Tea is believed to have been introduced into Japan from China in A. D. 805 by the celebrated Buddhist saint, Dengyō Daishi. It had long been a favourite beverage of the Buddhists of the continent, whom it served to keep wakeful during their midnight devotions. A pious legend tells us that the origin of the tea-shrub was on this wise. Daruma (Dharma), an Indian saint of the sixth century, had spent many long years in ceaseless prayer and watching. At last, one night, his eyelids, unable to bear the fatigue any longer, closed, and he slept soundly until morning. When the saint awoke, he was so angry with his lazy eyelids that he cut them off and flung them on the ground. But lo! each lid was suddenly transformed into a shrub, whose efficacious leaves, infused in water, minister to the vigils of holy men.
Though encouraged from the first by Imperial recommendations, tea culture made little or no progress in Japan till the close of the twelfth century, when another Buddhist, the abbot Myōe, having obtained new seeds from China, sowed them at Toga-no-o, near Kyōto, whence a number of shrubs were afterwards transplanted to Uji, which has ever since been the chief centre of Japanese tea growing. Thenceforward the love of tea-drinking was en grained in the Japanese court and aristocracy, and the cha-no-yu, or tea ceremonies, became a national institution. But it is doubtful whether the custom of drinking tea began to spread among the lower classes till the end of the seventeenth century, which was also the time when our own ancestors first took to it. Now, needless to say that the tea-house is one of the most widely spread, socially most important, and to wayfarers most agreeable of Japanese institutions. Not but what it is a blunder to dub inns and restaurants "tea-houses," as Europeans are apt to do. The tea-house (chaya) is a thing by itself, in the country an open shed, in the towns often a pretty, but always open, house, sometimes with a garden, where people sit down and rest for a short time, and are served with tea and light refreshments only, while a few words of gossip or innocent banter are exchanged with mine hostess or her attendant smiling damsels. Of course, "en tout bien, tout honneur."
The tea-plant belongs to the same family of evergreens as the camellia, and bears small white flowers slightly fragrant. As a rule, the seeds are planted in terraces on gentle hill slopes; but level ground may also be availed of, provided it be kept thoroughly drained. The shrub is not allowed to attain a height of more than three or four feet. It is ready for picking in the third year, but is at its best from the fifth to the tenth year. The first picking takes place at the end of April or beginning of May, and lasts three or four weeks. There is a second in June or July, and sometimes a third.
As soon as possible after being picked, the leaves are placed in a round wooden tray with a brass wire bottom over boiling water. This process of steaming, which is complete in half a minute, brings the natural oil to the surface. The next and principal operation is the firing, which is done in a wooden frame with tough Japanese paper stretched across it, charcoal well-covered with ash being the fuel employed. This first firing is done at a temperature of about 120 Fahrenheit. Meanwhile the leaf is manipulated for hours by men who roll it into balls with the palms of their hands. The final result is that each leaf becomes separately twisted, and changes its colour to dark olive purple. Two more firings at lower temperatures ensue, after which the leaf is allowed to dry until it becomes quite brittle. Sometimes—and we believe this to have been the common practice in ancient days—the leaf is not fired at all, but only sun-dried.
All genuine Japanese tea is what we should term "green." It is partaken of, not only at meal-times, but also at intervals throughout the day. The cups are very small, and no milk or sugar is added. The tea drunk in respectable Japanese house holds generally costs 25 to 50 sen a lb., while from 1 to 3 yen will be paid for a better quality fit to set before an honoured guest. The choicest Uji tea costs 10 yen per lb. We have even heard of exceptionally fine samples being charged for at the rate of 25 yen per lb.; but the so-called "best qualities" sold at most shops are only from 5 to 7 yen. At the opposite end of the scale stands the so-called bancha, the tea of the lower classes, 10 to 15 sen per lb., made out of chopped leaves, stalks, and bits of wood taken from the trimmings of the tea-plant; for this beverage is tea, after all, little as its flavour has in common with that of Bohea or of Uji. Other tea-like infusions sometimes to be met with are kōsen, made by pouring hot water on a mixture of various fragrant substances, such as orange-peel, the seeds of the xanthoxylon, etc.; sakura-yu, an infusion of salted cherry-blossoms; mugi-yu, an infusion of parched barley; mame-cha, a similar preparation of beans. Fuku-ja, or "luck tea," is made of salted plums, seaweed, and xanthoxylon seeds, and is partaken of in every Japanese household on the last night of the year.
Japanese tea, unlike Chinese, must not be made with boiling water, or it will give an intolerably bitter decoction; and the finer the quality of the tea, the less hot must be the water employed. The Japanese tea equipage actually includes a small open jug called the "water-cooler" (yu-zamashi), to which the hot water is, if necessary, transferred before being poured on the tea-leaves. Even so, the first brew is often thrown away as too bitter to drink. The consequence of this is that Japanese servants, when they first come to an English house, always have to be taught how to treat our Chinese or Indian tea, and generally begin by giving practical proof of their incredulity on the subject of the indispensable virtue of boiling water.
Large quantities of Japanese tea—as much as 40,000,000 lbs. in a single season—are sent across the Pacific to the United States and Canada, and a large tea "trust" on American lines has even been suggested. What a change in the course of a single life-time! It is but fifty years since an enterprising widow of Nagasaki, named Ōura, made the first surreptitious shipment of 27 lbs.; for no intercourse was then permitted with the hated barbarian.
Books recommended. The Preparation of Japan Tea, by Henry Gribble, in Vol. XII. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions."—Rein's Industries of Japan, p. 100.