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Heian and Kamakura Period Tea (794–1338)

A tea gathering at the Asian Art Museum

A tea gathering at the Asian Art Museum. (Photo: Deborah Clearwaters)

The first record of tea drinking in Japan occurs early in the Heian period (794–1185) when it was introduced to the Japanese aristocracy by scholar-monks returning from Tang dynasty China. For this form of tea, known as dancha (brick tea), tea leaves are harvested and packed into a brick like mass. Prepared by adding tea brick shavings to boiling water along with spices, the beverage is highly regarded for its stimulating and medicinal properties.

For a time, the Heian aristocracy was eager to assimilate aspects of Chinese culture. Tea was served at court poetry gatherings and a number of imperial anthologies contain tea-inspired poems. With the decline of the Tang dynasty, the Japanese court stopped sending official envoys to China and the Japanese began to develop their own unique aesthetic sensibilities that would come to influence tea taste in later years. The fashion for drinking brick tea was abandoned at court, but Japanese Buddhist monasteries continued the practice and maintained sporadic contact with China.

A new era of tea culture began with the introduction from China of powdered green tea (matcha), by the Japanese monk Eisai (1141–1215). While in China, Eisai studied Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. Tea as ritual offering and communal activity were integral parts of Chinese monastic routine. Eisai returned to Japan an enthusiastic advocate who pro-moted tea among the aristocracy, high ranking samurai, and monastic community, as ameans of preserving health and well being.

Eisai is credited with bringing tea seeds from China that were cultivated in the moun-tains of northern Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. It is also said that Eisai’s seeds wereplanted in the Toganoo hills northwest of Kyoto. Tea produced at Toganoo came to becalled “true tea” (honcha)and was prized over “lesser tea” (hicha) grown elsewhere. By the1300s, tea was cultivated throughout much of Japan and tea drinking was no longer limited to the nobility, warrior-aristocrats, and monks.

As powdered green tea became fashionable among the ruling elite, so did the passion for collecting Chinese art and utensils associated with it. Objects that entered Japan originally intended for religious or scholarly purposes, such as Buddhist altar fittings, Zen inspired monochromatic ink paintings, celadon vases, and imperial style tea bowls, came to beregarded as items worthy of collecting. Drinking tea once again became a popular form of entertainment. In one activity, known as “tea gambling” (tocha) guests attempted to distin-guish between tea grown at Toganoo and that grown elsewhere. Records indicate that asmany as one hundred bowls of tea were drunk at times and the winning contestants received sacks of gold dust as their prize.

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