THE History of Japanese Green Tea

Ujitawara Town is called the birthplace of Japanese green tea because Nagatani Soen, a farmer based in Ujitwara Town, spread “Aosei Sencha Seihou” across Japan during the Edo period.


Here is how the tea culture was brought from China to Japan and settled and then further developed in Japan.

Soen’s “Aosei Sencha Seihou” was an epoch-making invention, in which new shoots of tea plants are steamed and then manually rolled on hoiro, a table for rolling and drying tea leaves, without fermentation. It has made Japanese green tea distinct from black tea (fermented tea) and oolong tea (semi-fermented tea), which are both made with the same tea leaves. This method then evolved into the processing techniques for Sencha and Gyokuro.


Ujitawara is a heart-shaped town located in the southeastern part of Kyoto Prefecture. It has been a key traffic hub that connects the Yamashiro region with Nara and Omi since ancient times. It is dotted with historical spots that tell us about the region’s remote past. Nurtured by the rich nature, history and tea culture, Ujitawara gives you a relaxing time with a soothing atmosphere, like a cup of tea that entertains the guests.


The house where Nagatani Soen, the inventor of Aosei Sencha Seihou, was born is still preserved in Ujitawara Town. 

How the tea culture was brought to and spread in Japan


The tea tree is an evergreen plant named Camellia sinensis which belongs to the genus Camellia like Japanese camellia and sasanqua. It is considered that the origin of the tea plant is the southern part of China. It has been used in the “laurel forest zone” of Asia, which includes Japan. The tea plant was recognized as useful for its caffeine content. Today, tea has become the most important beverage in the world along with coffee and cacao. It seems that the tea plant was originally fermented and eaten as food (post-fermented tea such as Goishicha appears to be its remnant), and eventually came to be used as a beverage. The tea plant was introduced to Han Chinese by ethnic minorities in the southern part of China, and then spread widely throughout the country.


The history of tea in Japan began when the Imperial embassies to Tang dynasty and Buddhist monks studying abroad brought back tea plants during the Nara and Heian periods. That was when Japan actively learned and adopted advanced social institutions and culture from China.


It is said that Saint Myoe, the founder of Kozanji Temple in Toganoo, created a tea garden to plant tea trees donated by his friend Eizai, a renowned Zen priest. Myoe then further planted tea trees in various places, including Uji.


Initially, the Japanese used to drink green tea mainly in places such as Buddhist temples for health and medicinal benefits. Then, they stated to consume it as a luxury beverage and cultivate tea plants in various regions. While tea culture developed and refined itself, green tea started to permeate everyday life of common people. For example, some were intent on "Tocha" (a contest for prizes to identify the types of green tea). Tea cultivation rapidly expanded in Uji, because it was blessed with soil and natural conditions such as terrain.


According to a tradition, Saint Koken of Okuyamada-chayamura Village was given tea fruits from Toganoo by Ko-on, a disciple of Myoe. Koken cultivated a field to plant the tea fruits in Obukudani near Ujitawara Town. Then, Ken-ei of Yuhara Temple relocated the tea plants to Tawawa-go (today’s Ujitawara Town). As the soil and climate in Obukudani was perfectly fit for tea cultivation, the area produced good tea with an excellent flavor. Hosakicha harvested in Obukudani was dedicated to the Imperial Court and Kamakura shogunate, receiving high praise as having the richest aroma.


Changes in tea processing method


Freshly picked leaves begin to discolor and degenerate soon if they are left behind. This is caused by oxidizing enzymes present in tea leaves. Fermented tea (black tea), semi-fermented tea (oolong tea) and non-fermented tea (green tea) are classified according to whether or not picked leaves are heated and to what extent the enzymes’ activity is suppressed. Green tea is produced by heating tea leaves and inactivating the oxidizing enzymes. There is a variety of heating methods, such as steaming, parboiling, and roasting in a pot. It seems that in ancient China, Heicha, a type of compressed tea, was commonly consumed. It is made by drying steamed tea leaves on old-fashioned hoiro and then compressing into block form. The ancient Chinese scraped off a portion of tea block as necessary, made a decoction and drank.


In Japan, tea leaves were also heated by steaming or boiling and then finished by drying on hoiro. Senjicha (decoction tea) and Hikicha (tea leaves grounded into fine powder in a mortar - the original form of Matcha) were made by this process. The Sengoku period (1467-1603) saw the introduction of oishita chaen (tea garden shaded from sunlight) in Uji. Matcha made with the tea leaves produced in oishita chaen became popular as a representation of high quality luxury drink. On the other hand, different types of green tea were made and drank among the general public. They included Senjicha and Hikicha, both of which were made with the tea leaves produced in open-air tea garden (roji-chaen), and coarse tea, which was made with old tea leaves.


Initially, green tea was made by heating tea leaves and then drying on hoiro or in the sunlight. After that, it is recorded that the kneading process was added before drying by the 17th Century ,and the quality of green tea seems to have improved accordingly.

Nagatani Soen

Born on March 27, 1681- died on June 11, 1778

Farmer in Yuyadani Village, Ujitawara Town, Yamashiro Country


(present · Yuyadani, Ujitawara Town, Tsuzuki District, Kyoto Prefecture).


