Powdery Green Link to the Past

The home of matcha
The heart of tea
matcha today and tomorrow

Powdered green tea, or matcha, was first introduced to Japan from China in the late twelfth century. Over the eight centuries since then, the way it is prepared and enjoyed has taken on a uniquely Japanese quality, and the tea ceremony has become an integral part of the culture of Japan. To Japanese ears, the very word matcha carries noble, elegant tones. Many of those who know their tea insist upon the leaves grown in the city of Nishio in Aichi Prefecture. The tea fields of this region have been central to this aspect of Japan's traditional culture from the distant past to this day, and so they will remain in the years to come.

The home of matcha

Macha used to be made by grinding tea leaves in a stone mortar. (Photos by Noritoshi Iwanaga)

Nishio is located in the middle of Aichi Prefecture, about 35 kilometers outside of Nagoya. A local lord was granted a prestigious ranking of 60,000 koku (a koku being a unit of rice allotted as an annual stipend) in 1964, and since then Nishio has flourished as one of the "three big cities of Mikawa (eastern Aichi)" along with Okazaki and Yoshida. A commanding view of the tea fields of Nishio can be had from a hill in Inariyama Chaen Park. While only 480 households in the city are currently engaged in tea cultivation (0.2% of the national total), Nishio produces 60% to 70% of the nation's matcha.

Matcha is made by steaming and drying the tea leaves that have been picked and then grinding them into a fine powder in a stone mortar. Unlike other types of tea, it is not brewed by steeping leaves and twigs in hot water.

Tea can be broadly divided into three classes. There are fermented teas, represented by the black varieties primarily drunk in the West; semifermented teas, including oolong; and unfermented green teas. Matcha is the pinnacle of this last variety.

It was in 1271 that tea cultivation is said to have begun in Nishio at the hands of the priest Shoichi, founder of the temple Jissoji. This temple was long in competition with the neighboring temple of Shonenji over the ownership of the tea plants growing at the border of their precincts. This struggle for the tea fields culminated in 1692 with a judgement that awarded their ownership to Jissoji. This is quite a fuss to be made over a few shrubs, but this shows the high esteem in which tea was held in that era.

It was not until after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and Japan's entry into the modern era, that matcha production began in earnest in Nishio. In 1872 Jundo Adachi, the chief priest of Kojuin, a Buddhist monastery near Jissoji, introduced new varieties and production techniques from Uji, near Kyoto. Uji was known as a major production center of sencha (dried green tea) and in particular of gyokuro, the acme of that type; and Suruga and Totoumi, both in present-day Shizuoka, had grown into tea export hubs using the port of Shimizu. Recognizing that they could not catch up with these traditional tea-producing regions, Nishio tea growers chose to specialize in matcha, which promised higher profits and retail value than sencha. This decision has led to the region's preeminent position today.

The ridges separating tea fields from one another are lined with fans to keep mists from settling on the leaves. And there are black tarps draped over long poles to keep direct sunlight off of the new shoots, thereby bringing out the sweetness of the tea.

A local tea farmer describes her family's toil. "We can't leave our fields alone for a single day of the year. I go down to the fields every day and speak to the tea plants. They don't talk back to me, of course, but looking at them every day I can tell when they aren't doing so well."

Why do the people of Nishio nurture their plants with such care? Why are tea bushes treated as the prized possessions of their growers? And what is the allure of matcha that holds us in such unending fascination?

The heart of tea

Tea as a drink was first brought to Japan from China in the early ninth century. Matcha, however, along with the techniques for its making and the culture accompanying its drinking, was not introduced until 1191, when the monk Eisai brought it back, along with Rinzai Zen Buddhist teachings, from a journey to Sung Dynasty China.

