Eisai was called “father of tea”. However, Eisai was not the first person to bring tea into Japan. So why is Eisai called “father of tea”? I will explain the reason through the relationship between “Zen” and “tea”.

About Eisai

Eisai (1141-1215) started studying the teachings of the Tendai sect as a teenager and visited China twice to study it more deeply.

After returning to Japan, Eisai became the founder of the Rinzai sect in Japan.

Eisai had been exposed to the wonders of tea in China and brought back the seeds to Japan.

He propagated the Rinzai sect and at the same time spread tea cultivation methods and the culture associated with tea.

While being persecuted by the Tendai sect, he endeavored to propagate the Rinzai sect and wrote books such as Kozen Gokoku-ron and Ichidai Kyoron Shaku.

Achievement of Eisai, the Father of tea

In this chapter, I will introduce how Zen monk Eisai was involved in tea.

Bringing tea culture to Japan and spreading it

Tea had been brought to Japan since before Eisai was born. So why is Eisai called Japan's “Father of the”?

That's because Eisai brought the tea culture to Japan for the first time.

By the way, the tea brought in by Eisai at that time was Tencha (matcha before grinding), which was popular in China.

The method of making and drinking tea was introduced to Japan, and Tencha became a substitute for Heicha, which had been drunk before, and became the basis of green tea culture.

In China, however, Tencha was later obsolete due to the change of power.

Furthermore, Eisai brought back with him the ”Sarei (ritual)” of the Zen sect of drinking tea. It is to drink tea prepared in a kettle several times a day between practices or at bedtime. It means to practice with one mind.

In a larger event, all participants gathered together to share a kettle of tea. This Sarei would lead to the tea ceremony later.


Trigger the full-scale cultivation of tea

Eisai created the opportunity to create an authentic tea garden. Eisai brought back knowledge about tea seeds and tea cultivation when he returned from China and promoted tea cultivation in temples.

This is because the awakening effect of tea was very effective in the strict ascetic practices of the Zen sect.

The seeds and knowledge of tea spread in this way were passed on to Myoe Shonin in Togano, Kyoto, and it developed into an authentic tea garden.

The tea from this tea garden was so popular that Togano’s tea was called “honcha (real tea)”, while the tea from other regions was called “hicha (not real tea)”.

Spread the Rinzai sect in Japan

Eisai spread the Zen Buddhism, Rinzai Sect as well as tea cultivation and culture. Tea and Zen were closely linked, and the philosophy of Zen had a great influence on the person who made the history of tea.

The relationship between the tea masters and Zen monks of the Rinzai sect, such as MURATA Juko and IKKYU Sojun, TAKENO Jouo and DAIRIN Soto, and SHOREI Sokin and SEN-no-Rikyu, has become an essential part of the history of the tea ceremony.

Wrote KissaYojoki, the first book specialized in tea in Japan

Eisai wrote Kissa Yojoki (Drinking Tea for Health care) to promote tea.

This book, consisting of two volumes, was the first specialized book on tea in Japan, and it describes not only the medical effects of tea learned in China, but also the tea cultivation in detail.

According to the history book Azuma Kagami, Eisai presented Kissa Yojoki to the third shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, MINAMOTO no Sanetomo, with tea when he was suffering from a hangover.

Tea culture from the Heian to the Kamakura period

During the Heian period, tea was used in religious events and ceremonies in the Imperial Court.

Tea was a special drink and medicine that only monks and aristocrats could drink.

After that, it gradually changed to something to “enjoy” drinking at waka and renga (Japanese poetry) recitations.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), tea ceremony rituals called “Sarei”, which Eisai brought back from China, began to be held in Zen temples.

On the other hand, drinking tea became popular among the samurai class as a social tool.

The “Cha-yoriai”, gathering to drink tea began to take place, and in the late Kamakura period, “Tocha” the game of guessing the place of origin by drinking tea, became popular. However, gambling took place at the same time as Tocha, and it became so radical that the Shogunate finally banned Tocha.

Eisai is not the first person to bring tea back to Japan. However, Eisai brought Zen and tea that he had learned in China back to Japan and spread them throughout the country, leading them to combine and develop into the present Chanoyu. This is why Eisai is called the “Father of tea”.

January 08, 2023