The Japanese produce some of the most well-known green teas. They’re lauded for both their taste and health benefits. As more people are moving towards a healthier lifestyle, Japanese green tea has been enjoying increasingly widespread popularity around the world.
Despite all that, the only type of Japanese green tea most of us know is matcha. But there are many other popular Japanese teas, ranging from the ubiquitous Sencha, Konacha that is often served at a sushi bar, all the way to Genmaicha, a delicately savory green tea with roasted rice mixed the tea leaves.
Just like black tea, there are a lot of varieties of Japanese tea, all with their own unique taste and the best brewing method. Let your curiosity lead you and they will provide you with the joy of discovery.
This article will:
- Introduce you to the world of Japanese green teas;
- Explain the history and culture surrounding this wonderful beverage;
- Inform you of the difference between Japanese green tea and other green teas;
- Give you tips on what to look for in Japanese green teas;
- Deepen your love for the amazing beverage known as tea.
Are you ready to discover a whole new world of tea? Get a nice, warm cuppa, and let’s begin.
How Is Japanese Green Tea Different?
While both Chinese and Japanese green teas are made from the same Camellia Sinensis plant, there are many things that set them apart.
The most important difference is how oxidation is prevented during processing. That is, the Japanese use steam as a source of heat, while the Chinese like to roast or pan-fire their green tea. This results in significant differences in taste, color, and health-related properties.
Also, Japanese green tea is a powerhouse of EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) an antioxidant that helps in improving the liver, heart, and brain health and promotes weight loss.
Another advantage of Japanese green teas is their high amount of immune-boosting amino acids.
Japanese teas are known for their rich flavor with umami notes. That makes them the go-to drink to go along with a meal at home, in casual eateries, or even at upscale restaurants.
Japanese green teas can also be recognized by their leaf color, which is usually greener, and more intense than that of Chinese green teas. Also, the same can be said about the infusion color – where Chinese green tea brews into a lighter cup, some Japanese green teas can color it green or bright yellow.
Finally, they’re different by their leaf shape. The Japanese green tea leaves are usually rolled into needles in Japan, or powdered into Matcha. Chinese green tea, however, is sometimes sculpted by hand into various forms – such as a ball, or a spiral. Nonetheless, this doesn’t make Japanese tea less enjoyable, as there is a certain beauty in the simplicity.
What is Japanese Tea?
There are many types of Japanese teas, although many of them fall into the green tea category. It’s one of the six different types of tea made with the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant.
Green tea is so common in Japan that if someone talks about “Ocha (お茶)” or “Tea” without mentioning a specific type of tea, they are automatically referring to green tea.
Japanese green teas have a range of different qualities, each with its own characteristics and usages. Sencha, for one, is the most commonly consumed green tea in Japan, while Matcha enjoys usage in both traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and as a culinary ingredient.
But what makes them have wildly different characters when they all come from the same plant and similar terroirs? It all comes down to the processes involved in cultivating and processing the tea leaves.
How is Japanese Green Tea Processed?
Traditional Japanese green tea production involves a lengthy process. Firstly, the process starts by steaming the freshly picked tea leaves. This is important to stop the natural oxidization that starts from the moment the leaves are picked. It prevents the green tea from turning into black or fermented tea and gives the Japanese teas their unique taste.
The steamed leaves are then dried and rolled with hot air for the first time before rolling again under pressure. The leaves must then go through another drying and rolling phase. This time, using warm air, to arrange the shapes of the leaves before being further arranged in the final rolling.
At this point, the tea leaves are ready to be completely dried and turned into Aracha, or crude tea. This crude tea is then cut and sifted according to size. This is called the refinement phase. Finally, they’re packed into cases or sacks and delivered to your favorite tea shop.
What is the History and Tradition Behind Japanese Tea?
The first mention of Japanese green tea is recorded in Nihon-Koki, also known as the Chronicles of Japan. This historical text describes a Buddhist monk named Eichuu presenting the tea to the Emperor of Saga on April 22nd, 815. At the time, tea was regarded as a medicinal beverage that was primarily enjoyed only by priests and high-ranking officials.
Green tea remained a very exclusive drink until the Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573) when it slowly transformed into something that all layers of social classes could enjoy. However, the more well-off members of society used tea parties as an opportunity to showcase their wealth and wisdom with elaborate tea bowls and knowledge about tea.
Another important moment in the long history of tea in Japan was the refinement of tea parties with Zen-inspired qualities. The Father of the Modern Way of Tea, Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591) incorporates somber simplicity, a far cry from the previously lavish treatment of tea parties, into tea ceremonies. Rikyu put emphasis on harmony between the guests and the teaware, respect for both the participants and the tools, cleanliness, and tranquility. Sen no Rikyu’s teaching lives on even today in many schools of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Today, Japanese tea is an inseparable part of daily life in Japan:
- It’s consumed as bottled tea;
- Loose-leaf tea is served to guests in Japanese homes;
- Tea ceremonies that use ceremonial-grade matcha.
