Tea and Japan have a long association with each other. The earliest known reference of tea in Japan traces its roots back to a text written by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century. Tea was brought into Japan by the Japanese priests and envoys that were sent to China. The first known tea that was brought back to Japan was probably brick tea, the seeds of which were brought by a priest named Saicho in 805. Tea became a drink for primarily the royal classes, when the emperor encouraged the growth of the tea plants. Henceforth, seeds were imported from China to support the tea cultivation in Japan.
The oldest tea specialty book in Japan, Kissa Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea) was written by Eisai. It is a two volume book written in 1211 after Eisai's second visit to China. The first sentence states, "Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one's life more full and complete". The book describes the medicinal qualities of tea (especially on the five vital organs)- easing the effects of alcohol, acting as a stimulant, curing blotchiness, quenching thirst, eliminating indigestion, curing beriberi disease, preventing fatigue, and improving urinary and brain function. Part One also explains the shapes of tea plants, tea flowers and tea leaves and how to grow tea plants and process tea leaves. Part Two discusses the specific dosage and method required for individual physical ailments.
The popularity of tea started increasing soon after this and green tea became a staple among the cultured people of Japan. The production of tea increased and tea became accessible easily, however still remaining a drink of the upper classes and the Buddhist priesthood.
In the 14th century Ming Dynasty, southern China and Japan enjoyed much cultural exchange. Significant merchandise was traded and the roasting method of processing tea became common in Kyushu, Japan. Since the steaming (9th century) and the roasting (13th century) methods were brought to Japan during two different periods, these teas are completely distinct from each other.
Sencha, an unfermented form of green tea, was developed in 1740 by Soen Nagatani, which has now become Japan's most popular and widely consumed tea. To prepare sencha, tea leaves are first steam-pressed, then rolled and dried into a loose leaf tea. The dried leaves are brewed with hot water to yield the final drink.
At the end of the Meiji era (1868–1912), machine manufacturing of green tea was introduced and began replacing handmade tea. Machines took over the processes of primary drying, tea rolling, secondary drying, final rolling, and steaming.
Automation contributed to improved quality and reduced labour. Sensor and computer controls were introduced to machine automation so unskilled workers can produce superior tea without compromising quality. Certain regions in Japan are known for special types of green tea, as well as for teas of exceptional quality, making the leaves themselves a highly valued commodity. Uji is still famous for its tea. Today, roasted green tea is not as common in Japan and powdered tea is used in ceremonial fashion.
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