Myths, Facts and Philosophy
A tea master purifies himself by splashing some cold water on his hands and then humbly takes a tea whisk. A sacred atmosphere fills the room when a tea artisan contemplates over a bowl of Japanese green tea, known as matcha. A tea ceremony, Chado, is not dedicated to consuming a tea. This combination of an art and a spiritual discipline is all about aesthetics.
Still an oddity to the West, Japanese green tea slowly gains a worldwide popularity with its claiming health benefits, rather than a cultural practice. While legend has it that green tea was ‘discovered’ in China in 2737 BC, it was only in the 16th century that tea reached the West as explorers visited Asia.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been using green tea for centuries to treat everything from headaches to depression. Now commonly recognised as a ‘superfood’, green tea has special health-giving benefits because of the way it is processed.
Despite that, black tea leaves are the most commonly drunk type of tea in the UK. Public Health nutritionist, Dr Carrie Ruxton suggests the British to swap black tea for the green one. Interestingly, both teas come from the same plant, but green tea is not fermented and contains more simple flavonoids. Black tea leaves are fully oxidised, whilst those for green tea are lightly steamed, which helps to preserve important vitamins and minerals for our bodies.
Her research into people drinking six cups of tea a day, published in 2011, showed that tea could be considered more beneficial than water because drinking tea doesn’t dehydrate, as was previously thought. Tea is full of antioxidants, therefore, it can help in many ways, ranging from preserving teeth and keeping oneself slim to protecting from strokes.
The study carried out over 11 years by Japanese researchers from Tohoku University found clear evidence that drinking three to four cups of tea a day can cut the chances of having a heart attack to 20%. The research examined data on 40,530 healthy adults aged 40 to 79 in Japan, where drinking green tea is a daily routine. As noticed, the rate of heart-related disease in Japan is one of the lowest in the world due to Japanese diet.
Green tea itself might not be the cure of cancer but it has some significant supporting claims that it is able to prevent one. The Mayo Clinic has done clinical trials with green tea and chronic leukaemia. In the first phase of the disease, trials showed that high doses of tea helped to decrease the amount of white cells by one third, causing cancer regression.
Very little research has been done into whether green tea can be helpful in treating other forms of cancer. It has been suggested that green tea may help to prevent prostate cancer. However, a study of almost 20,000 Japanese men, published in the British Journal of Cancer in 2006, found no relationship between green tea and prostate cancer.
Green tea takes the centre stage when it comes to aiding weight loss. While Victoria Beckman has been boasting about pu-erh tea that helps her to stay slim and look younger, supermodel Sophie Dahl praises green tea for boosting her metabolism and helping her to drop from a size 16 to 12.
Whilst thanks to celebrities green tea has made headlines, sadly, science has not proved a direct link between those kilos and a tea. Some studies on the health effects of tea consumption have revealed that green tea may reduce fat, however, most work has been carried out in test tubes, and almost none have looked at weight loss potential of green tea in humans.
British Dietetic Association in corporation with NHS has done the research on whether health claims about green tea are true. The Association of UK Dietitians spokesman Steven Jenkins commented that green tea’s benefits to health are inconclusive. In countries like Japan, green tea has been used as a treatment for arthritis, weight loss, as well as a preventative measure for cancer. According to him, a proper long-term research on all of these conditions is weak. But without a doubt, in moderate amounts green tea can be enjoyed without side effects as a social drink.
While green tea is usually considered as a commodity, Japan and China embraces a tea brew with a respectful ceremony and Zen philosophy. In Japan, it is believed that powdered green tea, matcha, affects our bodies not only physically, but also spiritually.
Urasenke grand tea master Daisosho Hounsai describes tea as a cultural practice that embraces every aspect of life, ranging from the arts, religion, and philosophy to social life. He writes: “Whether or not you perceive the value of drinking tea alone at the end of the day depends wholly upon your altitude. It makes a big difference in your life if you make time to sit and drink some tea that you fix for yourself as you self-reflect.” Since becoming a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Hounsai has been working hard to help preserve the world’s cultural heritage through the influence of tea.
“Chado” word-by-word translation is “The Way of Tea”, which is referred to a way of life or a devoted lifestyle in preparing the best possible bowl of matcha for the guests. Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, a retired Japanese former banker living in Central London, devotes all his spare time to master his tea preparation skills. He said: “ I started practising 5 years ago because I was fascinated that tea ceremony combines so many different aspects of crafts and arts. Not only the certain things like manners, how to shake the tea or how to choose the blend. It requires so many training and discipline and, ultimately, that reflects traditional values, beliefs and rituals that Japanese people have.”
Yamaguchi is a part of Urasenke Foundation in London, a non-profitable organisation, which introduces and spreads knowledge of the tea ceremony. He mentions that majority of Urasenke students are Japanese, searching for their identity, but there are also a large number of British people interested in this art. He added: “The good thing about this country is that education system encourages the people to be more exposed and familiar with multicultural society.” When asked to describe tea in short, without hesitation he said: “It is the art of living”.
Whether matcha is your cup of tea or not, it has been proved that green tea contains various bioactive compounds that can improve health or prevent from some of the major diseases. But countries like Japan teaches that apart from physical state, mental health should not be forgotten in our busy lifestyles. While it is not necessary to complete the exact ceremony to achieve inner peace, enjoying a cup of tea will certainly distract from the mundane affairs of day-to-day living.