All true tea comes from the tea plant “Camellia Sinensis”, a shrub native to Southern China. Green tea is known as the “healthiest” form of tea due to its lack of processing, resulting in extremely high nutrient levels. Matcha green tea originated in Japan, and because the entire leaf is ingested in powder form, it is the most potent green tea in the world.
In Japanese “cha” means tea, and “ma” means powder, thus the word matcha translates literally as powdered green tea. It is believed that the very first green tea seeds were brought to Japan from China by the Zen Monk Eisai in 1191 A.D., who planted them on the temple grounds in Kyoto. Eisai, who introduced the Zen philosophy to Japan, was the first person to grind and consume green tea leaves in powdered form. Thus Zen and matcha became inextricably bound together, in the form of the exquisite tea ceremony. The tea ceremony celebrates the profound beauty of simple things, the extraordinary in the ordinary, and is intended to bring all participants into the here and now. The drinking of matcha tea as the focal point of the tea ceremony was a perfect choice, as matcha stimulates presence of mind, mental alertness, and a calm, meditative state simultaneously.
These profound physiological benefits of matcha intuited by the wise sages of Japan are now being proven by modern science, as more and more groundbreaking studies on the health benefits of green tea are published.
The first tea plants known were thought to be grown in Yunnan Province in southern China. From there they spread to other parts of Asia that had the right types of soil and weather conditions. The custom of drinking tea is said to have originated in China with the emperor Shen Nong. Regarded as an iconoclast of Chinese medicine, he introduced the tea plant to people around the year 2700 B.C. The classic on Chinese Tea, Cha jing (The Book of Tea), written by the scholar Lu Yu in A.D. 760, recounts Shen Nongs efforts to discover the medicinal effectiveness of over three hundred varieties of roots, grass, and tree barks. Legend has it that he would try all of them on himself first and whenever he ingested something poisonous he would cleanse himself by eating tea leaves.
It seems certain that tea leaves were initially eaten as a medicine long before tea became a popular drink. In fact, there are still some hill tribes in southern China, Thailand, and northern Myanmar that still eat pickled tea leaves, and only until recent times were they aware that a drink could be brewed from the same leaves! According to Kouga, the ancient dictionary written during the Later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220), people in Sichuan Province of western China, compressed steamed leaves into hard bricks to help maintain the quality of the tea over a greater period (very handy when transporting, too). When making a beverage they would season the mixture with ginger or onion. However, this early concoction would not qualify as a conventional beverage in the usual sense because its intended use was medicinal.
During the Three Kingdoms period (221-65), the popularity of tea saw a rapid increase. One cause for this was the widening increase in the practice of Buddhism, which was beginning to gain a wider following. Buddhism prohibits the drinking of alcohol and so that boosted the demand for tea. During the Sui dynasty (581-618), the custom of drinking tea, previously limited to the aristocracy and Buddhist monks, began to filter through to other classes.
In the mid-eighth century, tea shops sprung up, and gradually tea became an indispensable beverage for ordinary city-dwellers. It was around this time that Lu Yu, who came from the tea producing center of Hubei Province, wrote his treatise on tea. The range of Yus work is impressive. It covers the origins, methods of plant cultivation, the types of utensils used, the best ways to prepare and drink tea, and tales relating to tea and tea-growing. His expansive compendium of information spanned three volumes, opening with the propitious line: There are good luck trees in the south that are beneficial to a persons health. When published the book met with great acclaim and is still looked upon today as a bible of sorts concerning tea.
Tea arrived in Japan from China. It was brought by Japanese Buddhist monks who accompanied the special representatives sent to China in the early Heian period (794-1185). Among the monks who traveled to China were Saicho (767-822), Kukai (774-835), and Eichu (743-816). The first record of the custom of tea-drinking in Japan appeared in Nihon koki (Notes on Japan), compiled in the Heian period. Eichu, a priest at the temple of Bonshakuji in Omi, Aichi Prefecture, returned to China in 815. The Nihon koki records that when Emperor Saga (reign, 809-23) visited Omi, Eichu invited him to his temple and served him sencha, suggesting that drinking tea, a popular pastime in Tang times, had also become fashionable in Japans intellectual circles. Roun-shu, an anthology of Chinese poetry written in Japanese in 814, also mentions tea-tasting.
At that time, tea probably came in the form of hard bricks, as described by Lu Yu. Compressed into a brick shape into a brick shape, tea was not only easy to transport but also held up better during the long voyage from China. This was most likely the type of tea brought to Japan, even though leaf tea was also used in China at that time. The brick was first warmed over a flame and then a portion was broken off by hand or shaved off with a knife. The shavings were ground with a mortar into a powder, which was added to a pan of hot water and brewed and then was served in a bowl.
Emperor Saga tried to encourage the spread of tea by demanding provinces in the Kinki region around Kyoto to grow the plant. He established tea gardens in one district of Kyoto, and started growing and processing it for the use of physicians attached to the court. This imperial tea, however, found use mostly in rituals performed by the aristocracy; the beverage had yet to become an item for consumption by the common people.
Ordinary Japanese only began to drink tea much later, after Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought back a new type of seedling from Sung-dynasty China. With it he introduced a new way of drinking tea which was known as the matcha style. Eisai encouraged the cultivation of tea trees, and his Kissa yojoki (Health Benefits of Tea) tied tea-drinking to longevity and launched tea in Japan on a large scale.