How Eisai Brought Matcha Tea and Zen Buddhism to Japan

How Eisai Brought Matcha Tea and Zen Buddhism to Japan

Myōan Eisai was born in the 12th century in what is now Okayama. A Buddhist priest, he was the first to bring to Japan not only the practice of cultivating and consuming matcha tea, but the traditions and ceremonies of Zen Buddhism as well. As an organic producer of Japanese matcha tea powder, we’re especially drawn to the fascinating legacy of this influential Buddhist and tea lover.

Life & Travels

Eisai was born in 1141 to a religious family and studied to become a priest as part of the Tendai school of Buddhism. Deeply devout, but seeking further enlightenment, Eisai traveled multiple times to China to study Chinese Buddhism—the historical root of Japanese Buddhism—including its influences and ceremonies.

He became enamored with both the Linji school of Chinese Chan (or Zen, in Japanese) Buddhism and the Chinese tradition of cultivating and drinking matcha green tea. Upon his return to Japan in 1191, centuries before the birth of Johnny Appleseed, Eisai planted matcha tea seeds in Japan and built a temple to spread Zen teachings.

Kissa Yojoki & The Way of Tea

Although tea had been brought from China to Japan by other travelers before Eisai, it had failed to catch on. The Japanese had not begun cultivating tea leaves, and tea drinking had yet to become a common cultural practice.

Eisai is considered the pioneer of matcha cultivation in Japan, and one of the primary reasons is his famous composition: Kissa Yojoki, translated as something like “A Treatise on Drinking Tea for a Healthy, Long Life.”

This text provided the foundation for the Japanese “way of tea” and greatly influenced the customs of the Japanese tea ceremony that developed over the next few centuries.

Contributions to Zen Buddhism

Though we often remember Eisai as the father of the Japanese tea ceremony, his Zen Buddhist teachings were just as significant. In his own lifetime, Eisai’s attempts to spread the Zen school in Japan frequently encountered pushback from the prevailing Buddhist authorities. Even so, Eisai was able to build multiple temples, and his impact on the history Japanese Buddhism was significant.

Of course, Eisai’s two most famous accomplishments are inextricably linked, because matcha tea’s stimulating, calming abilities (now attributed to its L-theanine content) were especially useful for the meditative practice that’s so central to the Zen tradition.

Eisai first planted matcha tea seeds near Kyoto in the late 12th century, and one of the reasons his matcha caught on was its taste, widely considered superior by those who tried it. Eisai’s Kyoto tea even led to the invention of tocha, a game developed years after his death and designed around taste-testing teas from various regions.

Follow in the tradition of the great Zen masters, and sample a little bit of Japanese history.

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