Cha-no-yu, or the tea ceremony, is not simply a matter of drinking tea but pertains to its preparation and serving in accordance with certain precepts. The basic form of cha-no-yu took shape in the mid-fourteenth century. Today the term refers mainly to a specific way of preparing and drinking matcha. In China, where the practice originated, it slipped into oblivion during the Ming Dynasty, and cha-no-yu now stands as an exclusively Japanese cultural tradition. The tea ceremony was perfected in the sixteenth century by Sen no Rikyu, a merchant and later a tea master from the port city of Sakai, south of Osaka. At the very heart of the tea ceremony as envisioned by Rikyu lies the phrase ichigo ichie, which signifies that each meeting with a guest is a once-in-a-lifetime event and is therefore to be approached with the utmost sincerity.

The three great leaders of late-sixteenth-century Japan who unified the warring fiefs--Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu--were all practitioners of the "way of tea," as the ceremony was also known. Priceless tea vessels were collected by these rulers and put on display as symbols of their authority. Cha-no-yu was inextricably linked with political power at this time.

In the Edo period, which began with Ieyasu's rule, the habit of drinking matcha spread rapidly among commoners. Cities that grew up around castles produced many warrior-aristocrats and wealthy townspeople who took the culture of tea to heart along with the other artistic accomplishments of the era. As a broader spectrum of people came to indulge their interest in tea, the demand for tea vessels skyrocketed. Bowls used for drinking tea were especially prized as symbols of power, and much energy was focused on their making. Seto, a town near Nagoya that was one of the nation's few pottery-producing regions, grew into a tea-ware center. Seto ware made great strides in defining the Japanese aesthetic, and the pottery making flourished along with the culture of cha-no-yu.

In those days, the first tea harvested each year in Uji was presented to the house of the shogun in what was known as the "tea-container procession." The shogun would first send tea containers to Uji to be filled. The full containers would then be transported back to the shogunal capital at Edo (today's Tokyo). The procession bearing the tea was accorded the absolute power of the shogun, and the most powerful regional lords had to make way for its passage. Nothing describes the importance of the tea ceremony so well as the image of a powerful daimyo and his procession huddled at the side of the road waiting for the shogun's tea to pass them by.

matcha today and tomorrow

Most of the matcha produced in Japan today is destined for use as an ingredient in processed foods, such as confections, tea-flavored soba noodles, or furikake seasonings for rice. The greatest demand for powdered tea now comes from ice-cream makers, whose green-tea-flavored concoction sells well all year round. Exports of matcha to Canada and the United States are also on the rise. At the factory of Aiya, Nishio's largest matcha producer, rows of rotating automated granite mortars grind the tea leaves into powder. Each mortar can only produce 30 to 40 grams of the very fine (2-10 micron) powder each hour.

This valuable tea is high in nutrients, including potassium, iron, and manganese, as well as dietary fiber and is low in calories. It also serves to reduce stress in the drinker, control melanin levels, and break up unwanted cholesterol in the body. As such, it is an ingredient suited for medicinal products and health foods. Recently attention has focused on catechin, an ingredient in tea thought to be beneficial in preventing cancer. Catechin is the component of the tea that gives it its astringent taste; it is said to stimulate cancer-fighting genetic material in the human body. Perhaps this is a factor contributing to the longer-than-average life expectancy of the people of Aichi.

Naoki Matsui, in charge of cultural properties at the Nishio Board of Education's Cultural Promotion Department, describes Aichi's Owari district as being home to a large number of households that enjoy matcha as part of their daily diet. This is quite rare, being observed in only two other communities: Matsue in Shimane Prefecture and Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. Matsui also touches on the high number of instructors in Aichi for both the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, noting that many young women still learn one of these arts in preparation for marriage. The art is studied not as a casual pastime but to master traditional etiquette--affording a glimpse of Aichi's proud status as the former domain of a shogunal clan.

Matsui does not intend for matcha to maintain its status quo. "For the time being, matcha is used mainly in processed foods. But we see bringing its beneficial qualities into the foreground as the quickest way to increase its popularity among the public." He envisions a day when people will sip casually at a cup of matcha while reading, as they do today with coffee.

Aichi Prefecture is truly blessed in all aspects of the culture of tea, from matcha and tea ware to the traditions and aesthetics associated with it. Molded by a long and illustrious tradition, matcha remains a source of fascination in how it will be appreciated in the future.