永谷宗円 Souen Nagatani (1680 – 1778)
– Patriarch of Sencha –
Sencha (煎茶) is made purely of young tea leaves and is the most beloved tea of Japan. Today, 80% of green tea consumed in Japan is Sencha. However, it is not the tea with the longest history in Japan. Unlike Sencha, Matcha (抹茶) has over 800 years history. Sencha only arose about 300 years ago when Souen Nagatani (永谷宗円) invented its unique production method.
Before Souen created Sencha, were all Japanese people drinking Matcha? Of course not. Matcha was enjoyed only by nobles and high-class samurais, and it was completely out of reach for ordinary people. Common people were drinking teas called “Senjicha (煎じ茶)” which was boiled or pan-fried after harvest and solidified by drying. They looked like Pu-Erh tea of today, but the quality was not good at all. Senjicha was dull brown or red in color, and fresh flavors didn’t exist at all.
Matcha was a very special tea at the time, and only a few tea makers in Kyoto had the privilege to produce it. Souen didn’t, and was only allowed to make Senjicha. Dissatisfied with this situation, Souen thought about how he could create quality Senjicha and enrich people’s lives. After hundreds of trials, Souen combined Matcha and Senjicha production methods. His most important breakthrough was adopting the meticulous rolling into drying process. The rolling helps create needle-like tea leaves and preserve the tea’s fresh color and flavor. Souen named it “Aosei Sencha (青製煎茶)” after the fresh green color of the tea leaves. He achieved this new productions method in 1738, at the age of 58.
Souen brought Aosei Sencha to Edo (currently Tokyo) and introduced it as a new green tea. However, because the tea was way different from the common Senjicha of the time, no one was interested in it, except Kihei Yamamoto (山本嘉兵衛), a famous tea broker. Kihei named the tea “Tenka Ippin (天下一品),” meaning “the best in the world,” and he gained tremendous popularity with it.
Another big achievement of Souen was that he openly taught his unique production method to others. Tea makers from across the country came to learn from Souen, and this was a big reason why Sencha became popular so quickly in Japan. Today, Sencha is enjoyed all over the world. And Souen Nagatani is the person who started the legacy.