Japanese tea is a healthy drink representative of the country’s history and culture. In Japanese, it is called Ryoku-Cha (緑茶, literally green tea) or Nihon-Cha (日本茶, literally Japanese tea). Most Japanese people drink it daily, and it is often served for free with a restaurant meal like water.
Origins of Japanese Tea
In China, the history of green tea goes back to 2700 BC: the Chinese drank it as a medicine. Green tea seeds were introduced to Japan in the 8th century by monks who were sent to China to study their culture and politics, which were much more advanced than in Japan at that time. In the chronicle “Nihon Koki (日本後紀)”, a text on the history of Japan that was written in the early Heian period in the 8th century, it is said that tea grown and brewed from seeds brought from China by a monk was offered to Emperor Saga. This is the oldest account of green tea in Japan. However, tea being precious, it was reserved for high-ranking people only.
Development of Green Tea in Japan
It is said that the Japanese began to drink tea in the Kamakura period in the 12th century. The monk Ei-Sai (栄西, founder of the Rinzai branch of Japanese Buddhism, 1141-1215) wrote the first work on the cultivation process and benefits of green tea in the early Kamakura period. According to this text, the tea leaves were crushed, then hot water was poured over them before drinking: the process is similar to making matcha but the treatment of the leaves was different and therefore not as good.
Ei-sai sent the tea seeds to Myoe, a monk in Kyoto who sowed them to create the first tea field in Japan. Gradually, drinking green tea became common among monks as well as samurai to maintain social relations: the latter organized a kind of “tea ceremony” to show their guests the valuable accessories from China needed to prepare the tea.
Japanese Green tea at Uji,Kyoto
The region of Uji in Kyoto was particularly suitable for tea cultivation due to its topography and climate, and green tea cultivation was encouraged by the Ashikaga Shogun. Uji is still known for tea cultivation today. The green tea produced in Uji was already of excellent quality at that time.
At the end of the 15th century, the monk Murata Juko (1423-1502) created the Wabi-Cha (侘び茶), combining the tea ceremony, which placed importance on decorated accessories, with Zen Buddhism: the tea ceremony then became very simple by placing importance on calm. It also allowed for the appreciation of local products. This philosophy was taken up by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) who introduced the tea ceremony and later named it Cha no Yu (茶の湯). Sen no Rikyu made the tea ceremony an indispensable part of samurai culture.
Modern Japanese Tea
From the Edo period, all of Japan began to drink tea: dried leaves were boiled to make tea. In 1738, tea producer Nagatani Soen (1681-1778) discovered a new method to prepare tea leaves called Sencha (煎茶): this method consists of steaming the plucked leaves and drying them by rubbing. By rubbing the leaves before drying, a deeper taste, a fresher aroma, and a transparent color could be obtained. This new preparation quickly spread throughout the country.
In 1835, a top-of-the-range type of tea was introduced: the Gyoku-Ro (玉露): at the time of budding, the tea plant is shaded. This technique produces more amino acids such as theanine which gives a better taste to the tea and eliminates the production of catechins causing a bitter taste. Compared to regular sencha, Gyoku-Ro has a more pronounced sweetness and a unique aroma. Because it takes much longer to grow than regular sencha and is thus more expensive, Gyoku-Ro is considered a luxury product.
With the development of delivery service, the cultivation of green tea spread rapidly and its production became an important industry in the country. After the opening of the country during the Meiji era, 20% of the products exported to foreign countries were green tea. However, with the popularity of black tea from India and Ceylon surging, exports began to decline but conversely, domestic consumption increased. Green tea then became an indispensable drink in the daily life of Japanese people.
Difference between English, Chinese and Japanese Tea
What many people don’t know about English tea, Chinese tea, and Japanese tea, is that the same variety of tea plant is used. The way in which the leaves are treated (especially the degree of fermentation or oxidation) after harvesting differentiates the color, taste, and aroma. Here is a description of the treatment processes of the different kinds of tea.
Japanese green tea: after the leaves are harvested, they are immediately steamed and then rubbed dry. As the oxidation is stopped by the steam, it is categorized as “unoxidized or unfermented tea”.
