In an article I recently wrote on tea drinking in the American colonies and the early United States I mentioned that a significant quantity of Japanese green tea was exported here during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Which led me to think that it might be interesting to look at Japanese tea history as it relates to interactions with the Western world.
While this is hardly an exhaustive study of the topic, one early reference that I found to tea and Japan comes from a book by Russian naval officer Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin, that was quite popular in its day. Captivity in Japan During the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 came out in the early part of that century with the title serving a good summary of its contents. Golovnin makes numerous references to tea throughout, at one point remarking that it was served in “the Japanese fashion,” with cups half filled, no saucers and on trays of varnished wood.
A few decades later The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany remarked in an article about the East-India Company that at the time tea was being grown in most provinces of China, as well as Japan and a few other places. The article later notes that some of the tea grown in China at the time was making its way to various places, including Japan. Which is thought by most to be how tea got to Japan in the first place.
In 1873, in Harper’s magazine, an article called “Report on Tea Culture in Japan” took about a half of a page to discuss the topic. As of 1872, as mentioned above, most of the tea exported from Japan wound up in the US – about 15 million pounds for the year ending May 31. That tea was usually “refired” after processing to give it the “toasty flavor” and “greenish color” that were desirable here. The best tea in Japan was said to be grown by priests and, as is the case to this day, the first tea of the spring harvest was the most eagerly awaited.
If that’s not enough tea culture in Japan, consider that an article with a similar title – “Tea Culture in Japan” – appeared in 1907 in The Tropical Agriculturist and Magazine of the Ceylon Agricultural Society. It goes into much more depth – about six pages in all – than the aforementioned. Among the topics covered, a look at some of the teas grown in Japan and the growing regions, as well as detailed descriptions of each stage of processing for each type of tea.
See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.
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