The Inventor of Sencha
Nagatani Soen (1681 – 1778) invented the Uji green tea processing method which is today’s processing method of Sencha, Gyokuro and others, in 1738 when he was 58 years old. Even today, his original tea processing method is still the standard method used throughout Japan. Before Sohen invented the Uji method, Japanese tea was just Matcha or Bancha (Houjicha). Matcha used to be extremely precious and was produced only in tiny quantities, so only the Shogun and nobility were able to drink Matcha, and only a handful of merchants were approved to process Matcha. The general populace at large drank only Bancha (Houjicha) that was a brown color. Nagatani wanted the common people of Japan to be able to have access to not only brown but also green tea.
New processing method…
Nagatani devised a specialized method of processing harvested leaves. Instead of roasting and drying the harvest, he found steaming the tea leaves preserved their freshness and enhanced a fuller flavor. And unlike the then available Matcha (ground tea) and Houjicha (roasted tea) it produced a whole new type of tea. His new method of processing replaced the Chinese roasting method. The method is now referred to as the Uji method. It resulted in the creation of Sencha and most other teas now characteristic to Japan.
It did take a lot of work to make sencha, but the result was worth it. The tea leaves were green and had a fresh smell. Almost like the original unplucked leaf itself. When brewed, the liquor was a clear yellow, and in the mouth, there was a harmony between sweetness, astringency and bitterness. The needle shape of the tea was also beautiful, and the best thing was that it was possible for anyone to get this result. This process was named aosei sencha seihou in which the first character refers to the green color of the tea leaves.
How sencha became famous…
Nagatani Soen knew that he wouldn’t be able to sell much of his tea in Kyoto because the locals were too conservative. He had a better chance in Edo, the cultural center at the time and what is now Tokyo. After his long trip, he quickly realized that his new tea would be very difficult to sell. It was too different to the teas that everyone was used to. After trying to influence numerous tea shop owners with this new tea to no avail, he finally came across a small tea shop called Yamamotoya. The owner was impressed with his tea’s flavor.
The tea shop owner bought the tea from Nagatani and made him promise to bring more the following year. He gave the tea a name: tenka ichi , which literally means “first under the heavens”. In other words, the best tea in Japan. Mr. Yamamoto, the tea shop owner, made the tea very popular and hence became very wealthy. As a token of gratitude, the company sent a sum of money every year to the Nagatani family until 1874.
The great achievement of Nagatani Soen…
Soen isn’t praised mainly for his perseverance, although working for 15 years on a project is nothing to laugh at. Certainly, most of us would have thrown in the towel in less than one third of that time. His greatest achievement was that instead of keeping the process to himself for personal gain, he taught it to everyone that was willing to learn. That was how sencha ultimately spread throughout Japan.
He is memorialized in the shrine next door to his birthplace. And Sohen’s grave was built on top of the highest hill in the Ujitawara area near his birthplace for his achievements. Japanese tea merchants continuously visit his grave as a sign of gratitude on October 1st of every year.