You can find tea in Japan wherever and whenever you go.
What to Look For in Japanese Tea?
Considering there are many kinds of Japanese green tea, deciding which one to buy can be quite a challenge. In general, there are several tips you should keep in mind when you are out on the hunt for your next tea haul.
Keep an eye out for consistency
Consistent color and uniform, whole tea leaves can be an indication of quality. This doesn’t mean that the tea should always contain only buds, though.
Greener doesn’t always mean better
Gyokuro, for example, produces a greener hue due to the shading process. If you are looking for Genmaicha, of course, you will find it less green than Gyokuro. They are simply different. It’s better to discover what tea you personally like the best.
Check the body and mouthfeel of the tea
Good green tea has a thicker feel than water and you should be able to feel the differences in how it coats your mouth and throat. Another important thing to note is how it finishes. Japanese green teas have a natural dry finish, which is an important character to look for. A balanced astringency, or dryness, is what you are looking for.
Quality green tea has more than one-dimensional flavor and aroma
Just like wine, tea has many different personalities that you can pick up from smelling and tasting it. As a rule of thumb, you will want to balance both the light and deep notes on the nose and palate.
What Are the Different Types of Japanese Tea You Should Know?
With the tea history stretching back more than 1000 years, Japan certainly knows a thing or two about making a great-tasting cup of tea. Japan alone cultivates over a dozen types of green tea with excellent flavor profiles and health benefits. They’re classified according to the method of cultivation, processing method, and region the tea is grown in.
Matcha green tea is made from the youngest tea leaves and comes in the form of matcha powder. The leaves are ground in granite stone mills to produce a fine powder with vibrant green color. Popular amongst tea lovers, matcha is renowned for its health benefits as it is rich in antioxidants.
This powdered green tea is whisked with hot water to make a bright green tea with a subtle layer of sweetness.
Depending on its quality and flavor profile, Matcha is graded into:
- Culinary grade — the lowes grade, mostly used in cooking, smoothies, confectionaries, and such.
- Premium grade — high-quality matcha intended for daily consumption.
- Ceremonial grade — suitable for use in Buddhist temples and tea ceremonies.
To get the best tasting matcha for drinking it has to be ceremonial grade. This way it comes out sweet and delicious and much less bitter. This matcha tea from Naoki is a great start.
Sencha is the most common type of Japanese green tea making up roughly 80% of tea produced in the country. It is a loose-leaf tea composed of the youngest leaves that were grown in full sun and steamed to stop the oxidization process. Sencha can also be separated into different categories depending on how lightly or deeply the leaves are steamed.
I love H&S teas, they’re a great place to try a new kind of tea you haven’t tried. Many other brands throw away taste in favor of consistency (even if it tastes mediocre), but not H&S. Discover Sencha Tea by getting it on Amazon.
After the young tea plants are picked to make sencha, the picking in late summer results in bancha tea.
It has a larger, needle-like-shaped leaf with a more robust body than sencha when brewed. Thanks to the longer exposure to sunlight, bancha contains high levels of antioxidants and lower levels of chlorophyll, giving it a yellowish-green hue.
Bancha is also commonly used to make blended tea, such as genmaicha (roasted brown rice tea) or hojicha (roasted green tea).
Bancha is a very simple Japanese tea, that’s easy to appreciate. In my opinion, it’s one of the best green teas for beginners.
A type of Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice kernels, genmaicha has a milder astringency with a bit of a nutty flavor. Traditionally, genmaicha is made with bancha, but today you can also find genmaicha that is made with sencha, matcha, hojicha, or even the high-quality gyokuro.
Sometimes the rice kernels pop and resemble popcorn. That’s why it’s often referred to as popcorn tea.
In my opinion, Genmaicha is a must-try tea for anyone, especially if you’re not a big fan of regular green tea. It provides a “wow” factor with its popcorn look, and its nutty taste is very satisfying.
Among its steamed brethren, hojicha is the rebellious sibling in the family, as it is roasted after the steaming process. This gives hojicha its brownish hue with a nutty, earthy flavor but without the dryness typically found in other popular green teas from Japan.
This gentle rebel is loved by both the elderly and kids alike for its rich, yet gentle nature. Besides, it contains little to no caffeine, making it perfect to sip even at night.
It’s not uncommon to find Hojicha ground into powdered tea and used in sweets and desserts across Japan from pannacotta and mochi to roll cakes.
If you’d like to taste this roasted Japanese tea, the most convenient way is to get it from Amazon. Discover why Japanese particularly love this tea.
