Japanese legend has it that tea was discovered by an Indian Buddhist monk called Dharma. While on a visit to China, he swore that he would not sleep until he had perfected his meditation. He remained awake for several weeks, but finished by falling asleep by the side of the road. So distraught was he upon awakening that he tore off his eyelids and buried them, so he would never be able to sleep again. He continued on his way and when he came back a few weeks later he found that a tree had grown on the place where his eyelids were buried. Chewing on a few leaves from this tree, he discovered that he was better able to remain awake. He brought seeds from this tree home with him and so introduced tea growing into the monasteries.
This legend conjures up the image of elongated eyelids, thus recalling the shape of tea leaves, their delicacy, the way they roll, and the "eyelashes" which adorn the buds. The story also suggests that the tea habit was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks who had travelled to China.
Starting in the 8th century, China's influence spread throughout the Orient. The Japanese copied Chinese customs, techniques, writing, religion, and even their political and administrative institutions. Japanese monks travelling to study with the great masters in China and to visit the holy sites, returned with seeds and plants and soon modest plantations were flourishing near the monasteries.
Tea enjoyed a first wave of popularity, but then was almost forgotten, to be reintroduced in the 13th century. The monks never stopped using tea during their meditations, but it was with the great warlords that it truly took root and became the fashion. In the midst of opulent festivities, noble and samurai would play Tocha, a blind tasting game imported from China, consisting of guessing the provenance of teas and even of the water making up the infusion.
Japan incorporated three waves of cultural influence from China, corresponding to that country's three great periods of prosperity and influence. The Empire of the Rising Sun followed China in its changing tea fashions through these three eras: boiled tea; powdered, whisked tea; and tea made from the infusion of leaves. The second technique remained best known within the framework of ritual (matcha) while the third (ocha) was the one used in daily life. The Japanese had the highest regard for the tea preparation and serving objects they imported from China, considering them to be great treasures.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Histoire du thé, Tea Bureau, s.d.