February 10, 2022 8 min read

History of Japanese Tea

Japan has a rich history of tea reaching back to the 7th to 8th centuries when tea drinking gained popularity. By the 1100s, chanoyu or green tea drinking had been taken up by monks in the Rinzai Zen sect to maintain alertness during meditation. The ruling classes entertained by holding large-scale tea ceremonies in luxurious surroundings but by the 16th century, the tea advisor to the Kyoto shogun court, Sen no Rikyu, rejecting the extravagance, moved the style of tea drinking towards simplicity and naturalness, which has greatly influenced Japanese aesthetics and culture up to the present. Today tea is drunk all over Japan and available in many different types and variations. This article will cover the most common varieties of tea in Japan.

Chinese vs. Japanese tea

China has a huge variety of teas, such as Oolong, Pu-erh and some varieties of green tea. Some of the differences between Chinese and Japanese green teas lie in the processing. Japanese tea goes through a stage of steaming rather than using dry heat common in China, so that the green tea keeps a fresh, vegetal flavour, brighter colours and wider health benefits. Also, many Chinese teas are fermented but this is rare in Japan. Around the 12th century, powdered green tea was in use in China and was brought to Japan by the monk Eisai. This practice died out in China but continued to thrive in Japan, where the drinking of, whisked, powdered matcha evolved to become what we know as the Japanese tea ceremony.

The Tea Plant

All types of green tea and black tea (called red tea in China and Japan) are produced from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis, a native of South and East Asia, with a likely origin in Yunnan in southern China. It is a bushy, flowering evergreen shrub, whose leaves, buds, stems and twigs are used to make an impressive variety of teas. 

Though a single plant species, different processing methods, both pre- and post-harvest, create the black and the green teas from the Indian sub-continent, mainland China and Japan. It is an extremely versatile plant!

Tea cultivars

Although all tea is the species Camellia sinensis, Japan has selectively bred several cultivars, which are more specialized for particular tea types. Below are listed some of the main cultivars and their characteristics:

Gokoh – suitable for gyokuro; slow to ripen; bright green with a sweet taste; grown in small amounts in the Uji region

Samidori – suitable for gyokuro and matcha; more yellowish green; sweet taste; slow to ripen; grown in small amounts in the Uji region

Asahi – subtle flavour and aroma; suitable for matcha; grown in small amounts in the Uji region

Yabukita – hardy and productive; used for more everyday teas; refreshing, rich taste; grown on 80% of tea farms

Where is green tea produced in Japan?

The main areas for green tea cultivation are the Uji area in the south part of Kyoto, Shizuoka to the south-west of Mount Fuji and the Kagoshima area in Kyushu, although it is grown to a lesser extent in other areas too. The finest green teas are considered to be those from the Uji area while those from Shizuoka and Kyushu tend to be more for everyday drinking.

How often is it harvested?

In Japan, green tea can be harvested from two to four or five times a year, from spring to autumn. The harvesting may be only the top two leaves and a bud, or it may include lower leaves and even twigs, depending on the type of tea. The harvest calendar varies according to the area. Higher grade Japanese teas are typically from the first harvest.

  • Ichibancha (first flush) or shincha (new tea) is harvested in April/May in all areas.
  • Nibancha (second flush) is harvested from June to July, and this is usually the last harvest in the Uji area because the heat and humidity lead to more problems with insects.
  • Sanbancha (3rd) and Yonbancha (4th) harvests are possible in the Shizuoka and Kagoshima regions due to the climate and geography.

 

Japanese green tea Production

Pre-harvest: Shaded or non-shaded

Pre-harvest and post-harvest processes are used to produce green teas which vary in flavour, colour and caffeine content. Pre-harvest processes can include kabuse, meaning covered during sprouting to reduce sunlight, to produce so-called ‘shaded tea’. 

Nowadays a synthetic black screen is laid over the plants but, in the past, a mixture of rice straw and reeds were used. Green teas left to grow in direct sunlight are known as ‘non-shaded’.

Effects of shading

Originally this was to protect the young leaves of Japanese tea from cold and frost but it was discovered that this also produced a change in flavour. Photosynthesis is slowed down which raises the chlorophyll content in the leaves, resulting in a darker, more intense emerald green. Today gyokuro and matcha Are the most common shaded teas.

The amino acid, L-theanine, is also increased, which makes a sweeter, less astringent tea with more umami, as well as directly affecting the brain and promoting a feeling of relaxation. This has a counter-balancing effect to the theine in tea, which is basically the same molecule as caffeine, though its effects may be gentler because of the polyphenols in tea.

Effects of non-shading

Non-shaded tea is left to grow in direct sunlight which results in brighter green leaves. These teas have higher astringency and greater levels of catechins. Often the unshaded first harvest leaves are picked in April and the shaded spring teas are harvested for the first time later in May. 

Post-harvest processing

If you picked a leaf of tea, put it in a cup and poured hot water on it, it would not taste at all like any of the teas we are familiar with. Japanese tea goes through various key steps post-harvest, depending on the type of tea being produced. 

Reasons for processing

These steps may include steaming to stop the oxidation of the tea leaves; rolling to break down the leaf cell walls so that components can be extracted by brewing; shaping to improve the shape of the tea leaf or needles; drying to reduce moisture content to preserve the tea better. These steps were all done by hand in the past but, like wine making, have now become mechanised.

Other processing

Japanese green teas are only rarely fermented and are mostly produced in Shikoku. Other types of processing are roasting and grinding into a powder.