Heralded as one of the finest, if not the finest, green tea in Japan, gyokuro gets its remarkable dark green hue thanks to the shading process the tea leaves experience. The tea plants are covered in shade about 3 weeks before they are harvested. The result is a cup of bright green tea with potent umami notes and a dash of sweet highlight.
With a name that literally means “new tea”, shincha is the very first sencha harvest of the season, which makes it a very prized, limited quantity tea. This tea also marks the arrival of a new tea season, so it is always an exciting time of the year when shincha becomes available. That usually happens in April during spring.
Tencha is one step away from being matcha, as it has no stalk, vein, or stem in the leaves. If you grind the leaves into powder, you will get matcha. However, tencha is a category of its own thanks to its very refined flavor and enticing green color.
Tencha used to be a tea manufacturers’ best-kept secret, as it was not widely available to consumers and was not allowed in the tea ceremony. Today, you can admire this once-secret, Japanese green tea in its full glory.
If you ever wondered where green tea’s stems go after the leaves are separated, this is it. Also known as stalk tea, kukicha is made from green tea stems of the same plant that produces sencha. Due to the stem receiving less sunlight than the leaves, kukicha results in a less bitter brew than green tea, but still contains the same nutrients as the tea leaves.
Kokeicha is arguably the most unique type of green tea on this list. Also known as formed tea, kokeicha is made by grinding tea leaves into a paste and reforming it into a needle shape. It is also a very convenient format to enjoy a good cup of green tea, as you can make a cup without using a teapot. Kokeicha is a relatively new invention, as it was first invented by Mr. Takeshi Takezawa in 1935.
Famous Tea Producing Regions Across Japan
India may produce the largest quantities of tea, but Japan offers some of the highest quality green tea in today’s market. Japanese green tea is mainly grown in the southwest of the country with the three largest tea-producing regions being Shizuoka, Kagoshima, and Mie.
Tea lovers will know Kyoto as it’s synonymous with matcha and its historical roots as the homeland of Japanese tea. The Uji region is said to be the origin of Japanese green tea and is a historical production area. Uji produces high-quality Gyokuro, Matcha, and Sencha.
Shizuoka is the largest production center in Japan, producing more than 40% of Japan’s tea. Most of the tea produced here is Sencha for commercial use. Shizuoka is an exciting region to visit for tea lovers as there are many plantations that offer tea not only for drinking but also for consumption. One of the most famous plantations is Tsuchiya Tea Farm, located on a scenic mountainside overlooking the Oi River.
Mie is the originator and the largest producer of Kabuse sencha. It’s a type of tea that is shaded for two weeks before being cultivated. Green tea aficionados will revel in Mie’s longstanding tea history stretching back to 1191. Mie also produces large quantities of common green tea varieties like Sencha and Bancha.
Kagoshima, located on the southern island of Kyushu, is the second-largest production area after Shizuoka. Its volcanic surroundings create a layer of volcanic ash known as “shirasu”. Because of that, green tea grown in the region is rich and full-flavored. The mild climate in this region is regarded as the perfect condition for tea allowing for five harvests from early April to mid-October.
Fukuoka Prefecture produces the largest amount of quality Gyokuro. It accounts for producing half of the total volume produced in Japan. Yame is a particularly famous tea production area in Fukuoka. The area has well-drained soil and cool temperatures resulting in high-quality Gyokuro tea that is rich, sweet, and full of aroma.
Kirishima region in Miyazaki produces the highest-quality Sencha and organic Gyokuro in the prefecture. Miyazaki takes pride in its award-winning Sencha which is mainly grown and produced in the mountains of Makizono. It has a completely different flavor profile from other Japanese sencha teas. Miyazaki’s Gyokuro has its own unique character and flavor creating a contrast to Uji’s famous Gyokuro.
Saga doesn’t produce huge quantities of green tea, but it is home to one of the oldest tea trees in the nation, called Ureshina Daichaju. Standing at over 4 meters, Ureshina Daichaju is roughly 350 years old.
Ureshino town is famous amongst the Japanese for its high-quality Sencha production but is particularly known for its Kamairi tea. Unlike most green teas, Kamairi tea is not steamed but rather roasted and rolled using production methods similar to Chinese green teas. The result is a less astringent brew with a refreshing and mild flavor.
Tea, especially green tea runs deep in the Japanese culture. Because of that, it would be a shame to miss it. Their green teas offer a unique taste, not found anywhere else, so if you consider yourself a tea lover, you must try them.
Worried about how to make the perfect cup of green tea with your new Japanese green tea leaves? In that case, check out this handy guide which will help you prepare all kinds of green tea, including the popular Japanese teas. Discover the reason why your green tea has been tasting bitter and a way to fix that.
Let me know in the comments, which Japanese green tea would you like to try the most?