Kyoto green tea has a long and storied history and it is still one of the most famous tea producing regions in Japan. In this video we are going to talk about how tea was first brought to Kyoto and how it became intertwined in Japanese history throughout the last thousand years. We’ll track the journey of tea as it goes from being a drink for only a select few, to one that is enjoyed by people all around Japan. Let’s get started!
The beginning of Kyoto Green tea
The first records of tea consumption date back not to Kyoto, but to Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan. Tea wasn’t grown here, but it was brought from China by the Japanese monks as they would travel to learn about buddhism from the Chinese monks.
Our journey of Kyoto tea history begins at the grounds of Kozanji temple. It was here that for the first time the monks not only brought back tea, but also tea seeds to be planted on the temple grounds. A monk named Eisai is credited for being the first to bring back tea seeds from China in 1191. This small tea field outside of the temple is considered one of Japan’s first tea plantations.
Kyoto Green tea in the temple
Kozanji temple is located just a few miles northwest of Kyoto, so this can be considered the start of Kyoto tea. At the time, tea was primarily consumed by the monks. They found that the drink gave them energy during long periods of meditation. We now know that this is because of the combination of caffeine and l-theanine in the tea. The caffeine acts as a stimulant, but the l-theanine slows the absorption of caffeine, giving you a longer lasting energy throughout the day, with less of this jittery feeling.
L-theanine is also thought to stimulate alpha brainwave activity, the same brainwaves stimulated during meditation. This makes the drink the perfect partner for long periods of work, study and meditation. It is no wonder why the drink became so popular amongst the monks.
Kyoto tea in the palace
Soon, Eisai made another contribution to Japanese green tea by writing the book “kissa yojoki” or how to stay healthy by drinking tea. This popularized the drink amongst the upper classes, who wanted to take advantage of the health properties of tea. Tea became not just an obscure beverage drunk in the temples, but also a luxury good consumed by the upper classes.
At the time, factions in Japan not only competed for territory and wealth, but also prestige and culture. Tea became a fixture to demonstrate their culture and the wealthy and powerful would throw elaborate tea ceremonies around kyoto to showcase their expensive teas and teaware.
One shogun named Ashikaga yoshimasa built the famous silver pavilion just outside of Kyoto, as a showcase of wealth. He would host elaborate tea ceremonies here, with the best tea he could find. At the time, tea was being produced around Kyoto, but it was still considered a luxury good.
Kyoto tea in the tea room
Soon, a man known as Sen no Rikyu came along with a more humble vision of what the tea ceremony should be. Instead of taking place in a palace, he opted for a more rustic setting, a small tea room tucked away into the countryside.
The tea room would be modestly decorated, so as to not distract from the intent of the tea ceremony. The Japanese tea ceremony would involve the preparation or matcha powder or powdered tea according to a strict set of rules and principles. This ritual would be designed to promote purity, harmony, respect and tranquility within the host and the guest.
Sen no rikyus vision became the modern Japanese tea ceremony we know today. This made tea more popular and accessible around the country and it also solidified the area around Kyoto as the epicenter for Japanese green tea.
Kyoto tea in the home
If you visit Uji or Kyoto today, you can take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, modeled after sen no rikyus original vision. At the time, matcha was the primary way to consume green tea, but soon it was overtaken by leaf teas like sencha.
Around the area of Uji and Kyoto, you can see many signs of this. A house in Ujitawara is the childhood home of Nagatani Soen, the inventor of sencha tea. This invention made it easier for more people to prepare their own green tea at home, with less teaware. Instead of the tea ceremony utensils, all they needed was a simple teapot and cup to prepare great tasting tea at home.
A stone pillar in Ogura marks where gyokuro tea was first discovered. This extremely sweet and savory tea is shaded for 3 weeks before the harvest to improve its flavor. Yet another discovery made around Kyoto that revolutionized the tea industry.
Kyoto is also where hojicha or japanese roasted tea was first discovered. This tea has much warmer flavors of coffee, caramel and chocolate and you can still sometimes see it being roasted in street markets around Uji and Kyoto.
While Kyoto doesn’t produce a large quantity of tea, it has always been a hotbed of tea innovation. A farmer named Mr. Noike wanted to continue this long tradition of Kyoto tea by moving out here from the big city, to enjoy a more peaceful life in the Japanese countryside.
Instead of growing tea on a large plot of land, Mr. Noike has decided to focus on quality over quantity. He tends to this small one hectare tea field in the middle of a pine forest. These tall trees provide the tea plant with partial shading throughout the day, making the teas produced by Mr. Noike sweeter and smoother. The noike matcha is an excellent kyoto tea for beginners, as it has a smooth flavor with much less bitterness and a more affordable price tag.
The noike hojicha is a sweeter hojicha, that plays more on the caramel and milk chocolate notes, without much of these dark smoky flavors.
It is great to see farmers like Mr. Noike who are willing to carry on the mantle and continue the proud history of Kyoto tea.
I hope you all enjoyed this article on the history of kyoto tea. If you would like to try some kyoto tea from Mr. Noike, it would not only help support us, but also help us to support the dozens of talented farmers we work with. We hope that by sharing high quality, pesticide free green tea with people all around the world, we can shift the tea industry into a more positive direction. If you have any questions about green tea or tea in general, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. Until then, we’ll see you next time.