According to the “Latter Chronical of Japan” (日本後記; Nihon Kōki), drinking of tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century, by the Buddhist monk Eichū (永忠), who had returned to Japan from China. This is the first documented evidence of tea in Japan. The entry in the “Latter Chronical of Japan” states that Eichū personally prepared and served “simmered tea” (煎茶, sencha) to Emperor Saga who was on an excursion in Karasaki (in present Shiga Prefecture) in the year 815. By imperial order in the year 816, tea plantations began to be cultivated in the Kinki region of Japan.[1] However, the interest in tea in Japan faded after this.[2]

In China, tea had already been known, according to legend, for more than a thousand years. The form of tea popular in China in the era when Eichū went for studies was “brick tea” (団茶 dancha?). The brick tea was made by steaming and pounding tea leaves, pressing this into moulds, and drying this until hard. This then would be ground in a mortar, and the resulting ground tea decocted together with various other herbs and/or flavorings.[3]

The custom of drinking tea, first for medicinal, and then largely also for pleasurable reasons, was already widespread throughout China. In the early 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote the Chá jīng (茶經, the Classic of Tea), a treatise on tea focusing on its cultivation and preparation. Lu Yu’s life had been heavily influenced by Buddhism, particularly the ZenChán school. (This form of Buddhism is known as Chan in China and Zen in Japan). His ideas would have a strong influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.[4]

Around the end of the 12th century, the style of tea preparation called “tencha” (点茶), in which powdered tea was placed in a bowl, hot water poured into the bowl, and the tea and hot water whipped together, was introduced by Eisai, another Japanese monk returning from China. He also brought tea seeds back with him, which eventually produced tea that was of the most superb quality in all of Japan.[5]

This powdered green tea was first used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. By the 13th century, samurai warriors had begun preparing and drinking matcha as they adopted Zen Buddhism, and the foundations of the tea ceremony were laid.

Tea ceremony developed as a “transformative practice,” and began to evolve its own aesthetic, in particular that of wabi. Wabi, meaning quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste, “is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry [emphasizing] simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and [celebrating] the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials.”[6] Ikkyū, who revitalized Zen in the 15th century, had a profound influence on the tea ceremony.

By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan. Sen no Rikyu, perhaps the most well-known—and still revered—historical figure in tea ceremony, followed his master, Takeno Jōō‘s, concept of ichi-go ichi-e, a philosophy that each meeting should be treasured, for it can never be reproduced. His teachings perfected many newly developed forms in Japanese architecture and gardens, fine and applied arts, and the full development of chadō, “the “way of tea”. The principles he set forward – harmony ( wa?), respect ( kei?), purity ( sei?), and tranquility ( jaku?) – are still central to tea ceremony.

Many schools of Japanese tea ceremony have evolved through the long history of chanoyu, and are active today.