Japan is a country with a strong cultural identity and where many traditions and customs, which have their roots in ancient times, blended harmoniously in the modern daily life: one of the most notable and interesting is undoubtedly the tea culture.
A tourist who visits Japan will surely notice that one of the many activities proposed in the most touristic cities is the tea ceremony demonstration, where a tea master shows an essentially reduced version of the traditionally correct one, that can last several hours. Just this glimpse of the ceremony can spark an interest in knowing more about the tea culture or, at least, in noticing its presence while visiting the country.
For example, the most popular and evident clue of how the tradition of tea is very present in modern Japan is the vast number of products available for the daily life: from the almost infinite assortment of beverages (available in every supermarket, convenient store, and vending machine, both hot and cold versions) to the many kinds of cookies, ice creams, and even ramen. Moreover, many Japanese people prefer to drink tea rather than the sweetened carbonated drinks and, during the main meals, they often accompany the food with some appropriate teas like bancha, mugicha, genmaicha or sobacha, even if beer is almost always present on the table.
Strolling around, in every city of Japan, it’s easy to end up in a “shotengai”, which is a local market street: There you’ll find many residents of the neighborhood shopping at grocery stores and chitchatting and you’ll surely see that, beyond the typical products and commodities, many shops sell some specific goods: a varied selection of kitchen tools and ingredients to cook traditional dishes, among which it’s impossible to miss the rich assortment of teas and teaware. The only fact that’s possible to buy at least a dozen of different kinds of tea, as well as an impressive number of teapots, cups, chashaku (a thin spoon made of bamboo), chasen (a wooden whisk for matcha tea), matcha powder caddies, says it all about how important and common the tea culture in Japan’s everyday life.
One more thing that can be noticed is the seasonality of Japanese products: as you can find the traditional Nabe hot pot during winter and the Sōmen cold noodles during summer, you’ll easily spot the delicious Kakigōri in the hot season. The Kakigōri is a traditional sweet known since the Heian period (around 1000 years ago), made of shaved ice, over which a sweet syrup has been poured, served on a base of mashed sweet Azuki beans. Needless to say that one of the most appreciated syrup is the green matcha one, to enjoy preferably along the bank of a river, in the shadow of a tree. Once the summer has gone, the best way to sip a top-notch tea is inside a tea house, even better if it’s in a traditional style. There you’ll find a cozy and soothing atmosphere, ideal to spend some time enjoying the fragrance of a tea in harmony with the season.
TEA CULTURE AND CULTIVATION: MY EXPERIENCE IN THE HARAYAMA PLANTATIONS OF WAZUKA:
As a result of this true affection for the tea culture in Japan, during my two years-long travel in this amazing country, I’ve decided to undertake a journey of discovery of the places where the Camellia Sinensis “has its roots”. After a first attempt in the region of Mt. Fuji (which unfortunately went wrong, due to logistic and weather adversities), I’ve focussed my interest on the Kyoto prefecture. To be precise, the fields of Wazuka (和束町), which is one of the birthplaces of tea in Japan, with its 800 years of history.
Unknown to the majority of tourists, Wazuka is a little town enclosed between two mountain ranges, not far from Kyoto and Nara but, at the same, not so readily accessible like most other places in Japan. In fact, from the city it’s necessary to take the train, then change the line and, once arrived at the town’s station, hop on a bus which leads to the Harayama fields. Not so difficult, actually, but keep in mind the timetables or you’ll find yourself stuck in the fields’ area when it’s time to come back.
As soon as I’ve arrived in the area of tea plantations, I’ve been impressed by the gorgeous vista: a succession of rows of tea bushes climbing the hillsides, creating a unique landscape. The entire area was crossed by small paths, which connected the various fields, as well as some cabins.
The arrangement of the fields is not accidental but is aimed at the effective and natural cultivation of tea plants. Moreover, the geographical position and the altitude of the Wazuka fields are particularly favorable, since they are protected by the surrounding mountain ranges so that the climate, humidity and temperature range are optimal. As a result, the tea produced in this area is one of the finest in Japan (an example is the delicious and renowned Uji Matcha 抹茶) and it’s no coincidence that much of the region’s supply of “Yabukita” cultivar comes from here.
