In 1731, a Japanese Zen priest observed Chinese immigrants, living in Nagasaki, drinking sencha – steeped or infused tea. Sencha liberated tea drinkers from the rigid rules and expensive tea room decorations of chanoyu and represented a rejection of the chanoyu regime.
What is sencha? Is it a type of tea leaf? Is it a ceremony? Is it a custom? It is all the above.
Sencha the Tea Leaf
Seventy-five percent of Japanese green tea production is sencha. Harvested leaves are machine picked, de-stemmed, steamed, withered, rolled, and quick dried. The quick drying forms the leaves into a needle-like shape called spiderleg.
Sencha has different grades. The highest grade – first flush – is harvested in April. This grade has a delicate flavor and a floral aroma. Second flush is picked after May 15. Second flush has a stronger aroma, darker brew, and robust flavor. Later flushes are used in lower-grade Japanese teas. Around one percent of Japanese tea is exported.
Sencha the Tea Ceremony
Sencha means “fire tea”, referring to infusing or steeping tea in boiling water. In the eighteenth century, a Zen priest nicknamed Chuko Baisao – meaning “revival” (chuko) and “old man who sells tea” (baisao) – popularized sencha. He left the monastery, sold sencha, and spread the teachings of the “sencha spirit” in Kyoto. Baisao believed that chanoyu was corrupt and that there was a need to revive the first “way of tea” as formulated in Lu Yu’s Ch’a Ching, which formed the foundation of the “sencha spirit”.
After Baisao’s death, Kimura Kendado and Priest Daiten Kenjo continued his teachings. Kendado translated and published Secrets of Steeped Tea by Ye Zhuan. The book described two ways to steep tea: sencha and encha.
According to the sencha way, the tea leaves are placed in boiling water and the tea steeps while the water simmers. According to the encha way, the tea leaves are placed in an empty tea pot and hot water is poured over the leaves. This method was preferred, because boiling water tended to ruin sensitive Chinese tea leaves.
Sencha the Custom
Sendo – the way of sencha – is the self-conscious and idealized consumption of tea made by steeping tea leaves in the freshest hot water, requiring fewer utensils and etiquette rules. This simple ceremony extended tea preparation and drinking to all social classes. Properly serving sencha became the mark of a person well versed in the social graces. The sencha ceremony was founded on the belief that tea benefited spiritual and physical health.
Sencha in Present-Day Japan
Japanese people practice Sendo multiple times a day, taking a quiet moment to enjoy the sencha experience.
Resource about Japanese Teas: Global Japanese Tea Association
This article was originally published on November 6, 2009. It has been updated by the publisher.