The tools of tea ceremony: A chawan (tea bowl), cha sen (bamboo tea whisk), and chashaku (tea ladle)
Paving the Road for Cha no Yu
Tea was first introduced to the Japanese from China as far back as the 8th century, but matcha came to the archipelago in the 12th century, thanks to a monk named Eisai. Eisai was studying Buddhism in China and, when he returned to Japan, he brought back green tea seeds, and a method of making powdered green tea from dried tea leaves.
At first, it was mainly monks and nobles who drank it. If Eisai was the grandfather of green tea in Japan, then the father would be Sen no Rikyu, who created and propagated cha no yu, or “the way of tea.” Rikyu brought to the tea ceremony the wabi-sabi principles such as simplicity, humility, and seeing imperfections as good and beautiful. Through him, tea ceremonies became more common. It also helped that the master he served, feudal lord Hideyoshi, saw green tea as a means to show his political power and, thus, was a major proponent of planting tea leaves and holding tea ceremonies.
What exactly is matcha and how is it made?
Matcha starts with tea leaves that are grown in the shade, which causes them to grow a darker green. The best tea leaves are picked, dried, and then ground into an ultra-fine powder. To make matcha tea, matcha powder is mixed with hot water. Traditionally, it is prepared by whisking matcha powder and hot water in special tea bowls, until it is frothy. There are two types of matcha tea that can be made: usucha (“thin tea”) and koicha (“thick” or “dark tea”). Koicha has less water added, resulting in a thicker, almost syrup-like consistency. Matcha tea has an intense flavor that is grassy, earthy, with a little bit of umami, and it may be too bitter for some people.
Matcha in Tea Ceremonies
These days, tea ceremonies can range from formal hours-long events to casual affairs run by a high school tea ceremony club. Ceremonies also involve specific rituals, including turning the tea bowl a certain number of times before drinking. Typically, a traditional Japanese wagashi sweet is also served before the tea.