A Walk Through the 800-year History of Japanese Tea

Kyoto Prefecture

Discover the unique tea fields, wholesaler houses, and festivals that are still present in the Yamashiro Region today

Koicha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
The beginnings of Uji-cha green tea
The Yamashiro Region in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture is to thank for improving the production technology of tea. This technology produced the matcha tea used for tea ceremony, the sencha tea widely enjoyed today, and the high-grade and globally well-known gyokuro tea. This region has continued to make the finest variety of tea for about 800 years and leads the way in Japanese tea-drinking culture. This includes the tea ceremony, which is a characteristic part of Japanese culture, and has a long history of developing tea. This area is the only place where it is possible to see and trace the history and culture of Japanese tea, and it is the true home of Japanese tea.
Monument to Komano Ashikage En, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

This area prospered as a land of nobles’ villas, with favorable conditions. Its environment met the tastes of high-ranking people, with water transport running to the capital and a climate with river mists, soil, and vegetation. It is believed that in the 13th century, the Zen Buddhist Monk Yosai brought over the method of tea cultivation from China, while the Buddhist Monk Myoe taught villagers of Uji to sow tea seeds in the traces of horses’ hoof prints. A monument called “Koma-no-ashikage-en-ato-hi” (monument for horse hoof print tea gardens) was erected at the beginning of this fully-fledged production of Uji-cha green tea.

Koicha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
The birth of Matcha
In the 15th century, Uji-cha green tea was regarded as the most popular tea of the Ashikaga Shogunate and became the best tea in Japan. "Okunoyama Chaen” (tea field), one of the seven special tea fields called "Shichimei-en" established by families of Shoguns, has been producing tea since the Muromachi period. Uji-cha was used to produce the first batch of matcha, Japan's famous powdered green tea. 
Okunoyama Chaen, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
Matcha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
Matcha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In the 16th century, the shade-grown cultivation method was introduced in response to requests of people including Sen-no-Rikyu.

Tea fields are covered with meshed reed screens to harvest tencha tea leaves with a less astringent flavor, and matcha with a vivid dark green color and strong umami flavor also began being produced.

In Uji City, the honzu cultivation method using naturally grown reeds and straw is still in operation today.

The tea production conducted during the 16th century is described in more detail by a priest of the Society of Jesus, Joan Rodriguez, in “History of the Japanese Church” (late 16th century).

Tsuen Chaya, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

Under the protection of the powerful feudal lords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Shogun, Uji-cha green tea established a special status and brand. In the Edo period, a town of tea wholesalers was created in the Nakauji area, including a powerful Uji-cha tea blender family called Kanbayashi Shunshoke. At the foot of Ujibashi Bridge is Tsuen Chaya teahouse, which is regarded as the oldest in Japan.

Sencha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
A new landscpae of Sencha and Gyokuro teas
In the middle of the 17th century, the Zen Monk Ingen who founded Obakusan Manpuku-ji Temple introduced the encha method of tea preparation, where one serves and enjoys tea by pouring hot water on dried tea leaves.
Sencha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In the 18th century in Yuyadani, Ujitawara Town, Nagatani Soen created the aosei-sencha-seiho method of steaming and drying by hand-rolling new tea leaves on the hoiro drying table to produce sencha green tea with an excellent color, aroma, and flavor.

Sencha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

Sencha currently makes up as much as 80% of Japanese tea consumed in Japan.

Birthplace of Nagatani Soen, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

This hoiro has been preserved in the birthplace of Nagatani Soen, nearby which Chasomin-jinjya Shrine is located.

Harayama tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In order to meet the demand for sencha, land was reclaimed on the rolling hills in areas such as Yubune and Harayama in Wazuka Town, which expanded the tea fields onto the mountainsides around the tea farmers’ homes and further up the slopes approaching the summits, creating a distinctive landscape.

Gyokuro, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

The culture that seeks innovation in this area combines the shade-grown cultivation with the Uji-cha tea process, and has created the world's finest green tea, gyokuro, with its sweetness and rich flavor.

Nagare Bridge and Hamacha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

Sandy soil is suitable for cultivating the gyokuro tea leaves, and good tea fields have developed in Kozuya on the riverbeds of the Kizu River in Yawata City as well as in Joyo City, and hamacha tea in Hamadai, Kumiyama Town.

Inooka tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In the hilly Ino-oka area in Kyotanabe City, you can see a unique landscape of paddy fields (covered with straw), shade-covered tea fields, bamboo groves (covering materials) in the foothills, and the village and gyokuro tea fields located further up.

Ishitera tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
The modernization of Uji-cha green tea
Export demands for sencha and raw silk soared in the Meiji period. In Dosenbo, Minamiyamashiro Village you can see the unique landscape where the tea fields on the slopes and the paddy fields on the plains were paired through land reclamation.
Dosenbo tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
Kamikoma tea wholesale district, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In addition, tea leaves were collected from various places in Kamikoma, Kizugawa City, which was key to water transportation via the Kizugawa River, and a town of tea wholesalers was formed and flourished.

Kamatsuka tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In order to produce large quantities of tea leaves, tea fields have been cultivated up to the mountain summits since the 20th century, and a unique and beautiful landscape of ridged tea fields stretching almost up to the heavens has spread in areas such as Ishidera, Erihara, and Kamazuka in Wazuka Town.

Takao tea field, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In addition, in Tayama and Takao, Minamiyamashiro Village, tea fields expand with an unusual vertically-ridged pattern that falls from the top of the mountain to the middle of the hill, forming a unique scenery dotted with tea farms.

Tea Ceremony, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture
The preservation of tea culture
In the Yamashiro area, blessed with the history, culture, and landscape of tea, efforts have been made to recognize and pass on its value. The traditional technology of hand-rolling Uji-cha tea has been preserved as an intangible folk cultural property designated by Kyoto Prefecture.
Hand-Kneading Techniques for Producing Uji-cha, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

The tradition says that you will live a long life if you drink Uji-cha tea. In order to protect this tradition, new tea leaves of Uji-cha tea are picked on the eighty-eighth day of spring and matured in a tea urn.

The event of “tea picking on the eighty-eighth night" still happens today, as well as a Uji-cha Festival, which is held every October.

New Uji Tea Harvest has been held on May 2th (1st during leap years) every year., From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

During the Uji-cha festival, a tea ceremony called “Chatsubo-kuchikiri-no-gi” is dedicated to the founders of the Japanese tea ceremony. A memorial service called “Chasenzuka-kuyo”, also uses worn out bamboo tea whisks.

It is said that Hideyoshi Toyotomi had water drawn for a tea ceremony from the San-no-ma terrace of the Ujibashi Bridge. The act of drawing water by the priest of Uji-jinjya Shrine from the same place to serve tea is still done during the festival. The water is transported to Kosho-ji Temple by a procession of people dressed in traditional attire of the Edo period.

Tea‐picking, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

In various parts of the Yamashiro area, the traditional tea ceremony Chakabuki (identifying tea brands by tasting them), which started in the Kamakura period, and various other tea-picking experience events, are still enjoyed by people there today.

Parfait, From the collection of: Kyoto Prefecture

The tastes of traditional green tea dumplings and new western-style tea sweets also continue to be enjoyed by people today.

Credits: Story

Provided by Kyoto Prefecture
In cooperation with Uji-cha Dojo Takumi-no-yakata, Uji City Municipal Tea House Taihoan, and Tsuji Rihei Honten

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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