First in a series on the teas of Japan.
Japan tea is not only a pleasure but an example of how tea enlarges one’s culture and imagination. Tea entered Japan in the summer of 805 CE in the baggage of the priest Saicho returning from study at T’ien-t’ai Monastery in Tang, China. Japan would take to Tendai Buddhism, but not to tea until it was introduced a second time in 1200 by Eisai, another Buddhist priest returning from China, this time to propagate a Buddhist sect called Zen. Tea has been inseparable from Zen in Japan ever since. Even today’s green tea ice cream—if properly made from tea ceremony matcha—is an outgrowth of this meeting of tea, Buddhism and Japan. The Japanese pretty well kept their tea—and everything else—to themselves until a woman of Nagasaki became the first to ship some abroad in 1862. At the height of its popularity before World War II, Japan tea commanded fully one-fifth of the U.S. market. O tempora, o mores! Today Japan exports less than 1 percent of its total production and travelers are right to gloat that the only sure way to know Japan tea is to live there.
All the same, I am bold to say: one of the world’s most northerly grown, Japan tea is all green and all of it comes from south of Tokyo, mainly from Honshu’s Shizuoka prefecture with some from the legendary Uji district near Kyoto. Almost one hundred fifty thousand acres are under cultivation and yield almost fifteen hundred pounds of tea each per annum—surely the world record. This is not just thanks to the warm climate with dense fogs and heavy dews, but also to plucking by Japanese-invented automatic scissors like electric hair clippers. It is to accommodate these mechanical pluckers that Japan’s tea bushes are now cultivated side by side in long rounded rows, giving the impression of curved waves of green undulating over the landscape.