An Introduction to Japanese Tea

Jan 31, 2018

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In Japan drinking tea is an important part of everyday life. Tea is used for ceremonial purposes, as a stomach-settler, as well for a show of hospitality. While sencha is a household name, having been exported across the globe, there are so many more varieties to discover. From the highly prized leaves of the first harvest to tea roasted with brown rice, below is an introduction to some of Japan’s most delicious and unique teas.


Japan’s most popular ryokucha (green tea) is undoubtedly sencha, accounting for around 75% of tea produced in the country. It is grown in full sunlight, with the flavor depending largely upon where it is produced and the season in which it is harvested. Plants store nutrients throughout the cold winter months and tea picking begins in the south of Japan towards the end of the season, gradually moving north throughout the spring months.

Shincha or “new tea” is the first month’s harvest, with a high concentration of nutrients, a fresh aroma, and sweetness in the tea. This is coupled with relatively low caffeine and bitter catechin levels and a high amount of amino acids. Shincha season is generally from early April to late May, followed by Nibancha (“second-picked tea”) and Sanbancha(“third-picked tea”). The term kocha means “old tea” and indicates that which has been left over from the previous year.

Unlike Chinese green teas which are initially pan-fried, Japanese sencha is steamed to prevent oxidation of the leaves, before being rolled, shaped, dried, and sorted into different quality groups. It usually has a grassier flavor when compared to Chinese green teas and is generally greener in coloration. The flavor of sencha tea also differs depending on the temperature of the water in which it is steeped, with hot water creating more astringency.


Translating as “jade dew” due to the pale green color of its infusion, gyokuro is considered the fine wine of Japanese green tea. It differs from sencha in that it is grown under the shade of straw mats during the final few weeks before harvest. This results in a sweet flavor and an increase in both the amino acid theanine and the alkaloid caffeine levels in the tea which helps to improve mental clarity and focus.

Gyokuro is prepared slightly differently from most green teas, with a lower brewing temperature compared to sencha and a longer steeping duration. It is also one of the most expensive types of tea available in Japan, with around 40% produced in Fukuoka’s Yame region.


Matcha is a finely ground green tea powder which was originally used in traditional sadotea ceremonies and prepared for guests using clearly defined etiquette. Since it can be dissolved, it is also used to flavor matcha milk, ice cream, and other desserts. It is packed with antioxidants and revered for its calming properties, as well as its intense sweetness and depth of flavor.

Matcha is shade-grown for roughly three weeks prior to harvest in the same way gyokurois, slowing down growth and stimulating the production of chlorophyll in the leaves which results in higher levels of theanine. The stems and veins are removed prior to being ground down, meaning that matcha is made solely from the nutritionally-rich leaves.

The history of matcha dates back to Tang Dynasty China (818-907) when tea leaves were steamed and formed into bricks which could either be stored or traded. The tea was then roasted and pulverized before being steeped in hot water, and this method was introduced to Japan in the late 12th century by the monk Eisai.

In sado tea ceremonies, matcha is traditionally prepared in two different ways – koicha(“thick”) and usucha (“thin”). Koicha is a pasty substance while usucha is more watery, using about half the amount of powder. Koicha is usually made from older tea trees which results in a milder and sweeter flavor, and it is generally more expensive than usucha.


Bancha green tea is harvested from the same plant as sencha but is picked later in the season through summer and autumn. It usually contains larger tea leaves and the upper stems which would otherwise be discarded for sencha. This results in a lower grade tea with less aroma and more astringency, and a flavor that has a strongly organic smell. While it is often referred to as a “common tea”, many people in Japan like the robust flavor and strong character of bancha.


While most Japanese teas are steamed, hojicha differs in that it is roasted, transforming the tea leaves from green to reddish brown and giving them a distinct roasted flavor. It is normally made from bancha tea leaves picked during the last harvest of the season, with the roasting process lowering the caffeine levels and bitterness in the tea. Its mild taste makes it a popular evening drink and the flavor can be altered depending on the intensity of the roasting.


Nicknamed “popcorn tea” for the sound it makes when roasting, genmaicha is a green tea that has been combined with roasted brown rice. It was originally drunk by Japan’s poor who used the rice as a filler or by those fasting for religious purposes, but it has now been embraced by a wider population for its ease of drinking and stomach settling properties.


The sugar and starch from the rice give it a warm, nutty flavor, while the tea adds a grassy aroma, and it generally has a light yellow coloration. Genmaicha can also be sold with matcha added in (matcha-iri genmaicha), resulting in a stronger flavor and greener color. It is best steeped in boiling water for around 30 seconds and its low caffeine content makes it a popular after-dinner tea.


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