Uji, a city located in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, is renowned for its high-quality tea. The city has a long and fascinating history of tea cultivation and tea culture, dating back to the Kamakura Period in the 13th century. In this article, we will explore the rich history of Uji tea, from its origins to its rise as a major export industry in Japan.
Origins of Uji Tea
Uji is blessed with ideal conditions for tea cultivation, including good soil quality and topography. As a result, tea cultivation in Uji rapidly expanded during the Kamakura Period. The custom of tea drinking began to spread during the mid-1400s. Uji tea was considered a first-class gift, and the tea-guessing game “Tocha” was created. Eventually, tea drinking and cuisine were combined, and “Cha no Yu,” a tea ceremony that prizes tea ceremony tools and sitting room ornamentation, was developed and spread through Japan by merchants and others.
Development of Uji Tea Cultivation Techniques
In the latter half of the 16th century, a new method of tea cultivation called “Ōishita Saibai” was developed in Uji. This method produced tea with vivid, dark green leaves and a strong flavor. It earned the value of best in Japan, and it is said that this tea was used to produce the first batch of matcha, Japan’s famous powdered green tea. This matcha was essential to Sen no Rikyū’s successful “Cha no Yu”, and the tea room, a place where guests were entertained with tea and food, was built. The Taian tea room in Myokian Temple (Ōyamazaki Town, Kyoto), attributed to Sen no Rikyū, and tea rooms and plantains of his Three Senke Tea Schools (The Omote-Senke School, The Ura-Senke School, and The Mushakoji-Senke School) are still considered very culturally significant properties.
In the 17th century, 3rd Shogunate Tokugawa Iemitsu commanded the Kanbayashi family of Uji to create high quality tea for both presentation to the court and for the Shogun’s personal use. He then institutionalized the “Chatsubo-Dochu” (lit. “Tea Pot Journey”) to deliver new tea to Edo (present-day Tokyo). This road was in commission for 250 years. As the principal leaders of the Chatsubo-Dochu, the tea masters of Uji continued supporting the culture of Japanese tea for a long time. The homes and workshops of these tea masters are still lined up on Uji Bashidori in Uji City, evoking a feeling of times past.
Modernization and Expansion
In the mid-18th century, Nagatani Sōen of Uji’s Tawara-Yuyatani area created The Uji Method (Uji Sehou, also known as Aoseisenchahou). This groundbreaking method of tea preparation involved crumple-drying boiled tea buds over a dedicated tea-drying furnace. Tea produced with this method became quite popular in Edo and all other areas of Japan, and the Uji Method’s use spread throughout other tea-producing areas. Even today, the Uji Method is the main method used in Japan.
From the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the beginning of the Meiji Period, Uji tea became a major part of Japan’s export industry, and work began on a supply of high quality tea specifically for trade. Land in the Yamashiro area of Kyoto, including Wazuka Town and Minami Yamashiro Village, was cleared for tea cultivation. One can see many outstanding tea plantations in this area, now called “Yamanari Kaikon.”
During the second half of the Meiji Period, a national market for Uji tea was created, and through mail-order purchasing, tea became an integral part of the lives of ordinary households. Uji tea’s peerless processing and blending techniques were used to develop multiple high-quality teas, and it gained a reputation for being the best.
Uji’s tea industry faced a significant challenge during World War II, but it was revived after the war, and the tea industry began to modernize. Nowadays, Uji tea is known worldwide for its exquisite taste and aroma, and it has become an essential part of the cultural heritage of Japan.