 

Main types of Japanese green tea

Types of Japanese Tea

Japanese teas can be categorised according to the processes the leaves are subjected to before harvesting or afterwards, or according to the type of flavour. 

Shaded teas

Tencha

shaded for at least 20 days then the leaves have low tannins and are steamed and dried without rolling. It is mostly used to make Matcha green tea but is occasionally drunk as a leaf tea, though it has a very light flavour because the rolling process, releasing flavour by breaking the cells in the leaf, is omitted.

Gyokuro

Shaded for 10-20 days then steamed, dried and rolled. One of the more expensive Japanese teas, it has a dark green leaf colour and is rich in theanine. The flavour is sweet with marked umami, low astringency and an elegant fragrance. Contains theine. It is produced particularly in the Uji region.

Kabusecha

Shaded for 10-20 days, the tea is in a category between Gyokuro and Sencha.

Kukicha

Also called Karigane or twig tea, it is a cheaper tea made from stalks, stems (kuki) and older leaves, usually from Gyokuro. It has a mild flavour and is easy to brew. Low in caffeine, it may be drunk later in the day. 

Gyokuro Konacha

Made from the smallest leaves, flakes and fine dust left after producing Gyokuro. It is cheaper than Gyokuro but is made from high-grade leaves so has a more delicate, sweeter flavour than other teas at a similar price.

Non-shaded teas

Sencha

After picking, sencha is processed in the same way as Gyokuro. By far the most widely drunk tea Japanese tea, it is rich in catechins, which confer numerous health benefits. It has a refreshing flavour and aftertaste with slight astringency due to the light steaming (asamushi) in the post-harvest. It was created in the late eighteenth century in Uji and means ‘simmered tea’. The oxidation of the leaves is stopped by steaming, and are then rolled after cooling, giving the characteristic needle shape.

Sencha fukamushi

or 'Deep Steamed green tea'. The tea plants are lightly shaded for a few days only, producing a mellow and refreshing tea. Fukamushi means ‘deep steaming’, a process which makes the leaves less astringent and reduces aroma but gives greater depth and sweetness at a lower cost to Gyokuro. Produced particularly in Shizuoka and Kyushu regions.

Shincha 

means ‘new tea’; cultivated in the same way as Sencha but, like Beaujolais Nouveau, is the first harvest only and drunk for only a short time each year. Its characteristics are a low level of astringency, high level of sweetness and fresh taste.

Bancha 

older leaves picked later in the season after the ichibancha harvest from Sencha, Gyokuro or Tencha plants; the tea leaves may be sun-dried giving a warm aroma; widely drunk in Japan at all times of day as it is low in theine and inexpensive.

Roasted Green tea

Hojicha 

the steamed, rolled, dried leaves of green teas such as Sencha, Bancha or Kukicha are gently roasted, traditionally over charcoal in a porcelain vessel, developing a warm, nutty flavor and a colour ranging from golden to reddish-brown. Hojicha is very popular as an everyday drink.

Genmaicha

a Japanese green tea made with Sencha or Bancha mixed with roasted brown rice or popped rice, giving a smooth, nutty, roasted flavor. Originally genmaicha was created to make the tea supply go further, it is now widely drunk as an everyday tea. 

Genmai matcha-iri 

when Matcha is mixed in with Genmaicha to give a deeper green colour and fuller flavour it is called Matcha-iri Genmai.

Iribancha 

known as Kyobancha in Kyoto, where it is an everyday tea. It is made of older leaves with a lengthy steam and deeper roast to give a complex, smoky aroma, slightly reminiscent of pipe tobacco but with a refreshing aftertaste.

Kamairicha 

a kama is traditionally an iron pot used for cooking rice, among other things. Kamairicha, is made by dry pan-toasting green tea to stop oxidation and gradually dry the leaves, creating a tea with similar characteristics to Hojicha but without the step of steaming. The colour is bright golden and the taste fresh and sweet. The tea leaves may have a curled shape instead of the usual needle shape of Japanese green teas.

Powdered teas

Matcha tea powder

made from tencha by steaming and drying the leaves. There are two types of matcha: ceremonial grade matcha, used in Japanese Tea ceremony is from early harvest leaves which are stone ground. Culinary grade, machine ground from later harvest leaves. Both are bright green with a high theanine content and rich umami.

Hojicha powder 

ground tea, mostly for culinary purposes hojicha powder can be used to make hojicha lattes

Genmaicha tea powder 

powdered green tea made from genmaicha, mostly for culinary purposes.

Sencha tea powder

popular in sushi restaurants because of the speed of brewing.

 

Japanese Herbal Tea & Black Teas

There are other Japanese teas which may be made from Camellia sinensis tea plant but also from grains or other plants, including:

Sobacha

made from roasted buckwheat kernels; warm, earthy flavour with no caffeine.

Mugicha

made from roasted barley; drunk throughout Japan especially in summer, at room temperature or chilled. No caffeine.

Wakoucha

Japanese black tea, though koucha means red tea. Green tea leaves are first withered, then rolled to speed up the oxidation and finally dried.

Fermented teas

some areas of Shikoku make lesser-known fermented teas which are harvested late and boiled before fermenting such as awabancha, which has a slight acidity, a greenish scent of wild flowers and low theine.

Sakuracha a type of Japanese tea made from salted cherry blossoms.

Kombucha a salty, slightly sweet tea made from powdered kelp.

Kuromamecha ― a caffeine free tea made from roasted black soya beans, said to have health benefits.


 
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