Chinese tea: the leaves are dried and oxidized for a while and then steamed, rubbed, and dried. As the oxidation of the leaves is stopped during preparation, it is categorized as “half oxidized tea”.
English tea: the leaves are dried and oxidized for a while, then rubbed, completely oxidized and dried. As the leaves are totally oxidized, it is categorized as “oxidized or fermented tea”.
For Japanese green tea, stopping oxidation by steaming the leaves keeps the green color and freshness.
Places of Green Tea Production
The tea plant is cultivated all over Japan except Hokkaido which is located in a cold zone. Shizuoka Prefecture accounts for more than 40% of the total tea production in Japan. If you want to enjoy the tea fields, from Tokyo you only have to take the shinkansen for around one hour or drive around two hours to get to the tea fields of Shizuoka.
Kyoto is nowadays still famous for its exquisite Uji tea. The new tea is harvested in mid-April in the south to move northward and finish in early June. It is possible to smell and taste different aromas depending on the soil, the process of preparation of the leaves, the time of picking, etc.
Common Varieties of Japanese Green Tea
Sencha: The production process for sencha green tea leaves is basic and common to all other green teas. The leaves are harvested between April and June. They are immediately steamed before being dried and rubbed. It is the most common tea in Japan. It is rich in catechin and vitamin C. It is drunk as an infusion.
Gyoku-Ro: at the time of budding, the tea plants are kept in the shade. This is the only difference with sencha. This technique produces more amino acids such as theanine which gives a better taste to the tea and suppresses the production of catechins causing a bitter taste. Compared to sencha, Gyoku-Ro has a more pronounced sweetness and a unique aroma. Because it takes much longer to grow than sencha, Gyoku-Ro is considered a luxury product. It is drunk as an infusion.
Matcha: only buds grown in the shade are used. They are steamed and dried. The biggest difference between matcha and other Japanese tea varieties is that no rubbing is done during the drying process. The stems and veins are removed and the rest is ground with a grindstone. Matcha is used for the tea ceremony as well as for pastry making. As the tea powder is diluted before drinking, it is apparently healthier.
Other Varieties of Japanese Green Tea
Bancha: bancha leaves are harvested in summer or autumn depending on the region. As the leaves are more exposed to the sun, they contain less caffeine and its taste is much less harsh. The rest of the procedure is the same as for sencha.
Hojicha: this is toasted (roasted) bancha. Thanks to the roasting process, the tea loses catechin so the taste is much less pronounced and thus very mild.
Genmaicha: is a mixture of hojicha and roasted grains of whole grain (husked) rice (genmai = whole grain rice). Some rice grains are so toasted that they look like popcorn. This tea has a light, almost creamy flavor,
How to Brew Japanese Tea
It is preferable to use fresh filtered tap water. The quantity of tea leaves, hot water, and its temperature, and the infusion time determine the taste. We tend to use lukewarm water for Gyoku-Ro and hot water for Hojicha. There is no rule, however, so everyone is free to experiment to enjoy the tea in their own way.
This is the most basic preparation procedure for Japanese tea
1, Put boiling water in a Japanese teacup and pour it into the teapot. This helps to lower the temperature of the boiling water (to about 70 degrees) and at the same time to heat the cup.
2, Then put about 5g of tea leaves in the teapot.
3, Wait 1 minute before serving.
4, Your tea is now ready. Enjoy it with a tasty Japanese confectionary!
Tea Plantation Visit
Shizuoka produces around 40% of Japan’s green tea, and the Makinohara plantation accounts for around half of that production. If you want to learn more about the green tea that is produced here, Green-Pia is a great place to do so. You will be able to enter the plantation, see what happens to the plants in order to produce tea, taste tea in its regular fluid form as well as in tea-flavored products like sweets, and learn about the health benefits of tea.
Your Japan Tour
If you are thinking about making a trip to Japan, as seasoned Japan experts we can help you create your perfect Japan tour, including experiences revolving around Japanese tea and tea culture. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!