Tea drinking had spread from China to Japan by 900 AD. History credits the monk Saisho as being the man who first brought tea leaves from China to Japan during the Heian period (794 AD - 1185 AD). However, a different monk, Eisai (1141-1215), is credited with starting Japan down the road to their unique 'way of tea'.
He brought back tea-tree seeds from a pilgrimage to China and planted these seeds on the island of Kyushu and around the monasteries of Hakata. At first Eisai and his contemporaries used tea mainly as a medicine, and used the same preparation methods as were common in China in that time: grinding the tea leaves before pouring hot water over them in a calming, zen process.
Over time Japan sought to separate its tea traditions from the Chinese. Between 1641 and 1853 Japan embraced a policy of isolation, preventing any contact between Japan and the outside world, during which they honed their own way of tea. Not only did the Japanese make distinctions about the way they interacted with tea, they also they invented their own means of processing it. By the 16th century shading the tea plants from sunlight with Tana canopies began – a process which is the origin of today’s Matcha and Gyokuro teas. These teas became more and more popular, and Japanese tea makers began to innovate new ways of preparing them. Unlike other tea growing nations the Japanese focus almost entirely on green teas (99.9% of the tea grown is green tea) and have a special way to fix the leaves from oxidising, i.e. by steaming them. This process was invented by Soen Nagatani in 1738, and gives many Japanese greens their fresh, grassy taste.
Japanese teas have becoming increasingly popular outside of Japan in recent years, with popular imports being Sencha, Genmaicha, Kukicha and Matcha. As with China different regions of Japan are known for different teas:
Shizuoka is the biggest tea producing region of Japan and is responsible for about half of Japan's tea production. Its speciality is Sencha but Shizuoka produces all kinds of tea.
Kyoto is located in the middle of the island of Honshu. It is known as one of the original places where Eisai first planted tea in Japan and is famous for its high-quality teas, especially Matcha and Gyokuro.