The popularization of Nagatani (Uji) Sencha processing method


Nagatani Soshichiro (Soen) was an innovative farmer based in Yuyadani, Ujitawara Town. He studied and improved the processing method of green tea, thereby making Sencha by far better in aroma and taste than the conventional one.


Manpukuji Temple, the head temple of the Obaku Zen school founded by Ingen, brought tea drinking style from Ming dynasty to Japan along with other continental culture. Writers and artists of the time were inspired by the new style, and Sencha became popular among them. This led to a higher demand for Sencha among other green teas as a luxury beverage.


Meanwhile, Soen headed on a business trip to Edo carrying his Sencha. Soen contracted with Yamamoto Kahei, a tea merchant in Nihonbashi. The Sencha sold through Kahei caused a sensation for its high standard of quality, making “Yamamotoyama”, the trade name of his family-owned company, widely known to the general public.


Then, Soen’s "Uji Sencha processing method" spread throughout the nation, leading to today’s processing techniques for Japanese green teas (such as Sencha and Gyokuro). It was 1738, when Soen was 58 years old.


Gyokuro was invented in Uji during the second half of the Edo period. It is made from tea leaves cultivated in oishita chaen and manufactured by Uji processing method. Tea parties with Sencha and Gyokuro started to be held by cultured people in and around Kyoto. Also, the tea ceremonies specifically with Sencha started to be organized.


Instead of "Senjicha" which is brewed by boiling down tea leaves before drinking, “Sencha” or “Dashicha” which is easily brewed by pouring hot water over tea leaves in a teapot became common. 


During the Meiji period, hoiro with the same structure as those used today came to be used. As manual tea rolling techniques developed, a variety of schools for tea processing appeared. Following the opening of the nation to the world, Japan’s foreign trade with Western countries started to flourish and tea became Japan's second leading export item, surpassed only by raw silk.

The Present and Towards the Future

Today, people who succeed Nagatani Soen’s will continue manufacturing high-grade green tea.

Please take your time to experience the aroma and taste of the green tea.


Sen no Rikyu’s tea ceremony room was firstly built in Ujitawara


A tea ceremony room called Dokurakuan has been restored in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture. The restoration work was conducted under the guidance of Mr. Masao Nakamura, an honorary professor at Kyoto Institute of Technology. It is said that the tea room was once built in Ujitawara.


Sen no Rikyu was bestowed Nagara-no-hashigui (bridge piers of Nagara Bridge) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Tensho Period (1573-1593). Using the bridge piers, Rikyu built a tea ceremony room with an ornamental alcove of two tatami mat size in Ujitawara Town. After Rikyu’s death, the tea ceremony room was relocated into the residence of Nakamura Kuranosuke, a friend of Ogata Korin, in Kyoto. After that, it was transferred to a wealthy merchant Awaya in Osaka, and then obtained by Matsudaira Fumai, the lord of the Matsue Domain and a tea ceremony expert. Fumai established a tea garden park of around 66,000 square meters, in which eleven tea ceremony rooms were scattered, at his villa in Osaki, Edo. Dokurakuan was built in the center of the tea garden park. In the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Dokurakuan was relocated to Matsudaira family’s villa in Fukagawa as artillery batteries were installed in Osaki to defend the nation. However, the relocated tea room was suffered from the tsunami caused by the Izu Earthquake. During the Taisho period, Muto Sanji, a businessman who inherited articles related to Matsudaira family restored Dokurakuan in Kita-Kamakura using old building materials from Kofukuji Temple. Today, the tea ceremony room has been reconstructed inside of a traditional Japanese restaurant in Hachioji, Tokyo.


In 1991, Dokurakuan was restored at the Izumo Cultural Tradition Hall in Shimane Prefecture, a region associated with Fumai. The tea room has been faithfully reproduced along with other tea rooms, including a tea ceremony room of Funakoshi Iyo who offered tea to Tokugawa Ietsuna, the fourth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, and two tea ceremony rooms of Taiso, the sixth generation grand master of the Urasenke chado tradition.


While doing the restoration work, Professor Nakamura pointed out that Dokurakuan was unique in its composition for having triplex roji (the garden through which one passes to the tea room). As one enters the main gate and passes through soto-roji (the outer garden) and naka-roji (the middle garden), one’s view is blocked by a high fence. When one arrives in uchi-roji (the inner garden), however, natural scenery finally spreads out before one’s eyes without any obstruction. Such composition of roji can be seen as an arrangement to connect one with "the path outside of the secular world" and invite one to the world of the tea ceremony.


The tea ceremony established by Sen no Rikyu regarded Uji tea (Matcha) as the top priority, requiring continuous improvement of its quality. A tea house can be said as the stage for the tea ceremony, and an architecture for entertaining guests with green tea and meal. There are many invaluable cultural properties still preserved today, such as Myokian Tai-an (Oyamazaki Town, Kyoto) which is attributed to Sen no Rikyu, and other tea garden parks and tea ceremony rooms owned by the Japanese tea ceremony schools (Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakoji Senke).