Where does matcha come from?

Without context, the proper, simple answer is from the tea bush, the camelia sinensis plant that which all teas come from.

Other long-winded answers could “from Japan’ or ‘from China’, and these are also valid given the right context. But to fully understand how these are correct it inevitably leads to the history of matcha and tea ceremony.

It started with a monk named Eisai

Eisai Myosan was a Japanese monk from the in the 12th century who was dissatisfied with the teaching of Buddhism in Japan. In 1187 he traveled to China to with the intent of proceeding to India for a pilgrimage, but his permission was denied. With no purpose for staying longer in China, he boarded a ship for his return to Japan.

During the course of the return trip struck a storm that forced him and his companions to land in haste at Rui’an in the Eastern Coastal province of Zheijang. While in Zheijang he decided to climb up Mount Tiantai where he undertook a rigorous study of the Linji Sect of Chan under Zen master Xuan Huaichang. After 3 years, Eisai attained enlightenment.

Eisai returned to Japan in 1911 where he will soon establish Japanese Zen Buddhism and along with it the art of matcha tea ceremony.

However, scholars are wary of crediting him for being the first person to bring matcha to Japan as he neither claimed to have bought tea bush seeds during his return nor did he claim to be the first person to introduce it. At that time other Japanese monks have come and gone to China, surely he was not first to be influenced by their tea culture which was a large part of monastic life. Eisai is credited for the spreading the custom of its cultivation and was partly responsible for spreading the custom of tea drinking.

Tea ceremony in the time of the Samurai

During Eisai’s time, matcha was a religious and medicinal drink after he suggested its health benefits. It wasn’t until the rise of the samurai that it became a social drink to be shared.

A part of the lifestyle of the extravagant nobles of the time was to hold tea parties for their friends during which they played games involving tea: guests were tested in their abilities to distinguish genuine tea (‘Honcha’). It soon blew up to include bets and the stakes were raised with absurdly expensive prizes which upped the ante.

The game originally called for guests to be given 10 cups, which incremented every round. As these parties attracted more people it became impossible to provide each guest with the necessary cups of tea. It is believed that guests passed around cups to each other and the act was adopted in the ways of the matcha tea ceremony.

So yes, the matcha is both from Japan, China and of course the camelia sinensis plant. It’s unique origin and its eventual establishment as a part of the culture in olden times that is alive, well and growing in our time is just one of the many things that make matcha amazing.