Until early XVIII century most Japanese people did not have access to high quality tea.
Only few farmers were allowed to use shading method to grow better quality (less bitter) teas. Production of precious matcha was also controlled by the government and only aristocracy could afford it.
As a result, common people had to content themselves with brown tea leaves which were devoid of flavor or fragrance.
It all changed thanks to Soen Nagatani, who went down in history as the inventor of sencha.
Born in 637 in Ujitawara in the Kyoto prefecture, Soen made his living as a tea farmer there. Not being allowed to shade his tea plants, he was wondering whether there would be a way to produce a better quality tea.
And so he came up with a new method of rolling and drying tea leaves at the same time. It was being done on a horaya – a large sheet of paper set on top of the furnace.
Soen experimented with different rolling methods and it took him 15 years to come up with the satisfying result.
But in the end, the leaves were green and had a beautiful shape resembling pine needles; the smell was fresh.
When brewed, the liquor came clear and had a pale yellow color. He also achieved the perfect balance between sweetness, bitterness and astringency.
Soen’s tea was unlike any other type of tea that people drank at the time and he realized that it would be difficult to sell much of it in the conservative Kyoto.
However, Yamamoto Kahei, the owner of a tea shop in Edo, was greatly impressed with the new type of Soen’s tea. He gladly started selling it and it quickly became popular.
It was Mr. Yamamoto who came with the name “tenka ichi (天下一), which literally means “first under the heavens;" in other words, the best tea in Japan.
Soen is highly respected in Japan not only for perfecting the "tenka ichi" production, but even more so for popularizing it. By teaching other farmers how to grow and process sencha he made it available to a large number of people.