Tea and Japan are intrinsically linked. Japanese green tea is the country’s most consumed beverage, it has a special place in its history, culture, spirituality and art. In this article you will discover the history of Japan seen through the development of its tea industry. We will also introduce you to the different types of Japanese teas available on the market.
History of Japanese Tea
In Japan, the first written reference to tea is the writings of a 9-th century Buddhist monk. It was in fact at this time that Japanese priests and emissaries, sent to China to discover Chinese culture, brought back tea with them. Saicho in 805 A.D and Kukai in 806 A.D were probably the first priests to import tea to Japan. The tea is then presented mostly in compressed brick form. Between 809 and 823 A.D, the Japanese Emperor Saga (809-823), who particularly appreciated this drink, encouraged its cultivation. It remained quite a limited culture, since drinking tea was a luxury reserved for the royal class.
In 1191, the famous priest Zen Eisai brought tea seeds back from china and powdered Matcha green tea, the new form of tea consumption in China at that time. Some of the seeds brought back by Eisa were offered to priest Myoe Shonin and served as a foundation for the cultivation of the famous Uji tea. While in China powdered green tea, has been widely consumed only for a relatively short period of time, this form of consumption took a considerable place in Japanese culture with the development of the tea ceremony (chanoyu).
Between 1641 and 1853, Japan experienced a period of withdrawal and established a policy of total isolationism in order to control the use of its natural resources by foreign countries. As a result of this policy of isolation, for nearly 200 years China was the only producer and supplier of tea in the world. During this period, in 1740 to be exact, Soen Nagatani developed a method of steam drying the leaves, which made it possible to bring out the scent of freshness in the tea. Unlike Chinese green teas, which are initially pan fried, Japanese green teas offer a more vegetable flavor, similar to that of the seaweed, and is slightly more bitter.
The process of infusion of loose leaf tea is a method that was not known in Japan until later and was brought from China when relations between the neighboring countries became more relaxed. Actually, in 1859, Japan ended its policy of isolation and experienced a period of economic growth and development. Then as an industrialized country Japan also began producing black teas.
In the space of 50 years Japan became one of the leading tea exporters to the USA. At the beginning of the first World War the country exported 19,961 tons of green tea and 10,141 tons of black tea. This external demand, however, was short-lived, as American imports then turned to British hard-bodied black teas and more economical producing countries, such as Sri Lanka, India, and Kenya. The Japanese tea industry had to adapt: it shifted to domestic demand and the cultivation of green tea, which today accounts for more than 95% of Japan’s tea production.
In 1920 a team of Japanese scientists published the results of their research, which demonstrated the benefits of Japanese green tea and its vitamin and catechin content. The government published these studies to promote local consumption.
The main Types of tea in Japan
All teas are from the same shrub, Camellia sinensis. What makes them different? Well, it’s mainly their origin and method of manufacture. Read more about the different types of Japanese tea below.
Classic infused green teas: Gyokuro, Bancha and the famous Japanese green tea Sencha
The highest quality tea is Gyokuro tea, also known as ‘dew Pearl’. This tea, whose leaves are temporarily shaded to protect them from the sun, is picked during the first spring harvest. If you want to taste one of the best Japanese teas, let yourself be tempted by the Gyokuro unique and exquisite taste .
Then comes the Sencha tea, which is also usually picked during the first harvest (then it is called Shinca) but whose leaves are not shaded. Shincha tea is popular in Japan and is only available in limited quantities abroad.
Sencha tea is the most common tea and accounts for more than two-thirds of Japanese production.
Finally, Bancha tea is a low-grade tea whose leaves are harvested during later harvests.
Matcha green tea is native to Japan where it remains cultivated according to ancestral traditions. After harvesting, the leaves are dried and finely ground to a powder. This is what matcha tea is all about: the entire leaf will be reduced to a fine jade green powder. That way you can benefit from the nutrients contained in the tea Leaf… but also enjoy its full flavors! In Japan, Matcha tea is traditionally consumed at a tea ceremony. The fine powder is then mixed with water thru a whisk… and is not infused like ordinary green or black teas!
This Matcha tea powder is known for its exceptional antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties: it contains vitamins C and E, beta-carotene but especially … polyphenols, as in red wine or cocoa! Catechins, the antioxidant molecules found in tea (especially green tea), protect our cells from oxidative stress and aging. Several studies have highlighted the benefits of a daily consumption of green tea, two to three cups per day: will result in decreased cardiovascular risk, prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and many otger benefits…
Matcha powder is also rich in chlorophyll: a pigment found in green plants. These natural pigment is rich in magnesium and is a powerful antioxidant, but also has great detoxifying properties. This helps you effectively eliminate toxins from your body.
How to prepare a Matcha tea according to Japanese traditions ?
- Pour a teaspoon of Matcha green tea into a tea bowl
- Fill the bowl with water that is just below boiling point
- Whisk vigorously with a small bamboo whisk until the mixture becomes sparkling and foamy;
- Ideally, you should consume your Matcha tea without added sugar.
For the most enjoyment Matcha tea is also consumed with milk. This is the matcha latte, which has become famous for its taste and great appearance! Cow’s milk, soy milk, almond milk …it’s your choice.
Only premium quality leaves are used to prepare a Matcha green tea. They are dried, ground to a fine powder and mixed with hot water.
The culinary grade Matcha is usually of lower quality but can also be enjoyed if it’s from a reputable brand.
Kukicha is a Japanese green tea made from stems and twigs. Composed of parts of the tea tree that are not used in most other teas, it has a unique flavor and aroma. It is a particularly fragrant tea, refreshing and with an aftertaste reminiscent of seaweed.
Hojicha (roasted green tea)
Hojicha tea is slightly roasted, giving the leaves a characteristic reddish-brown color. The heat from the roasting also causes chemical alterations within the leaves and gives the liqueur a sweet aroma, similar to that of caramel.
Genmaicha (green tea mixed with roasted brown rice)
Genmaicha is a traditional Japanese tea, a blend of Bancha green tea and roasted brown rice. The fresh vegetable notes of the tea blend harmoniously with the roasted notes of the rice grains, and give it a very characteristic taste that makes it a very popular tea for those who are not accustomed to green tea. Very refreshing, this tea can be enjoyed both hot and iced, and goes particularly well with your meals.
Genmaicha tea is also very a popular drink in Japan and is often served in restaurants and cafes.
Oolongcha tea is made up of leaves that are left to oxidize slightly before being steam dried or roasted.
It’s a popular tea in Japanese restaurants.
Kocha (black tea)
The leaves of Kocha tea are even more oxidized than those of Oolongcha tea, giving the drink a dark brown color. In Japanese “kocha” means “red tea” with reference to the reddish brown colour of the liqueur.
Jasmine flower tea is a very common drink in Okinawa where it is known as Sanpincha.
So, you now know a little more about the history of Japanese tea and the different types of teas produced and consumed by the country. If you have not yet finished your tea break, we suggest you check out more about your favorite drink by browsing our other drink related articles .