Both matcha and sencha are green teas, but with a sibling rivalry. Matcha is grown in the shade then ground into a bright green powder you whisk into hot water. Sencha is grown in the sun, and it’s a loose leaf tea that you brew.Matcha is a bit of a celebrity at the moment and it’s tempting to bill the relationship as a heavyweight title for best green tea. In reality, they are two very different drinks brought to Japan in different periods.Let’s have a quick look at their history and the genesis of the sencha tea ceremony.
Nobles, Samurai and Intellectuals
The Japanese tea ceremony attempts to put the world to rights; its cornerstones are harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. But like most rituals it got muddled in with power and class.
Nobles in 15th century Japan borrowed culturally from China, and they developed the chanoyu (matcha) tea ceremony as a means to impress.
Samurai included it in their training and they were often tea masters off the battlefield; at bawdy gatherings they would quiz each other and hold tasting competitions.
In the 16th century, as Japan entered civil war, the generals challenging the ruling class used tea ceremonies to award tea wares (you won your battle so here’s your teapot).
In the peaceful era that followed, the intellectual class adopted a new method of brewing tea called sencha (freshly picked leaves heated with vapour and rolled over heat) as a means of social identity: it was a revolt against the military rulers and their elitist traditions.
Sencha: a democratic tea with a pretty cool teapot
This simpler method of loose leaf infusion spread rapidly, but the utensils were still too expensive for most families. This led to the tetsubin teapot, basically a flat iron kettle: a predecessor of the modern kettle.
A more relaxed, informal tea ceremony grew out of sencha tea drinking, and it’s a tradition that continues today although it also, inevitably, took on formal elements of the chanoyu ceremony.
Tea as ritual and retreat
Sencha tea is usually served first in a few drops in little cups: a little taste of nectar. The second serving is longer, and this refreshes your senses. After the second cup you might have a sweet, followed by a cup of hot water to cleanse the palate.
To enter a tea room is to break with the outside world. They are simple structures with sliding lattice doors covered in translucent paper. They are kept fastidiously clean. Tatami mats on the floor, a space for seasonal flowers and the arrangement of utensils. A scroll hung on the wall. Tea rooms focus your senses, awakening them to every detail.
Tea ceremonies are complex social and symbolic events; traditions preserved and guarded by old families. This might explain why they have resisted mass-appeal and remain uniquely Japanese. They also reflect Zen philosophy and minimalism: microcosms for understanding our connection to nature.
Consider making time in your day for a ritual, rather than a habit. Savour the extra time it takes to prepare loose leaf tea, enjoying the aesthetics of cup and pot, the fragrance and finally, the complex taste and calmness that follows.