yojoki (喫茶養生記, Drink Tea and Prolong Life), praising tea for fostering both physical and spiritual health. According to the Urasenke Foundation’s History:

It opens with the statement that “Tea is the most wonderful medicine for nourishing one’s health; it is the secret of long life.” The preface describes how drinking tea can have a positive effect on the five vital organs (a concept in traditional Chinese medicine). Eisai subscribed to a theory that the five organs each preferred foods with different flavors, and he concluded that because tea is bitter, and “the heart loves bitter things”, it would especially benefit the heart. Eisai goes on to list the many purported health effects of tea, which include curing fatigue, lupus, indigestion, beriberi disease, heart disease, and so on, in addition to quenching thirst. The Kissa Yōjōki also explains the shapes of tea plants, tea flowers and tea leaves and covers how to grow tea plants and process tea leaves.[citation needed] The treatise says little regarding the drinking of tea for pleasure, however, focusing instead on its medicinal value. …

Eisai was instrumental in introducing tea consumption to the samurai class. He presented a version of his Kissa Yōjōki in 1214 to shōgun Minamoto no Sanetomo, who had been suffering from a hangover after drinking too much sake. Eisai also served tea to the young shōgun. Zen Buddhism, as advocated by Eisai and others, also became popular during this period, particularly among the warrior class. The Zen monk Dōgen promulgated a set of rules for Buddhist temples based on Rules of Purity for Chan Monasteries, a Chinese text of 1103. Dōgen’s text included notes on etiquette for the serving of tea in Buddhist rituals. Tea was considered central to practitioners of Zen Buddhism. Musō Soseki went as far as to state that “tea and Zen are one”. Soon, green tea became a staple among cultured people in Japan—a brew for the gentry and the Buddhist priesthood alike. Production grew and tea became increasingly accessible, though still a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes.


When Eisai returned from a trip to China in 1191 with tea seeds from China which he planted on the island of Hirado and in the mountains of Kyushu. He also gave some seeds to the monk Myōe, abbot of the Kōzan-ji temple in Kyoto. Myōe planted these seeds in Toganoo (栂尾) and Uji, which became the sites of the first large scale cultivation of tea in Japan. At first, Toganoo tea was seen as the finest in Japan and was called “real tea” (本茶, honcha), as opposed to “non-tea” (非茶, hicha) produced elsewhere in Japan. By the 15th century, however, Uji tea surpassed that of Toganoo, and the terms honcha and hicha came to refer to Uji tea and non-Uji tea, respectively.  Scroll to top of page to see an old photo of a tea plantation in Uji.

The seeds, from Eisai planted first in Kyushu and then in the mountainous Togano-o region west of Kyoto, eventually produced tea plants that were cultivated throughout the central provinces. Tea from Togano-o retained a reputation for flavor and quality indicated by its designation honcha, that is “original tea,” or “real tea.” 

earliest tea producing locations in japan

Location of earliest tea producing region in Japan Source: Ohsako & Motosugi(2008)

The oldest tea plantation region in the country is considered to be that located in Southern Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan (scroll up to see location map above).  Uji, with its strategic location between the two ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, naturally became Japan’s first major tea-producing region. Beginning in the 13th and 14th centuries, Japanese tea culture developed the distinctive features for which it is known today, and the Japanese tea ceremony emerged as a key component of that culture. The early varieties of Japanese tea were investigated and it was concluded that all of the investigated populations originated from a single common ancestral population and retains a common gene pool.  A genetic study comparing tea grown around ancient temples of Korea and Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze) grown in Japan showed that the two are of genetically different origins except for a small percentage of Korean teas that were derived from Japanese tea plants about a hundred years ago. 

Finally, the anti-establishment monk and tea-seller Baisao toppled all the rules and rituals that came before, popularizing the simple method of preparing and the casual drinking of loose leaf sencha. Until then, rice sake had been a more commonly available drink among the Japanese whereas tea spoke of wealth, hospitality, aristocratic refinement and religious ritual. The development of sencha (and senchado practice) in the 18th century led to the creation of distinctive new styles of green tea which now dominate tea consumption in Japan. 


References and Sources:

Lu, H., Zhang, J., Yang, Y., Yang, X., Xu, B., Yang, W., Tong, T., Jin, S., Shen, C., Rao, H., Li, X., Lu, H., Fuller, D. Q., Wang, L., Wang, C., Xu, D., & Wu, N. (2016). Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau. Scientific reports, 6, 18955. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep18955 

Meegahakumbura, M. K., Wambulwa, M. C., Li, M. M., Thapa, K. K., Sun, Y. S., Möller, M., Xu, J. C., Yang, J. B., Liu, J., Liu, B. Y., Li, D. Z., & Gao, L. M. (2018). Domestication Origin and Breeding History of the Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis) in China and India Based on Nuclear Microsatellites and cpDNA Sequence Data. Frontiers in plant science, 8, 2270. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2017.02270

History of tea in Japan, Wikipedia 

The History of Tea in Japan – Who Introduced Tea to Japan? (TopicTea.com)

Ohsako & Motosugi(2008) Microsatellite variability within and among local landrace populations of tea, Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze, in Kyoto, Japan.

Matsumoto, S.; Kiriiwa, Y. & Yamaguchi, S. (2004).  The Korean Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis): RFLP Analysis of Genetic Diversity and Relationship to Japanese Tea, vol 54, p 231 ~ 237. DO – 10.1270/jsbbs.54.231, Breeding Science 

Benn, James A. (2015) The Patron Saint of Tea: Religious Aspects of the Life and Work of Lu Yu DOI:10.21313/hawaii/9780824839635.003.0005

Introduction of Tea into Japan Japanese Tea Culture: The Omotesenke Tradition

Tradition of Tea, Urasenke Foundation

Kanpai sake through the ages Japan Times, Oct 12, 2013

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