When Japanese novelist Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin) introduced Japanese tea culture to the West with his 1906 book, The Book of Tea, he described the rise of Teaism, or the tea ceremony in 15th century Japan, as a religion that was the result of the Zen concept “of greatness in the smallest incident of life.”

Among Buddhists, the southern Zen sect formulated an elaborate ritual of tea where monks gathered before the image of Bodhidharma (the Buddhist monk who is credited with establishing the Zen branch of Mahayana Buddhism in China) and drank tea out of a single bowl, a ritual that developed into the tea ceremony. It later incorporated art, flower arranging, sweets and the subtleties of nature’s cycles, interweaving what Tenshin called “purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order”—all elements in Japanese philosophy.

Green Tea’s Health Benefits

Before green tea was used in ceremony, it was coveted for its health benefits, only accessible to the wealthy classes, who believed green tea was the cure for almost any ailment. It’s now proven scientifically that green tea’s biggest boon is its catechins, antioxidant compounds that fight and may prevent cell damage. In numerous scientific studies, green tea has been shown to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, increase total bone mineral density, improve brain function and help prevent a number of heart-related issues. There is also research showing tea might help reduce incidences of ovarian and breast cancers.

Producing the Best Sencha in the World

Sencha, or infused green tea, is what is most commonly used in Japan for tea ceremonies and is available in many varieties. Like the wine countries of Italy, France and northern and central California, climate has a huge effect on the terroir of green tea. Japan’s Kirishima mountains, where the temperature difference between day and night is severe, produces the Sencha, harvested by master organic tea makers for their fresh aromas, health benefits and delicate taste. According to the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, Japan mostly exports green tea and 70% of it is Sencha.

How to Prepare Sencha

Sencha is brewed with ungrounded, steamed leaves and should be steeped for a short time for a pale-colored brew, or longer for a richly colored tea. Because it requires a fine filter and room for leaves to expand, a Japanese teapot called a kyusu is the best choice for brewing Sencha, which is then served in small round cups.

The word sencha also means the practice of preparing, serving and drinking Japanese leaf tea with a deep spiritual appreciation for art, culture and philosophy. Here’s how to serve it traditionally:

A Traditional Japanese Tea Service

A Japanese tea ceremony involves more than just preparing tea; it’s also an opportunity for spiritual cleansing and being in harmony with nature. Whether you’re inside or out, take some time to sit quietly with your guests and bring attention to the present moment before offering a sweet treat to start the ritual.

  • Boil water until it just reaches a simmer, then remove from heat and let it cool a bit. If the water is too hot, the tea will be bitter. Brewing it at a lower temperature will make sure the aromatic flavor will not be overpowered. Sencha tastes best between 160 and 170 degrees F (70–80 degrees C).
  • Rinse a ceramic teapot with hot water so the tea is not cooled down by the pot itself.
  • Place loose tea leaves in the warmed pot, using one teaspoon of tea for each eight-ounce cup of water.
  • Pour water over the tea leaves and let them steep for one to three minutes, then strain out the tea leaves.
  • Japanese green tea is traditionally served in small, ceramic cups that are white inside.
  • Place the cups and pot on a tray.
  • Drink green tea straight; adding sugar or milk distorts the unique flavor.
  • Fill each cup a third of the way, then pour the second third in each cup, and then fill each cup to 70% full. In Japanese society, pouring a full cup of tea is considered impolite.
  • Hold your cup with your right hand while supporting it with your left hand. Using both hands is polite etiquette in Japan.
  • Drink your tea quietly without slurping, and cool it by setting it down on the table, not blowing on it.
  • Pair green tea with sweet, mildly flavored snacks, such as rice crackers, pound cake or mochi, a sweet rice.

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About the author

Justine Amodeo is a contributing editor to Bodhi Tree and the editor of Pacific Coast Magazine and Montagemagazine.com. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, and has been a student of Kashmir Shaivism and the Feminine Wisdom Tradition work of Nisha Bhairavi for many years.