In Japan, the mid-seasons are the most popular and lively of the year. Spring is marked by the sakura cherry blossom viewings during which everyone joins together to enjoy the gentle autumn breeze under one of the beautifully blooming trees. Every year, autumn brings people together to admire the reddening of the maple trees. For as long as we humans are a part of nature, the natural cycle of our environment plays a significant role in how we live our lives. This, for example, determines the timing of when we plant seeds and harvest and when certain foods become available. The freshest tea leaves are obtained at the beginning of spring, when after the cold winter tea bushes regain vitality and work hard to nurture new buds with the nutrition gathered in the roots during wintertime.

Kaibara Ekiken Tea New Year

Bronze statue of Kaibara Ekiken at his grave in Fukuoka City, Japan.

Kaibara Ekiken (貝原益軒, 1630-1714), a Japanese herbalist and Confucian scholar who lived in the 17th and early 18th century, formulated his stance on Shincha (new tea) in his book, Yojokun (『養生訓』), “Instructions on Nourishing Life,” and emphasizes that it is better for your health, in general, to let tea age in order to take the sharpness and edge off before consuming it.

There are many people now who drink a lot of tea from dawn to dusk… drinking a little tea after a meal helps digestion and quenches thirst. Salt must not be added, as it’s bad for the kidney. One must not drink tea on an empty stomach as it damages the spleen and the stomach. One must not drink too much of koicha, as it damages the qi generation of a person… People with weak constitution must not drink that year’s shincha at all. It will cause eye problems, anemia… You should only drink shincha after the first month. For people with good constitution, drinking it after the ninth or tenth month should not be harmful.
(Credits for text and translation to [Don’t Drink Shincha (By MarshalN – A Tea Addict’s Journal)])

The months referred to in this clause are according to the lunar calendar. According to this system, the first tea harvest happens in the ‘second month’, which is around April. When Kaibara implies one shouldn’t drink the freshly harvested leaves until the ‘first month,’ he thereby means the lunar new year of the following year, about a 10 to 11 month wait before suggested consumption. The ‘ninth or tenth month’ points to November or December.

Kaibara’s suggestion expresses that we should let tea age out of consideration for our health. In line with this practice, aging tea was already commonplace in the 17th and 18th century that spread among the upper ranks out of inevitability in regard to logistics. Even to the present day practitioners of the rite of tea maintain this practice and the importance of it is reflected in the value that is placed on the Ro-biraki ritual (炉開き, the unveiling of the sunken-hearth).

In Spring, the new tea of that year (commonly tencha leaves for the manufacturing of matcha) are crammed into a tea urn, which is placed into the sunken-hearth before this area is closed off and kept hidden underneath the tatami straw-matting during summer. During these months, tea practitioners use a floor-brazier for the service of tea for half a year. In autumn the tatami matting is interchanged again to reveal the sunken-hearth, at which time the sealed urn of tea is taken out, and opened for the first time during what is perhaps the most important ritual in the annual cycle of a tea practitioner’s activities; a tea person’s New Year, or the Kuchi-kiri ritual (口切, the opening of the tea urn).

New Year Tea Hearth and Urn

Sunken hearth and tea urn.

Traditionally, matcha was (and still is) the most prestigious kind of Japanese tea. Its pivotal presence in the rite of tea is indicative of this fact. Therefore, the tea packed in the tea-urn is restricted to tencha, the tea-leaf used to grind into matcha. In the 17th century, the tea ceremony was a popular pastime among wealthy landlords or daimyō class warriors. The shogun, ruler of Japan, valued this tradition highly. Each year he dispatched a team of tea masters from the capital, Edo (now Tokyo) to Uji in Kyoto to coordinate the harvest and select the best tencha leaves for his delight. The tea masters arrived at the tea farms in early May, right at the start of the first harvest of tea. For approximately 20 days they remained in the area and devoted their time to selecting tea and stuffing the shogun’s jar. Thereafter, they returned to Edo. Since they were carrying the shogun’s tea, their procession became one of the most prestigious throughout the country, and even daimyō processions would make way to let the tea urn pass. This procession, named the Cha-tsubo-dōchu (御茶壺道中, ‘the tea urn procession’), commonly rested in Yamanashi Prefecture for three months in order to evade the heat of summer. During this time, the tea urn was safely stored in cool storage or a warehouse.

The tea masters re-commenced their journey at the end of summer and by the time they arrived in the capital it was already the beginning of autumn. The journey took them approximately six months to complete, and thus, inevitably the tea had been ripening and deepening in flavor before it reached the shogun’s tea bowl.

Logistically, it was impossible for residents of Edo to savor that year’s tea right after harvest. Resources weren’t devoted to bringing the tea directly to the capital, unless for the shogun. If we consider Kaibara’s proclamation, this was a lucky coincidence. And, whether or not we’re conscious of drinking tea for our health, those same logistical complications have created the foundation for a ritual that, to today’s date, have impacted how we perceive a quality matcha. Nowadays, lower-grade matcha is made available right after harvest to meet demand, but top-grade matcha is, without exception, aged for approximately half a year before it is made available.

So, for the holiday, enjoy a bowl of quality matcha and contemplate the traditions that have made it what it is. Happy New Year.

* Title image courtesy of ebenette.
* Kaibara Ekiken image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.
* Hearth and urn image courtesy of Jason Riedy.