The history of Uji-cha from its emergence in the Kamakura Period to its establishment in the early Edo Period
Developed during the Kamakura Period under the wing of the shogunate, Uji-cha won fame as the finest tea in Japan.
The establishment of the Uji-cha brand as purveyors to shoguns
Tea was introduced to Japan in the early Heian Period from China’s Tang Dynasty. During the Kamakura Period in the 13th century, the monk Myoe of Kosan-ji Temple in Togano-o taught Uji villagers how to cultivate tea.
This started the village down the road to full-scale production of Uji-cha. In the Muromachi Period in the 15th century, Uji-cha gained the attention of the Ashikaga shogun families, earning renown as the best tea in Japan. The shoguns and their deputies known as kanrei designated the seven special tea plantations in Uji as the Seven Famous Tea Gardens and had them produce the finest tea leaves. One of such gardens, Okunoyama Chaen, still produces tea leaves today.
The birth of matcha, an essential component of chano-yu culture
In the Sengoku Period in the 16th century, tea producers of the Uji region established the innovative cultivation method called ooishita (shade-growing) in response to the requests from Sen no Rikyu and other tea ceremony masters. They covered the tea plantation with shades of woven reeds grown in the Ogura Lake, which once lay midway between Uji and Kyoto.
This technique for cultivating less astringent tea leaves, tencha, led to the creation of matcha, the vividly dark-green powdered tea with a flavor rich in umami, which is unique to Japan. Uji-cha, which was nurtured under the patronage of the rulers of the time such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the Tokugawa shogun families and accorded a special status among the tea-growing districts, became a product established as a brand.
In the central Uji (“Nakauji”) area, a tea wholesale district was built including mansions of influential Uji tea makers (privileged tea producers/dealers in Uji) after it was designated as a territory of the shogunate during the Edo Period. The oldest tearoom in Japan, Tsuen Chaya, located at the foot of Uji Bridge, still relieves the tiredness of travelers today.
From the early to late Edo Period
Unique Japanese production methods give birth to sencha and gyokuro teas.
Sencha tea from Uji’s new landscape is the result of innovative production methods
During the early Edo Period in the mid-17th century, Ingen Zenji, the founder ofManpuku-ji Temple of the Obaku sect of Zen Buddhism, introduced the encha method, a process for brewing tea by pouring hot water on dried tea leaves. In 1738, Nagatani Soen invented aosei sencha seiho in the Yuyadani area of Ujitawara Town. Unique to Japan, this innovative tea production method required hand-kneading of steamed new shoots of tea over a hot hoiro drying table to dry the tea leaves. This gave rise to the excellent color, aroma, and flavor of sencha.
Once sencha became very popular in the Edo area, sencha growers and wholesalers started to form a community in Yuyadani, and in its neighborhood Gounokuchi, too, a key junction of water and overland transportation, streets lined with shops and houses of wholesalers of sencha were formed a new townscape. By the late 19th century, the new Uji-cha production method known as aosei sencha seiho spread throughout the country through the efforts of the tea producers of Ujitawara and Uji. This method eventually became the basic and mainstream sencha production method in wide use today.
Along with the booming popularity of sencha, tea plantations called yamanari chaen (tea plantations spread across a landscape of rolling hills) were formed on hilly land in the mountainous areas of Ujitawara Town and Wazuka Town, thus expanding the sencha production area.
The birth of gyokuro, the world’s finest green tea
Uji’s culture of innovation drove the pursuit of ever-higher quality teas. Through the combination of shade cultivation with the Uji-cha production method, gyokuro tea, with its characteristic sweet and rich flavors, came to be known as the world’s finest green tea. In Inooka, a hilly area of the city of Kyotanabe near the Kizu River, one can enjoy viewing the characteristic landscape of gyokuro plantations that use the unique local topography effectively.
A modern landscape from the Meiji Period
Uji-cha is established as a national brand that is popular even in markets abroad.
As exports have grown, tea fields have continued to spread throughout the Minamiyamashiro region.
When Japan opened its ports during the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate, sencha became a major export along with raw silk. It was exported to the U.S.A. and other western markets from the Ports of Yokohama and Kobe, contributing to Japan’s acquisition of foreign currency reserves. With exports of sencha surging at the beginning of the Meiji Period, tea fields were expanded into the mountainous areas of southern Kyoto. In the Dosenbo area of the village of Minamiyamashiro, settlements were formed at high altitudes, creating the distinctive landscape of tea fields on hillside slopes that contrast vividly with the rice paddies on the plain.
Tea leaves from various production areas were brought to Kamikoma in the city of Kizugawa, which was located at the important point of the Kizu River water transportation system, which flows to the Port of Kobe through the Kizu River, the Yodo River and Osaka Bay. As the tea wholesale district emerged, the region flourished and was dubbed “the Kobe of the East,” or “the Kobe of the Day.”
The distinctive landscape formed by tea fields rising to the heavens
At the dawn of the 20th century, demand for sencha from Uji grew among general Japanese households. To produce ever-larger tea harvests, the land was reclaimed on the rolling hills (yamanari kaikon), which expanded the tea fields not only on the mountainside around the tea growers’ homes, but also further up to the slopes approaching the summit. The distinct vistas of the horizontally ridged tea fields stretching up to the heavens around the Ishitera, Erihara, and Kamatsuka areas of Wazuka-cho have a special appeal. Also, due to the construction of the Takayama Dam in 1969, the Tayama and Takao areas of Minamiyamashiro village were chosen as places climatically suited for tea cultivation. In this area, to reduce frost damage, the tea fields are ridged vertically from the mountainside up to the summit. They appear as if they are flowing up to the heavens. It’s a unique landscape!