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Matcha: Tea of the Samurai

  • 22. January 2020
  • By Ariane
Matcha: Tea of the Samurai

The Way of Tea

Wind and rain had blown leaf after multi-colored leaf off the trees in the small tea garden. Inside, our tea host had prepared an abridged tea ceremony for foreign visitors to Japan. I looked at the surprisingly hefty earthenware bowl that bore the vibrant, innervating green beverage before me. I was not expecting to feel such a surge of energy, such a moment of mental and physical clarity. That was the first time I had tried matcha, there in Kyushu. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But what exactly is matcha? And why was it once the favored drink of the formidable samurai warrior class of old Japan?

What is Matcha?

Matcha is the pulverized and finely ground powder of carefully processed and dried green tea leaves. Matcha is produced from a special type of green tea called tencha. Tencha is often shaded from the sun to allow for a maximizing of taste and nutrients, but a minimizing of bitter and astringent flavors. Each of the leaves is painstakingly stripped of its twigs, sticks and leaf veins to leave a dried leaf that is brittle, soft and easier to grind. Matcha is prepared by adding some of the powder to a bowl of hot water which is then whisked with a bamboo tool called a chasen until it has formed a frothy top layer of foam. It’s flavor depends on the grade of matcha used. Matcha can range from slightly sweet to slightly bitter, with a strong aroma and vegetal hints and notes. It can be thick or light depending on the powder to water ratio used when brewing.

Grades of Matcha

Matcha is classified into three different grades, Ceremonial, Premium and cooking or culinary grade. These grades are based on criteria like which part of the tea plant the leaves are plucked from and the time of harvesting. The most coveted tea leaves are found in the earlier period of the harvest season and are often used to produce higher quality matcha.

Ceremonial grade is generally the highest quality of matcha and is used for tea ceremonies as well as for Buddhist rituals. This grade is brewed thick and comprises a vast array of flavors.

Premium grade is made from leaves plucked from the very top of the tea plant. It is commonly used for more secular and mundane consumption of matcha. The flavor palette is fresh and green.

Culinary grade matcha is much cheaper than the two previously mentioned grades. It can also be noticeably more bitter than the other two. This type of matcha, as its name suggests, is used in food preparation or for mass produced commodities like bottled green tea.

The Origins

Matcha originates during China’s Song dynasty. At this time in tea culture’s history, tea was still served in bricks of loose leaf. Tea masters in China had the enterprising idea of cracking and breaking the dried bricks apart and using brushes or whisks to whip the broken bits of tea into the hot water in their bowls. From here, the practice developed and became a method of preparing green tea leaves to be pulverized into a fine powder, and then whisked in a bowl as we still do today. As tea was already a mainstay of Buddhism, the ascendant Chan Buddhism of China began to formalize the methods of both preparing and enjoying what would become matcha tea and what would also become the modern day Japanese Tea Ceremony.

At this time monks and priests from Japan were traveling to China to study Chan Buddhism. The monks returned to their homeland, where Chan became Zen (the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word, Dhyana, meaning deep and profound trancelike meditation). Not only did the monks bring back this new and profound school of Buddhism, but they also introduced the green tea plant, tea culture and the etiquette and way of tea. Some early monks to do so were Kukai who would go on to found the Shingon school of Buddhism and Saicho who would found the Tendai school. But it was the monk Eisai, of the Zen school, who in the 1100’s returned from China with a green tea plant that led to a real skyrocketing of tea culture in Japan.

Eisai would write about the health effects of tea, and also introduce both Zen Buddhism and the way of tea to the samurai class. The reasons for the synergizing of Zen Buddhism, matcha consumption and the samurai class are manifold. 

Zen Buddhism and the monks who practiced this religious philosophy, taught a way of life that reflected on emptiness and the ephemeral nature of all things, including ones own life. Zen monks practiced stoic and regimented discipline to attain spiritual awakening, consuming austere meals, performing heavy labor, meditating in silence for long periods of time and maintaining calm and composure while doing all of the above. This appealed greatly to the warrior class who also took part in an austere, disciplined and intense lifestyle. The life of the samurai was also one requiring calm and freedom from fear even in the face of certain death. 

