The general consensus these days is that tea drinking and production got its start in China, a nation that still grows more tea than any other. There’s a quaint and persistent notion that tea was accidentally discovered there in exactly 2784 BC by a Chinese emperor, but the truth of the matter is probably a little more complicated than that.
For quite some time all the tea in China was pretty much all the tea there was and, according to many accounts, the Chinese were keen to keep it that way. But their best efforts weren’t good enough to keep tea from migrating to nearby countries, and one of the earliest of these was Japan, a nation that doesn’t grow great amounts of tea but which is renowned even so for its fine green varieties.
According to my favorite commentators on tea history, Victor Mair and Erling Hoh, writing in their The True History of Tea, tea seems to have first come to Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty, probably sometime in the eighth century. They claim that the parties responsible for this were a pair of famous Japanese Buddhist monks named Saicho and Kukai. The former traveled to China in the early part of that century and studied under a well-known tea master, returning a year later with a great deal of knowledge about tea and more importantly, some tea seeds. His fellow monk traveled to a different temple in China and acquired his tea knowledge there, returning a year later.
However, tea did not really catch on in Japan just yet, according to Mair and Hoh, and over the course of the next three centuries it was almost forgotten there. They credit yet another Buddhist monk, Myoan Eisai, with doing a great deal to spread the good word about tea. Eisai also studied in China and when he came back to Japan played an important role is evangelizing about tea and distributing tea seeds, which were planted in some areas where tea is grown to this day, including the well-known tea producing region of Uji.
In 1214, Eisai penned Kissa Yojoki, one of the important texts about tea. It was nearly seven centuries later, with too much tea history in between to even begin to relate here, when another Japanese author – Kakuzo Okakura – penned The Book of Tea, another one of the key works about tea and tea culture.
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