Sen no Rikyu (©Mushakouji Senke)
It is said that the Japanese started drinking tea in the eighth century. Tea leaves were imported from China at first, and tea was a special beverage for aristocrats and Buddhist priests. In the twelfth century, after Zen priests who had studied in China brought back tea seeds and tea utensils, the drink came to be widely favored, particularly among priests. Moreover, tea was believed to be a medicine that could cure all kinds of diseases, so that the shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo (1192-1219) drank tea habitually. Soon after, tea spread to the warrior class.
Around the middle of the fifteenth century, grand tea parties came to be held, in which large numbers of guests were entertained with lavish meals and gorgeous utensils. Meanwhile in Kyoto and Osaka, some townspeople and merchants began hosting smaller tea ceremonies in which they courteously entertained fewer guests using fewer utensils, and this went on to become a popular activity among the wealthy merchants of these commercial centers.
The tea ceremony, known in Japanese as chado or sado, meaning "way of tea," was perfected in the sixteenth century by the tea master Sen no Rikyu, who was also a successful merchant. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the practice of taking lessons in chado gradually spread among powerful daimyo (feudal lords), as well as among townspeople. Following Japan's opening to foreign trade in the second half of the nineteenth century, the popularity of chado temporarily declined as Western culture took hold in Japan. But over time it has regained popularity, and today, with about 40 different schools (styles) in existence, the total number of people who learn tea is said to be several million. Many people are taking lessons at chado clubs in their office or school, at culture centers, and in various other places.