As for the role of tea in all this? First, tea and the tea ceremony served a symbolic function, the discipline, humility and restraint to properly brew and enjoy tea while observing formal etiquette, and reflecting on the temporary nature of a cup of tea. Secondly, matcha’s physical and mental effects in tandem with its spiritual ones also benefitted the monks and the samurai alike. 

Matcha’s Many Health Benefits 

Some of matcha’s benefits include green tea’s many antioxidants and polyphenols which aid the body in overall general health, and also in fighting off free radicals that can cause cell damage. This made matcha an ideal drink for before, after and in some cases, during battle as it can help the body mend and repair itself. 

Matcha also provides the body with vitamins, minerals and nutrients like vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and fiber. For both soldiers and monks who may have had only rice or even less in certain desperate situations, these nutrients would greatly benefit them while on campaign, or under siege, or while taking part in fasts or ascetic-style retreats. 

Matcha also contains a high amount of caffeine. This caffeine would benefit monks who would sit in meditation for long periods and keep them from falling asleep, and also help the samurai feel their senses, energy, and spirits heighten from the mood and energy boosting caffeine. Caffeine can greatly enhance physical performance, which would certainly be a plus in combat. 

And to balance out the score of energy one would attain from consuming matcha, the L-Theanine in the tea would calm the body, mind and spirit, allowing warriors and monks alike to simultaneously relax and remain alert but not jittery. The benefit for monks would be to keep their mood elevated as they took part in a quiet and rigorous activity like meditation. For the warriors, consuming tea before battle would keep them at ease to remain rested and able to perform at the best of their ability. During battle it would help to quell high emotions and the psychological intensity of taking part in warfare. And after a battle, the L-theanine would allow for rest and recovery from the strain of combat that would weigh heavily on mind, body and spirit. All three would be brought together further when contemplating the wabi sabi aesthetic. A philosophy that focuses on the humble, the weathered, the rustic and the appreciation of the imperfect or transient nature of life. Wabi sabi would play a significant role in the further development of the tea ceremony and as a source of contemplation for samurai and monastics alike. 

Some additional health benefits of matcha, which may certainly have also benefited the samurai and the monks includes guarding the heart from bad cholesterol and from the potential of developing heart disease. Matcha can help to detox, aiding in purifying the body, mind and spirit. In fact there is a story of the monk Eisai serving a mighty shogun matcha to help ease the shogun’s pounding hangover from a night of sake drinking. Aside from getting rid of ailments like substance intoxication, Matcha can also assist in speeding up the metabolism and burning calories.

The Tea Ceremony

Chado (Way of Tea) or chanoyu (hot water for tea) are both names for the Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony today can be performed in myriad ways, from the highly formal and traditional to the abridged versions usually performed for visitors and tourism purposes. The tea ceremony was heavily influenced by the tea master Sen no Rikyu who helped to develop the modern ceremony as we know it today. Sen no Rikyu was also patronized by the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the unifiers of Japan. The tea ceremony contains a formalized set of steps and etiquette for the proper performance and consumption of matcha tea. Other steps like enjoying incense or calligraphy scrolls also became integral aspects of the tea ceremony, outside of strictly enjoying matcha as a beverage. Tea ceremonies would usually be hosted in small and rustic style houses with a doorway that was made intentionally too small. This smaller doorway was added as a means to keep samurai from entering girded with their swords, thus establishing a peaceful atmosphere, one devoid of weapons or hostility of any sort. 

Unfortunately for the tea master Sen no Rikyu, he would be ordered to commit ritual suicide, or seppuku, by Hideyoshi as a punishment for criticizing and disagreeing with his political ambitions and his invasion of Korea in the 1500’s. Sen no Rikyu’s dedication to tea and the pursuit of truth and wisdom, despite resulting in his death, is a poignant focus of meditation in the ephemeral and transient nature of life and tea alike.

Modern Warrior’s Tea

Because of matcha’s many physical benefits like providing health enhancing polyphenols and antioxidants, as well as performance enhancing qualities like caffeine and L-theanine, it is not surprising it became a drink of choice for the samurai, who were masters of the mind, spirit and body.  Now as for me, when I finished that last sip of matcha, which I like to call liquid power, back in Kyushu? I felt a keen and lucid awareness as well as a vibrant and staid energy I had not ever felt before from any tea, or even coffee, for that matter. It has since become a staple of my biohacking practice.