To a European the tea ceremony is lengthy and meaningless. When witnessed more than once, it becomes intolerably monotonous. Not being born with an Oriental fund of patience, he longs for something new, something lively, something with at least the semblance of logic and utility. But then it is not for him that the tea ceremonies were made. If they amuse those for whom they were made, they amuse them, and there is nothing more to be said. In any case, tea ceremonies are perfectly harmless…. Some may deem them pointless. None can stigmatize them as vulgar.
–Basil Hall Chamberlain (1849-1912), Japanese Things
It would take as much diligence and time to unravel the history of tea in Japan as to write the rest of this book. Tea had long been the favorite beverage among the Buddhists of the mainland because it helped them stay awake and alert during their lengthy meditations. It is therefore not surprising that a Japanese Buddhist, returning from studying in China at Mt. Tientai, should become the first to bring tea seeds to Japan and plant them there along with the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Over the ensuing centuries Chinese styles were to pervade every aspect of Japanese culture, from fellatio and flower arranging to the art of suicide. Tea caught on fast. Almost as soon as the first tea was ready for plucking, the Japanese emperor Saga sampled some, liked it, and ordered that tea be cultivated in five different provinces near the capital. Imperial patronage lends a certain snob appeal in any time and place and for a time tea thrived in Japan.
Years later, for some reason, there suddenly occurred a break in relations between China and Japan that lasted some 280 years. Contact between the two countries was resumed shortly before the year 1200, and Eisai, who returned from studying Buddhism in 1187, is credited with reintroducing tea to Japan along with Zen. Eisai gave some plants to another Buddhist, the abbot Myo-e, who pioneered one of Japan’s finest tea districts in the neighborhood of Vji near Kyoto. Myo-e’s small temple garden is still there growing offshoots of the original plants and tea made from their leaves continues to be served at the temple. It was also Eisai who wrote the first book on tea in Japanese, A Record of Tea Drinking for Good Health. All these beginnings were to bear unbelievable fruit.
An excerpt from New Tea Lover’s Treasury, by James Norwood Pratt
To be continued in Tuesdays With Norwood: In Japan – Part 2