History of Tea

Kamakura period (1185-1333) – Tea as Medicine

In 1191, Eisai (栄西, 1141-1215), a Zen monk, brought back the teachings of Zen Buddhism along with high quality tea leaves and tea seeds, tea utensils, and tea drinking customs from China (the Song dynasty). At that time, Zen monks drank tea as part of their meditation practice and served tea during the ritual ceremonies.

In 1214, Eisai wrote Kissa Yojoki (喫茶養生記, Drinking Tea for Healthy Life), describing tea as medicine to cure sickness. He presented this book along with a bowl of tea to Minamoto no Sanetomo (源実朝, 1192-1219), the third general of the Kamakura shogunate. When Sanetomo drank Eisai’s tea, his hangover was immediately cured. With this episode, tea drinking became a popular custom among the upper-class society, especially the samurai warriors who had regular exchanges with Zen monks.

More tea utensils were brought to Japan through trading with China. These utensils were called karamono (唐物, Chinese imports) and highly valued among tea practitioners.

Muromachi period (1333-1573) – Tea Gambling to Thatched Hut Tea to Wabi-Cha

During this period, tea was extremely rare and expensive, and drinking it was considered a luxury. Among the warrior class, to-cha (闘茶, tea fighting) or cha yoriai (茶寄り合い, tea meeting) became a popular activity. This is a type of tea gathering in which people dressed up in flamboyant costumes, called basara (婆娑羅) style, had a big meal, drank many different kinds of tea, and bet their valuables by guessing the tea’s origin. In short, it was a type of gambling, and the Muromachi shogunate prohibited this by law.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1358-1408), the third general of the Muromachi shogunate, continued to trade with China (the Ming dynasty) and imported more valuable tea utensils to Japan. He built a large mansion to be used as an artistic and cultural center, called kaisho (会所, meeting center), where people gathered to read poems, to dine, and to play music together. This type of cultural center was popularly established in the upper-class mansions or local temples and shrines.

At the center, tea was served somewhat similarly to the manner of current chaji (茶事, full tea gathering), following the order of 1) guests’ entrance, 2) meal, 3) strolling the garden, 4) guests’ re-entrance, 5) tea serving, and 6) after-tea banquet. At this time, tea was made in the back kitchen room so that the host was not present in the tearoom with the guests. The center was decorated with elaborate Chinese tea utensils and arts. The shogun had special servants called Doboshu (同朋衆) who were in charge of the decoration of the center and maintaining and safekeeping of the tea utensils in their repositories. They were connoisseurs of the tea utensils, giving value to them as art objects. Serving tea was also a part of their job.

The eighth general Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政, 1436-1490) loved arts and tea custom. Unlike his predecessors, however, he enjoyed tea in a more quiet style as practiced by Murata Jyuko (or Shuko, 村田珠光, 1423-1502). Jyuko studied Zen under Ikkyu Sojyun (一休宗純, 1349-1481) and taught tea to Yoshimasa. Contrary to the flamboyant basara style, Jyuko preferred a simple and quiet style of tea utensils. He found aesthetic value in Japanese-made porcelain and began to use wood and bamboo for the material to make tea scoops and flower containers instead of ivory or bronze imported from China. To reflect this new style, he shrank the size of tearoom, setting the four and a half tatami mats as the standard tearoom size. He also moved the tearoom from a large kaisho cultural center to a smaller teahouse. He is credited as the founder of So-An no Cha (草庵の茶, thatched hut tea) style.

Jyuko’s tea style was passed on to Takeno Jyo-o (武野紹鴎, 1502-1555), a grand-disciple of Jyuko. He studied the arts of waka poem and incense ceremony and brought their artistic style into tea practices. Jyo-o was a practitioner of Wabi-Cha (侘び, austere refinement) style, refining Jyuko’s tea style. Through tea, he sought to evoke spiritual elements of Zen meditation practice.

Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600) – Rikyu’s Tea

Jyo-o’s tea style and teaching was deepened and perfected by Sen no Rikyu (千利休, 1522-1591). His birth name was Tanaka Yoshiro (田中与四郎). He was born in a thriving port town of Sakai (now Osaka city). His grandfather, Tanaka Sen-Ami (田中千阿弥), was one of the doboshu who served for shoguns during the Muromachi period. Rikyu took part of his grandfather’s name, Sen, for his tea artistic name. During Rikyu’s time, the capital city of Kyoto was a battlefield, and many cultured members of society fled to Sakai to seek peaceful lives. Sakai became the center of wabi-cha. Rikyu first studied tea under a renowned teamaster Kitamuki Dochin (北向道陳, 1504-1562), who later recommended that Rikyu go study tea under Jyo-o.

Just like his grandfather, Rikyu also served as doboshu under two generals, Oda Nobunaga (織田信長, 1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598). Rikyu favored dark-colored raku style tea bowls and small-sized tea containers. He simplified the movements used in temae (点前, tea procedure) eliminating wasted moves. He pursued simplicity and purity.

Many came to study tea under Rikyu. He often served tea for feudal lords and military generals who were political opponents to Nobunaga or Hideyoshi, making the tearoom a place for political debates and delicate negotiations. Likely as a result of some disagreement between Hideyoshi and Rikyu, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). After Rikyu’s death, his students carried on his teachings. His grandson, Sen Sotan (千宗旦, 1578-1658), was credited with building the foundation of current Sen-style Chado practice.

Edo period (1600-1868) – Three Senke

After Sotan, his three sons carried on Sen-style Chado practices by establishing schools individually; Omotesenke (表千家), Urasenke (裏千家), and Mushakojisenke (武者小路千家). During this period, tea practitioners increased to include not only the feudal lord and warrior classes but also the merchant classes. Their daughters also took tea lessons because tea practice involved learning the skills of cooking, cleaning, decorating the room with flower arrangements and calligraphy scrolls as well as acquiring manners and etiquette along with elegant deportment—elements highly valued for future wives and mothers.

Modern periods (1868-current) – Tea Goes Overseas

While the Meiji government (1868-1912) was encouraging the nation to import Western customs and culture under the civilization and enlightenment movement, Japanese traditional arts were often neglected and abandoned. Chado was one of them. Instead of government officials, many financial and business experts—both domestic and international—supported Chado, keeping the tradition alive. Okakura Tenshin (岡倉天心, 1862-1913), an art critic and philosopher, published his Book of Tea in New York in 1906, introducing the tea culture to the West.

In addition, Sen Genshitsu (Soshitsu XV, b. 1923), the former head of the Urasenke school, has been actively publishing about tea in both Japanese and English, spreading the teaching of Rikyu under the slogan of “Peacefulness through a Bowl of Tea” worldwide. In 2002, he retired from the Urasenke head position, leaving it to his son, Sen Soshitsu XVI (b. 1956).