by Yumi Ryujin
Kawagoe Goodwill Ambassador for Tourism

§ No.15

History of tea and Kawagoe tea

Welcome to Kawagoe! Kawagoe is an old town whose history can be traced back to the Old Stone Age. I would like to tell you a story about the Kawagoe of olden times. This story is about the history of tea and in particular, Kawagoe tea. This is number fifteen in the series of stories about Kawagoe.
A Legend in China
When on earth did human beings start to drink tea? In China there is a legend about this that goes:
      Once there was a god of agriculture called "Shin-no." Shin-no walked around the fields every day looking for herbs to give to the people. He kept weeds in his mouth and checked the taste and smell. Some of the weeds were poisonous. So each night after returning home, he drank tea and removed the poison from his body.
It is said that tea was mentioned for the first time in recorded history in a document written in China during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- A.D. 220). During that period it seems that people burned twigs from the tea bush for medicinal reasons, rather than use it as a luxury grocery food.
The Appearance of Tea in Japanese History
So, I wonder when tea first appeared in Japanese history? They say there is a possibility that tea came to Japan during the Jomon Period. However, the first record of tea in Japan tells us that the Buddhist priest Saicho, who studies in Tang, China, returned to Japan in 805 with many Buddhist scriptures, books and tea seeds, and that he planted the seeds in Sakamoto, Ohmi (now Shiga Prefecture). Another record reports that the priest Kukai also brought tea seeds from Tang in 806 and planted them in Nagasaki. They were used to banish sleep and refresh the body and functioned as detoxicants, antipyretics and diuretics.
The Kawagoe Tea Plantation
In those days, as tea cultivation spread it was centered on the Kinki region. However, traditions in the Kanto region say that the priest Jikaku brought tea seeds from Mt. Hiei in 830 and planted them in the garden of the Muryojuji Temple in Kawagoe (later the Ki-tain Temple and the Naka-in Temple). This was the year the Muryojuji Temple was established. Jikaku was one of Saicho's best disciples, so it should be no wonder that he brought tea seeds with him from Mt. Hiei when he tried to establish the Muryojuji Temple in Kawagoe.
The Development of Tea
Apparently, tea was loved by Buddhist priests and the nobility from the beginning of the Heian Period (794 - around 1185). However, in the literature of the Heian Period, no descriptions of tea have been found. I wonder why? After a 300 year blank, we find a record of tea in the Kamakura Period (around 1185-1333). The priest Eisai brought tea seeds from Sung Dynasty (960-1280) and distributed them in various places. This produced many tea plantations and was the start of the mass-production of tea. A document, probably written in 1346, says that No. 1 tea in Japan had been produced in Togano-o in Kyoto. The quality of Kawagoe tea was very far below that tea, they say, but it was still included in top 10.
Kawagoe Tea to Sayama Tea
It seems that Kawagoe tea spread to the Sayama district at the beginning of the Edo Period starting in 1603. There are no records of Kawagoe tea in those days but we do have records that YOSHIKAWA Yoshizumi, MURANO Morimasa and others, succeeded in reintroducing the tea as Sayama Tea in 1802.
A monument with the inscription, 'Sayama tea was born here' in Naka-in Temple (Map E-5)
A monument with the inscription, "Sayama tea was born here" in Naka-in Temple (Map E-5)
The Opening of Japan to the World and Sayama Tea
Due to the opening of Japan to the world in 1854, a lot of tea was exported to the U.S.A. and England, as well as raw silk. They say that the people of North America loved green tea rather than black tea. In order to meet this sudden huge demand by Americans, the mass-production of tea using machines was required. TAKABAYASHI Kenzo, a doctor in Kawagoe, flung himself into the work of inventing a rubbing machine for tea. Through trial and error, he finally completed a machine in 1898 and obtained the patent. However, his machine was not at all accepted by the Sayama tea manufacturers seeking high quality tea.
Nowadays, we cannot find handmade Sayama tea anymore and rubbing the tea is done by machines. I drink it every day, thinking that its taste and smell are a superb piece of work. The water of Kawagoe makes it much tastier. In my street, there are still traces of an old tea plantation. Why don't you visit a green tea shop in Kawagoe and get a package?
A shop that sells green tea, 'Ocha-kameya' in Naka-cho
A shop that sells green tea, "Ocha-kameya" in Naka-cho (Map D-3)
A package of green tea sold at Ocha-kameya
A package of green tea sold at Ocha-kameya
Please visit Kawagoe again! We welcome you!
©Yumi Ryujin   All rights reserved.

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