One more peculiarity of this fascinating place is that it preserves most of the traditional way of producing tea. Despite the use of some machinery for the stages of steaming, drying and roasting of the leaves, the local farmers follow the growth of their fields in person, with the utmost care, during the passing of the seasons. They carefully check the state of health of the plants and, once it’s the right time, they decide when to pick the specific leaves in order to produce a particular kind of tea. For this reason, it’s not rare at all to find a farmer walking between the rows of bushes, intent on checking and evaluating.
Speaking of tradition, an enticing opportunity offered by the Wazuka community is the “reenactment” of tea picking in traditional dresses, namely the “Chatsumi”. During the sunny seasons, there’s the chance to take part in this educational activity, in which typical clothes and tools are illustrated and used, and it is also possible to wear them, in order to experience the practice of being a tea leaf harvester. Maybe this may not meet everyone’s taste, but it is certainly interesting to watch.
Amongst the many beautiful sights of Harayama fields, one in particular fascinated me the most: the so-called “Enkei chabatake”, or “circular tea field”. This plantation grows in a very small space, at the edge of the wood, on a pronounced slope and its unique circular shape is amazing: the perfectly trimmed rows of hedges wane along the curved surface, creating a mesmerizing effect. The diagonal light of the afternoon produced a “chiaroscuro” pattern caused by the shadow of a row projected on the row below and on the space between them; the round shape of the hedges did the rest to give life to a sort of green vortex. Needless to say that the Enkei Chabatake has been one of my favorite photographic subjects, captured after some efforts to get out of hypnosis.
My photographic experience in the Harayama fields of Wazuka has been memorable: I’ve had the lucky chance to visit this place more than once, in spring and winter. This allowed me to shoot a great number and variety of photographs (which I’ve selected, to show in this blog post just the most meaningful), during sunny and snowy days. As a result, I’ve deeply enjoyed the atmosphere and the “spirit” of the place and its people, who live in natural harmony with the tea plants and their life cycle; this gave me a better understanding of the meaning of the tea culture in Japan.
I have to say that I miss so much Wazuka; I have the nostalgia of the last time I had to take the bus at that lovely vintage bus stop, to leave the fields.
All things considered, this is a “to do” experience, which makes a trip in Japan more meaningful, as well as some other already described in the past here, on the blog of phoclab.com. Japan is a country with such an interesting culture and history that I recommend not just visiting the most important cities: these are certainly full of things to see and events to participate in, but there are so many other experiences to do in the rural and natural japan. To understand the current lifestyle it is very useful to discover the traditions of the past, which are often kept in small mountain or coastal villages. In this case, in fact, I had the pleasure of having discovered something more about tea culture, which is still very present and appreciated in Japan, finding it in a wonderful place.
A BRIEF IN-DEPTH ACCOUNT ABOUT THE HISTORY OF TEA CULTURE IN JAPAN:
Considering the tea in Japan a simple beverage is reductive, to say the least. Over the centuries, around tea and its consumption, some of the most sophisticated forms of arts of the Japanese culture have developed; in the first place, specifically canonized disciplines like the Cha-no-yu and the Senchadō have born, where the preparation of tea has been raised to true ceremonial art. At the same time, in its honor, a wide range of practices have evolved and reached pinnacles of aesthetic beauty and philosophical profoundness, which never cease to fascinate many lovers of tea culture all over the world: ceramic art, ikebana, calligraphy, architecture, garden landscaping.
Contrary to what one might think, the history of tea in Japan is relatively recent. The exact moment in which the first plants have been introduced on Japanese soil is still unknown but, based on the historical records, it could have happened to start from IX century a.C. (the Heian Period), when some monks who traveled to China to study Buddhism came back to their homeland with the first seeds of the precious plant. According to the Nihon Kōki (a written account completed in 840 a.C.) the Buddhist monk Eichū, on his return from China, introduced some tea to the emperor Saga and his court: he appreciated it to the point of ordering the cultivation of the plant. In that epoch, the Chinese empire was under the hegemony of the Táng dynasty (618-907), which greatly supported the Chán (Zen) Buddhism and as a consequence the practice of drinking tea, common in the monastic context because considered a meditation aid and a miraculous medicinal remedy. Therefore, logically, the first literary work about tea is historically located right in this period: the “Chájīng” (“The Classic of Tea”), composed by Lù Yǔ in 760 a.C.
