The Edo period: changes and the invention of sencha

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan was finally unified and pacified, after the long struggles in the Medieval Period. During this period of domination by the Tokugawa, the warrior class, whose seizure of power from the Emperor marked the beginning of the Kamakura Period, became a sort of new nobility in the pacified society. Naturally, the tea ceremony remained their prerogative in a fixed form. However, society was going through deep changes, and urban merchants and intellectuals were becoming richer and gaining more importance, in particular in Edo, the new capital city and future Tokyo.
In these conditions, scholars began turning towards a new tea in the seventeenth century, thus marking a rejection of the set, rigid nature of the tea ceremony. Once again, it concerned tea from China, which was known as tô-cha 唐茶 at the time, and corresponded to what we now call kama-iri-cha 釜炒り茶. This is the green tea that appeared in China during the Ming Period. Oxidation of the leaves is stopped by heating them in a large wok. The leaves are then stirred, rolled, dried, and then finally infused. For preparing this tea, the monk Ingen 隠元 (1592-1673) brought back from China tools that were probably close to those used for gong fu cha 工夫茶 (a Chinese method for preparing tea that spread from Fujian Province). We know that Kôyûgai 高遊外 (1675-1763), also known by the name of Baisaô 売茶翁 (the old man who sells tea), criss-crossed Japan getting those who crossed his path to try tea. Thanks to his poems, we are able to surmise that he used a cha hu 茶壷-type teapot identical to those used in China at that time.
Scholars were also attracted by the fact that the tea produced was translucent, instead of opaque like matcha.

A tea with beautiful translucent liquor thus seems to have been sought after at the time. In 1738, by combining aspects of methods for making matcha and kama-iri-cha, a producer in Uji, Kyôto, Nagatani Sôen 永谷宗円, created the process for making what we now call sencha 煎茶! Freshly picked leaves are heated with vapor in order to stop oxidation, and then dried while being stirred and rolled over heat for a long time. The tea is then brewed in a teapot. Nagatani presented his tea to the famous Nihonbashi Yamamoto-ya 山本屋 shop (today’s Yamamoto-yama 山本山) in Edo. The tea was received enthusiastically. Little by little, production of this sencha spread throughout all of Japan, although kama-iri-cha continued to dominate. Actually, Nagatani did not invented sencha, as at the same time, others people were trying to make steamed leaves green tea, but elaborated the making process that will be the model and will be develop.
Later, in 1835, gyokuro 玉露 appeared. Its production method is not much different from that of sencha, except that, as with matcha, the tea plants are covered for several days before harvesting. This invention is attributed to Yamamoto Kahee 山本嘉兵衛 the sixth, but there are other versions of the story. Made using Kyôto tea, it was clearly a luxurious product.
We should also note that covering tea plants was authorized only in Uji, Kyôto at the time.

Finally, during the Edo Period, all of these new teas, sencha, gyokuro, tô-cha, remained, like matcha, reserved for a minority of wealthy city-dwellers. A list of prices at Yamamoto-yama from the end of the Edo Period shows matchas at incredible prices, which only the richest could have afforded, and even senchas remained very expensive. We can imagine that these products were meant for the luxurious restaurants that were opening in the middle of the Edo Period, at the precise time sencha appeared.
The rest of the population, especially in the countryside, continued to drink banchas 番茶, which are very simple, highly diverse teas. What seems to have been the most widespread bancha in Japan was the “kama-iri” type, which was made by cutting almost the entire tea plant to take all the leaves. Oxidation was stopped by direct heating in a large iron frying pan or pot, and then the leaves were stirred very roughly on a mat. When they became sticky, juicy, they were heated again and then stirred again, reheated, and so on until they were completely dry. The tea obtained in this way was prepared by being boiled in a large kettle. It was made in the morning, and then the kettle was left over the fire all day. When no tea was left, boiling water was added to the same leaves. (Since the tea was coarsely stirred, the leaves were not very damaged, and so they infused little and slowly.)
Generally, this tea was made for home use. Nonetheless, producing this tea was encouraged as a source of additional income, which leads us to think that it was also sold in cities as a tea for the common people.

Moreover, since these types of tea were brown, and produced liquor that was brown also, there is no doubt that Nagatani Sôen’s sencha was inspired by his desire to create a Japanese tea that was green like the matcha from Kyoto. On top of it all, sencha could be produced anywhere in Japan.

Towards the end of the Edo Period, the arrival of Perry in 1853 and the opening of Japan the following year was a decisive turning point in the history of Japan, but also in that of Japanese tea.

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Categories: History

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3 replies

  1. Thank you for this lovely overview of Sencha and your earlier Matcha – Tencha 碾茶 post. Has Tencha 碾茶 always been steamed to stop the oxidation process? One would assume that if Matcha – Tencha has some connection to teas during Song and Ming China, then they would have used a hot wok to stop the oxidation for Tencha in Japan too early in its history. Are there any historical references from those days to steaming or roasting?

    • Thank you for your comment. Tencha-matcha seems to have been exclusively steamed. When Eisai came back from China to Japan in 1191, he bring back tea seeds and processing method. This method was tencha processing method which used steam to make the shaqing. While this steamed green tea develop in Japan, it disappeared from China, replaced by pan firing method and whole leaf type green tea.

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