The way of the warrior and the way of the uhhh teapot?
Think of the toughest, scariest person you can. Someone with discipline, tenacity, and the ability to enter into a blood-thirsty war-mode in an instant. Did you perhaps also imagine the said person sitting down for a calming and serene cup of tea? No? Well then perhaps today we should learn about the connection between Japan’s samurai warriors and tea! The samurai class were real fans of camellia sinensis, especially in the form of matcha. Let’s have a little bit of a history lesson and by the end of this article, you will want to grab yourself some of our incredible Organic Matcha to enjoy yourself!
Matcha and martial artists
The pop-culture image of a samurai warrior, top-knot, robes, katana and all, sitting calmly sipping tea from a bowl (like in the tea ceremony today!) or Japanese style cup is not really far removed from the historical truth. The connection between the samurai class and tea goes back to the early medieval period. In this case, Japan’s Kamakura era (1185 AD- 1333 AD).
To be clear, tea and tea culture had been known in Japan and enjoyed by the Buddhist religious establishment and the aristocracy much longer, all the way back to around 815 AD. But it was later, in the Kamakura era when the samurai would go from being just some bodyguards and tough guys (and a few gals!) who liked to fight for a living to the masters of the country and the de facto establishment.
This took a long time and culminated with the reign of the shoguns. What are shoguns? They are supreme military leaders that basically call all the shots and protect the emperor but have pretty much all the real power, although the emperor would usually elect or appoint shoguns. But the main point is that the warriors went from armed servants to armed rulers. This was a big deal because now the warrior class could enjoy and indulge in things once solely enjoyed by the aristocracy and Buddhist clergy.
Many samurai and their lords, the daimyo, had been patronizing Zen Buddhism. A school of Buddhism that originated in India developed in China when it mixed with Chines Taoism. It is no coincidence that once many monks and priests studying Zen (in Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism returned from China they then introduced their eager samurai students to both Zen philosophy and tea culture at the same time.
Tea was being used in temples and monasteries for religious rites but also for the more pragmatic health benefits tea possessed. The monks and priests would drink tea to boost their health, increase longevity, increase mental focus, energy, and help them wake up early for chanting and other rituals and stay up during long meditation or sacred scripture study sessions. This would all culminate in an interesting turning point for the samurai, Buddhism, and tea in Japan.
When the Zen monk Eisai returned from China, he brought with him not just knowledge of tea and tea culture but also some tea seeds. The seeds he planted flourished near Kyoto where tea plants still thrive today. Eisai also wrote some keen treatises on tea and its positive health effects on the mind and body. According to one amusing story, once when the shogun himself was suffering from a bad hangover, Eisai (or another monk depending on the story) whipped the shogun up a bowl of matcha tea. The hangover cure was a hit, and once the shogun began endorsing tea for its cultural, religious, mental, and physical virtues tea, matcha tea, in particular, was a hit around the country.
Pretty soon the newly ascended warrior class would begin holding lavish tea parties as displays of wealth and power. They would even have tea tasting parties where the winners would win all sorts of cool prizes. Over time, the Zen influences of tea culture would ebb back. Tea masters like Sen no Rikyu would help to develop what would become the tea ceremony we know today by setting the formal rules, rituals, steps, and utensils in formulaic order. He would also, much to the chagrin of his patron, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, go back to a more rustic approach to tea.
Hideyoshi was the shogun and had been an active warrior during Japan’s unification period. Hideyoshi had opulent tea houses covered in gold. His tea master, Rikyu, however, preferred rustic and bucolic huts. Ones off the beaten path, with doorways too small to enter without bowing ones' head in humility, and too narrow so a warrior like Hideyoshi could not enter while girded with their swords. Rikyu would be a proponent of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which celebrates the fragility, ephemerality, and imperfection of life.
Preferring old, weathered, and asymmetrical over big, powerful, perfect, and beautiful. Eventually, he and Hideyoshi would have a falling out that would end with Rikyu’s death. Hideyoshi would then move on with his invasions of Joseon Korea in an attempt to conquer all of Asia. The wars in Korea are sometimes known as the “Pottery wars” because many skilled artisans and craftsmen of tea wares in Joseon Korea along with their wondrous wares would be kidnapped and taken back to Japan as plunder.
Over time and as Japan’s warrior class began to put away their swords to take up positions behind desks with pens instead of blades, the tea ceremony remained. Not only would powerful daimyo and samurai study the tea ceremony but some would become tea masters in their own right. Eventually tea and Zen both would become arts and philosophies enjoyed by the common classes, too. While the spirit and legacy of the samurai would become part of Japan’s national character and identity, with the tea ceremony as one of its most treasured cultural jewels.
The warrior within
In addition to the cultural and social aspects of enjoying matcha, the samurai also drank tea for its many health benefits. Samurai would participate in tea ceremonies before battles to calm the mind and enter into a deep concentration that they would need to be at their top mental levels.
Samurai would drink tea during battles sometimes, too. During battle, tea would help their bodies begin to recover from some wounds (tea’s anti-inflammatory properties). Tea would also boost their mental and physical energy levels and keep the warriors fighting and focused (tea’s caffeine). This would help keep their morale up but there wouldn’t be the risk of caffeine crashes, instead, the samurai would more easily keep their cool (tea’s L-theanine amino acid is what gives tea its calming effect). Samurai would also drink tea after battles. Once again, tea’s many vitamins, nutrients, amino acids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties would help the warriors' bodies recover a bit faster. The L-theanine would also help to calm them down and relax them after the potential trauma and intensity of armed combat. Tea’s caffeine would additionally assist in boosting their focus for attaining mental and spiritual clarity.
These activities and practices would often be done in tandem with Zen meditation and philosophical pursuits. Though not all samurai practiced Zen Buddhism, the ones who did often also enjoyed matcha tea, too. Zen places an emphasis on meditation and the contemplation of the fleeting nature of life as well as training the mind to overcome various hindrances like fear of pain or death by accepting the reality of suffering in the world and embracing them as facts of life instead of denying them.
While most of us don’t live quite as intense or bellicose a lifestyle as the average samurai, we can certainly awaken the warrior within by enjoying matcha tea regularly. Matcha, like other types of tea, has myriad health benefits like those mentioned above. It can boost and enhance mental and physical health, too. Not to mention the caffeine content of matcha makes it an excellent ally in a pitched battle with katanas, or, more likely in this day and age, a trip to the gym or morning jog!
Bushido and tea bowls
Hopefully, this little history lesson helped to enrich your knowledge of matcha and the role it once played in the lives of the warrior-elite of Japan. "As a samurai, I must strengthen my character; as a human being I must perfect my spirit" ~ Yamaoka Tesshu If you want to hone your mind, body, and spirit like a samurai, why not check out our excellent selection of teas including organic matcha? Katana not included!