At the time of Lù Yǔ, the tea was pressed and wrapped with the shape of little bricks or flat loaves, which could be conveniently stowed away or carried, to be used as a tribute or as a trade good on the ancient caravan routes (chamagudao, 茶馬古道, ancient tea horse road). In the Tang era, tea was boiled in water with salt or, according to the local traditions, with other ingredients; although it was initially brought in Japan in this form, it’s in the later Sòng era (960-1279) that a new preparation method has been developed. Thanks to the patronage of the court, the tea became a sophisticated practice, performed both as a ritual, and as a pleasant entertainment between nobles and intellectuals.
In 1191 another monk came back from China: his name was Eisai, founder of the Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism and of the respective Rinzai School, who promoted the cultivation and consumption of tea in his first essay on the salubrity of this beverage “Kissa Yōjōki”. Moreover, Eisai gave some seeds of the tea plant to the monk Myōe, who planted them inside the Kōzanji temple in Kyōto, thus officially initiating the cultivation of tea in the area of the ancient capital.
At the time of the Chinese Sòng Dynasty, the renovated practice of tea preparation didn’t contemplate the boiling of the leaves anymore, but rather a technique of pulverization of them through a particular kind of grindstone; then, the “powder” was blended in hot water with a bamboo hand mixer inside a large, flared shaped bowl, which featured glazing so to emphasize the liquor’s color and the dense froth formed on the surface. It was this very method that, once introduced in Japan, would have been reworked and readapted to give rise to Cha-no-yu (茶の湯) centuries later.
Although the practice of consuming tea has commonly been adopted by the aristocracy, as a refined pastime as well as an opportunity to flaunt the precious furnishings and utensils of Chinese origin (the so-called karamono, 唐物), it has always been strongly related to the Buddhist discipline of Zen, both in Cina and in Japan. Particularly in Japan, the ritual of preparation and offering of tea has given to this beverage an important spiritual meaning, contributing thus to the birth of a real philosophy: the way of tea (茶道), characterized both by Buddhist elements, in that it was considered a mean to reach theSatori (悟り, enlightenment), and by Shinto ritualism, like in the purification concept. Accordingly, the custom of drinking tea in the sphere of Zen monasteries was regulated by precise practices, although these were still far from the real Japanese tea ceremony as we know it, which has been codified only later.
When the warrior class adopted Zen as its own philosophical and spiritual basis, the habit of consuming tea also spread among them, at first more as a form of entertainment than as a real ritual: for example, in the XIV century, tasting challenges (called tōchakai, 闘茶会) were organized, during which the attendees had to recognize the type of tea and its origin. It was precisely the samurais’ lifestyle, as well as the monastic environment’s influence on the military aristocracy, which favored not only the method of preparing and offering tea but also the birth of a new architectural style (called shoin zukuri, 書院造り), inspired by the monasteries’ principles of simplicity and sobriety. These principles started to show through artistic and aesthetic fields (like pictorial styles, flower arrangement art, etc.), while the new style called “shoin no cha” started to be adopted in specific settings for tea service.
Towards the 15th century, important changes in the style of tea preparation were introduced by Murata Jukō. He had been a disciple of the Zen master, artist and scholar Ikkyū Sōjun who in turn influenced various aspects of the ceremony related to the preparation and service of tea. Thanks to Murata Jukō, the practice of tea acquired very similar features to those of the Rikyu era and all its related ceremonial aspects, in an atmosphere of refined simplicity, intended as a spiritual path: the way of tea (茶道) towards achieving enlightenment.
In this thatched hut there ought not to be a speck of dust of any kind; both master and visitors are expected to be on terms of absolute sincerity; no ordinary measures of proportion or etiquette or conventionalism are to be followed.– Sen no Rikyū
Tea … became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life. The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane.– Okakura Kakuzo
The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! he will say. But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.– Okakura Kakuzo
There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.– Lin Yutang
Many thanks to Sara Cherchi for having edited the historical part of this article.