All About Japanese Tea Time: History, Practices, & Snacks
What’s so special about Japanese tea time?
The birth of tea can be traced back to ancient China, where a well believed legend says that in 2737 BC, Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created.
The first known records of Japan’s ties to tea go as far back as the 8th century when Japan ordered a number of diplomatic missions to the capital of China’s Tang dynasty and the soldiers brought back pieces of Chinese culture, including tea. During the early Heian period (794 CE to 1185 CE), Emperor Saga is said to have encouraged the drinking and cultivation of tea in Japan. Tea drinking was first referred to in Japanese literature in 815 in the Nihon Koki (Later Chronicles of Japan), recording that Eichu invited Emperor Saga to Bonshakuji temple, where he was served tea. At this time, tea was extremely valuable and only drunk by imperial court nobles and Buddhist monks.
It wasn’t until the end of the 12th century, however, that tea would become the popular staple of Japanese culture that it is today. In 1191, Eisai, a monk under the influence of Zen Buddhism, brought back tea seeds from China that he planted and distributed to other monks. He became so infatuated with the concept of the drink that in 1211, Eisai wrote the first edition of Kissa Yōjōki (Drink Tea and Prolong Life, aka How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea) to spread the word about tea’s health benefits and the positive effects it can have on the body. Clearly his words carried some weight, because it didn’t take long after the release of the treatise for tea to start making its way into various aspects of Japanese culture, and the rest is history.
The tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony began during the 8th century when the nobility would partake in drinking tea as a way for the hosts to treat their guests with good hospitality. Around the same time period, tea ceremonies were refined to emphasize spirituality, and nowadays the event is meant to serve as a bonding experience as well as a way to gain inner peace.
Eisai's book Kissa Yojoki played a major role in spreading tea culture in Japan. In the late Kamakura Period, the practice of Tocha (tea competitions), which originated in Southern Song-dynasty China, became popular among the Samurai class and tea gatherings were common. The tea ceremony rapidly spread, including Chakabuki.
The Japanese tea ceremony is known as sadō/chadō (茶道, "The Way of Tea") in Japanese. Tea gatherings are classified as either an informal tea gathering, chakai (茶会, "tea gathering"), or a formal tea gathering chaji (茶事, "tea event"). A chakai is a relatively simple course of hospitality that includes confections, thin tea, and perhaps a light meal. There are 8 steps that a host must follow when hosting a chaji: invitation, preparation, receiving the guests, purification of the tools, preparing thick matcha, preparing thin matcha, cleaning the tools, and departure. Between the two servings of tea and the meal, a full ceremony can take up to 4 hours to complete.
Afternoon Tea Time
In the Heian period, many rural workers created a snack time during the 8th period of the day (14:00 to 16:00) in order to recharge and fuel up for the remaining parts of the day. This was needed as only breakfast and dinner were regularly eaten during that time.
During the Edo Period (1603 CE - 1868 CE) snack time became cemented as part of the modern routine when it was kept despite more people eating lunch. In modern times, Slowly the concept of Japanese tea time was born with the marketing of snack companies like castella sponge cake makers Bunmeido. The time was eventually set as 3pm for tea time, many believe due to it being between 2pm and 4pm.
Slowly 3pm became associated with having tea, a sweet or light snack like rice crackers and a chat with friends. Many hotels and restaurants also began offering elaborate and detailed afternoon tea services, some involving traditional Japanese ingredients like matcha and red bean.
Tea Time Snacks
Along with the emergence in the popularity of modern afternoon tea time, Japan is also famous for family run century old stores that provide local specialty snacks and tea. Quite often these stores are passed down in families for generations and their recipes are crafted over time with love. If you’ve ever wondered what foods the Japanese pair with their tea, here's a quick rundown of snacks, usually small sweets, that’ll make you feel like you’re at a traditional Japanese tea ceremony:
- Daifuku - A small round mochi sweet with filling, the daifuku is a popular way of making rice flour a little sweeter. The traditional version often uses only adzuki beans and mochi, but this delicious treat has several different incarnations, the ichigo daifuku being one of the most popular during strawberry season.
- Dango - Watch any old drama series or anime set in the Edo period and this classic tea shop treat will appear. Although it’s a popular sit-down snack, its nifty stick format makes it a handy on-the-go sugar rush as well. Delicious dango comes in many forms, but its base is a group of round balls of chewy mochi with a sauce dipped into or drizzled on or brushed on. The main differences between dango types are the sauces (mitarashi, a soy sauce mixture, is one of the most popular) used and sizes available. Colorful green, white and pink sets blossom forth in time for sakura season.
- Dorayaki - A favorite of the beloved robotic cat from the future Doraemon, this treat consists of adzuki bean paste pressed between two pancakes. The treat (銅鑼焼き) is partly named for its shape. The dora (銅鑼) in dorayaki refers to a metal gong, which it is said to look like, but that could be debated. The yaki, as with yakitori, sukiyaki, yakisoba, yakiniku, and all other yaki prefixes or suffixes, indicates the sweet has been cooked or heated (especially in a pan). Shiroan (white bean) and adzuki (both smooth and crushed bean variations) are the most typical options available.
Snacks may not be the spotlight of a tea ceremony, but they definitely play a large role in keeping the party going. Even if you’re not able to travel all the way to Japan to get ahold of these snacks, the good news is that you don’t have to. Umamicart carries special boxes of a large assortment of Asian snacks - which includes these Japanese snacks so it’s not necessary for you to be in Japan to enjoy these delicacies and day-to-day snacks.
Curated Snack and Pantry Boxes @ Umamicart
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