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History of Tea in Japan

Tea was first introduced to Japan during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. by Buddhist monks who returned from study in China. Tea was widely used within Buddhist monasteries as an aid to meditation and as a medicinal herb. During Emperor Saga's reign (810-23 A.D.), the popular form of tea was dancha, a pressed cake, which was the tea of the T'ang Dynasty in China.

The Japanese Buddhist priest Minan Eisai first brought matcha, powdered green tea, to Japan upon his return from China in 1191. His enthusiastic promotion of the ritualistic preparation of tea could be considered the genesis of Cha-no-yu -- popularly called the Japanese tea ceremony. Eisai authored an influential two volume treatise on tea which led to the idea of tea's potential as an independent medium of spiritual enlightenment. It was, however, another two centuries before an official Japanese tea ceremony would be formalized.

As Cha-no-yu evolved as an independent art form, tea achieved the stature of a "Way" - "do" in Japanese -- which can be understood as an art form with an accompanying code of ideals which are intended to guide one's daily life. Therefore, "Cha-do," or the "Way of Tea," is a philosophy of life in which Cha-no-yu is the associated art form. This concept is closely associated with Zen Buddhism and its correlated mysticism.

The belief of Cha-no-yu is that an interchange between host and guest, in the proper ambiance, can be a transcendental experience and will instill a spirit of tranquility and harmony among the participants regardless of their social, political, or religious affiliation.

Tea masters who dedicated their lives to the study of Cha-no-yu were devoted to upholding even the minutest details of the ceremony. The furnishings in the tea room, the objects on display, and the very conversations between host and guest were appropriately structured. The shape and size of the tea room, the placement of stones in the pathway, and the type of lanterns lighting the way were studied at length to ensure the proper environment. An indication of the mastery of Cha-no-yu became the degree to which participants could perform in the precisely defined manner with apparent grace and natural ease.

Within the history of Cha-no-yu, the most famous individual is undoubtedly Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) who is considered by many to be the true "father of tea." Countless anecdotes about Rikyu and his incomparable skills as a tea master dot the history of Cha-no-yu and the traditions of tea in Japan, and many of these tales focus on the master's ability to see the pure essence of beauty in simple things and to express this ideal of Zen Buddhism in his tea ceremonies.

Today, there are practitioners of Cha-no-yu in nearly every country. While some of these practitioners profess an affiliation with one of the traditional "Schools of Tea" in Japan, others simply enjoy it as an exotic diversion -- a curious foray into Eastern culture.

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