The Tea of the Rising Sun
Today, Japan is considered one of the powerhouse nations of green tea. And it’s true, for many both in Japan and abroad, Japanese green tea is their # 1 beverage of choice.
In fact, tea is often considered to be the most consumed beverage in Japan. And almost all tea both produced and consumed in Japan is green. So let us say Ohayo!
To Japanese Green tea!
Tea and tea culture, have played a role in Japanese society, religion, politics, the arts and wider national development and identity for a long, long time. Some of the earliest mentions of tea in Japanese history go back to the Nara era, which lasted from around 700 to 794 A.D.
At this time Japan was engaging in exciting diplomatic, political and economic exchanges with the Asian mainland, in particular, Korea and China.
It was after a group of Japanese diplomats returned from the Chinese imperial capital of Chang’an that tea first began to permeate into the Japanese consciousness and spark more interest in the beverage.
The next few decades would see increasing exchange with China, especially by diplomats, emissaries, and Buddhist clergy. The Buddhist clergy, traveling to China to train and study texts would return with Chinese cultural practices and goods.
Namely, green tea. It is believed that the Japanese monks Kukai and Saicho returned to Japan with the first tea seeds. At this time, tea was mostly consumed for medicinal purposes and was largely restricted to the nobility and the Buddhist religious classes.
But by Japan’s Kamakura era in the early to mid-Medieval period, the monk Eisai returned from his studies and pilgrimages in China bearing a method of preparing tea from ground leaves, the early ancestor of later matcha.
Eisai is also credited with developing the first tea plantation in Japan in the Uji region, which is still considered a renowned place for cultivating Japanese green tea today.
Legend has it that the tea plants found in Uji are the descendants of Eisai’s original plants that he brought from China.
From here, the magnitude of tea would continue to grow, when during the Muromachi period tea began to become widespread with wider society. Monks, samurai, merchants, nobles, the emperor, fishermen, all enjoying tea.
Many of the samurai warlords who would come to dominate the government at this time became patrons of Zen Buddhism.
A school of Buddhism developed in China, synthesizing Taoism and Confucianism along with Buddhist practices and beliefs into a religious philosophy adopted by warriors and common people alike.
Interestingly, tea was often a point of contemplation and ritual within Zen. By patronizing Zen, the daimyo and even the shogun himself also became connoisseurs of tea, especially matcha.
One such famous Japanese tea master to serve tea to powerful warlords like Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was Sen no Rikyu. Sen no Rikyu helped to develop and codify the art of enjoying matcha tea as used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Rules and regulations are still followed and practiced to this day.
By Japan’s Meiji era, automation and machine processing of green tea had begun. But this did not halt the development of tea or the creation of new types of green tea to enjoy.
One such style of green tea developed after the modern period is hojicha, which was made as a way to not waste any of the valuable tea remains and particles that would be left behind when tea plants were machine harvested.
In addition to hojicha, there are many other types of green tea that are enjoyed. A distinct factor in processing green tea Japanese style is the steaming process.
The art of steaming tea leaves was the original method for processing leaves throughout China and the rest of the world.
But eventually, the steaming practice ceased in favor of pan-frying the tea leaves to process them.
in Japan, the steaming method is still used today which gives tea leaves from Japan their distinct flavor, color, and aroma.
Compared to other types of Asian green tea, many varieties of Japanese green tea leaves are often a strikingly deep shade of almost alpine green.
Tea’s place of renown in Japanese culture has not diminished and is still a widely consumed beverage today. Green tea is featured as a flavor in soft drinks, confectionary treats, ice cream, and many other foods and beverages.
Wherever you go in Japan, you can find vending machines that are sure to be stocked with half a dozen or so different varieties of tea, with green tea as a staple item.
And in Japanese convenient stores, one can peruse a whole catalog of bottled teas, available both hot and cold. Let’s take a look at a host of green tea varieties found in Japan!
Types of Green Tea
This variety of green tea is the most widely known and consumed of Japanese green teas. These leaves are produced through common processing methods which include steaming and rolling the leaves.
The name of this variety means “steamed for a long time” because the leaves are steamed for about twice as long as normal sencha leaves are. in regards to taste, Fukamushi differs from normal sencha by possessing a stronger flavor and having a more powdery consistency.
Fukamushi also lacks the more vegetal or grassy aroma and astringent flavor some other green teas can have. Fukamushi is considered finer tea because the extra refinement from their steaming gives them a more pleasant taste.
One of the “covered culture” tea varieties. tea plants used to make gyokuro are covered about 20 days before their leaves are harvested.
By covering the leaves from the sun this results in a chemical reaction in the leaves that grants a lower level of astringency in gyukuro’s flavor. another unique characteristic of gyokuro leaves is their seaweed-like aroma.
Another “covered culture” tea variety, kabusecha differs from gyokuro because kabusecha plants are only covered one week before harvesting.
Because the leaves are blocked from excessive sunlight, the resulting product is a darker leaf that has a full body and is less astringent than other tea varieties.
Matcha is the ground powder from tencha green tea leaves. Matcha is featured in the Japanese tea ceremony, but lower grades of matcha are used in more common drinks and in cooking, too.
Most tencha becomes ground up into a powder to be used as matcha. These leaves are also covered to block out sunlight and are steamed, dried and meticulously plucked of all twigs and leaf veins so when they are dry they can be ground up more easily.
Tencha is usually covered longer than gyokuro leaves are.
A tea with a name meaning “brown rice”. This tea is actually what we would consider a blend, because it is a mix of green tea like sencha with soaked, steamed and then popped brown rice.
This tea is enjoyed for its savory rice flavor and rejuvenating sencha flavor together. It also has a lower caffeine content than other green tea types.
With a unique appearance and roasted, caramel aroma and taste, hojicha is the result of sencha leaves, twigs, stalks and stems all pan-roasted together and then immediately cooled.
The heat of pan-frying burns off some of hojicha’s caffeine content, and also results in an almost reddish-brown liquor.
Tea made from the first leaves picked in the tea harvesting season, shincha goes by multiple names depending on when and where the leaves are picked.
According to traditional Japanese beliefs, drinking the first tea leaves picked in the season following after winter will result in a year blessed with good health and luck.
Shincha is known to have a refreshing aroma, low caffeine and low levels of astringency, a full body and a sweet flavor that makes it a popular and sought after tea to enjoy.
Names like Ichibancha, Nibancha and Sanbancha all refer to the first, second and third leaves harvested during the tea season respectively.
Sayonara, for now!
The world of Japanese tea is wide, rich and diverse. Japanese teas often have a deep, green color and a refreshing and unique aroma and flavor.
Not to mention Japan’s specialty, matcha! if you are lucky enough to be in the Land of the Rising Sun, make sure to sample some of the exquisite green tea!
But for now, we must say sayonara to Japanese green tea.
Let us meet again soon!
- l “Green Tea.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Nov. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_tea.
- l “History of Tea in Japan.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 July 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tea_in_Japan.
- l “Tea.” Tea in Japan, www.japan-guide.com/e/e2041.html.
- l “Varieties of Green Tea.” ITOEN ©ITO EN, All Rights Reserved., www.itoen-global.com/allabout_greentea/varieties.html.