What’s So Special About Japanese Teas?
A Brief History of Japanese tea
Tea came to Japan in the 8th century from monks studying Buddhism in China. It was a useful stimulant to help them stay awake during long periods of meditation. But it wasn’t until the late 12th century that tea seeds were brought back from China to be planted and cultivated in Japan. The monk credited for bringing these seeds back, Myoan Eisai, wrote a book titled “Drinking Tea For Your Health” in the early 13th century which had a big influence on popularizing tea in Japan as part of a philosophy of health, religion, and aesthetics.
In 12th century China, tea was being consumed in powder form (matcha) and so this practice carried over to Japan. While China’s tastes eventually moved to loose leaf tea, the Japanese stuck with this powder form which they transformed into their own tradition of “Chanoyu” (the Japanese tea ceremony). In the 18th century, the trend of steeping loose leaf tea came into fashion along with the innovation of steam-firing for making green tea. Though the powder form of matcha would not become obsolete, steeping the tea leaves would take over as the preferred method for domestic consumption. These two parallel paths of tea-making are the roots of the modern Japanese tea.
Japanese Green Tea Statistics
Unlike other tea growing countries, Japan grows most of its tea at lower elevations, more level terrain, and closer to the ocean shore. Approximately 119,100 acres are dedicated to growing tea and it produces roughly 101,500 tons of tea – nearly all green tea. All of Japan’s tea growing regions are in its southern and warmer half, but Shizuoka (the growing region furthest northeast) produces the bulk of its tea because of available land and favorable climate.
Japanese tea is as much a story about modernization as it is about terroir or tradition. It has used mechanization to cut costs of production and cultivar development to increase yields on the limited land available. This latter fact is why the Yabukita cultivar makes up 70% of all Japanese tea.
Neatly pruned rows of tea plants
Where is Japanese Tea Grown?
In Japan there are three main tea producing regions:
Shizuoka Prefecture – This region accounts for almost half of Japan’s production. The variable ocean-side weather patterns make excellent growing conditions for high-quality tea. All styles of Japanese tea are made here.
Kyoto Prefecture – This is home to the original Uji growing area in the inland hills where Japanese tea was popularized. It’s only 3% of total production, but focuses mostly on higher grade teas.
Kagoshima Prefecture – This southernmost island with a subtropical climate. Produces a wide range of teas (about 20% of total output).
Other less popular tea growing areas are: Fukuoka, Saga, Miyazaki, Nara, and Mie.
From a technical perspective, all regions can make all styles of Japanese green tea. Local climate, expertise, and market demands all play a factor in the production of a particular region. But those picturesque rows of perfectly groomed tea bushes are a distinct and near universal feature of Japan. These domed rows maximize the surface area available for picking. Typically they are pruned in the fall and early spring to create a uniform growing surface area on the plant for the first harvest in May. Depending on the local climate, the plants will flush May through August.
Gyokuro green tea with a traditional Kyusu teapot
Most Popular Japanese Green Teas
Sencha – The quintessential Japanese green tea. Its style is the cornerstone of Japanese tea production and all other Japanese green teas can be thought of as how their production differentiates from Sencha. Sencha teas come in a wide variety of flavors so it’s hard to be specific, but at its center is the favored Japanese profile of a brothy cup with a rich, savory, grassy cup. It is always steam fired, just leaves, no stems.
Kukicha – Sencha tea leaves with some stems mixed in. The profile will vary just as sencha will, but the stems tend to produce a lighter body and sweeter cup.
Shincha – Sencha style tea that is the very first harvest of the year. There is high demand for these teas in the domestic market which drives the price up considerably. The first leaves from the plants after it has awoken from being dormant over the winter are considered to be the healthiest and the tastiest.
Bancha – Late summer and fall teas that are picked with both leaf and some stem. The coarse pluck makes it a lower priced tea for more casual consumption.
Hojicha – Bancha tea that has been roasted to produce a toasty, sweet flavor.
Genmaicha – Sencha or bancha tea leaves that have been blended with toasted and puffed brown rice.
Kabusecha – These teas have been shaded during their final two weeks of growth. This reduced sunlight hinders photosynthesis and causes the plant to adjust by producing more chlorophyll and amino acids; thus producing a tea that is sweeter and more mellow cup without diminishing its clarity.
Karigane – Similar to kukicha, karigane is kabusecha tea leaves with stems mixed in.
Gyokuro – Like kabusecha, Gyokuro is shaded during its final maturation stages, but for a much longer period of around 30 days. It is a finer pluck, sometimes still done by hand, to ensure there is more bud available in the tea material for production. It is the highest grade of Japanese green tea available.
Tencha – Shade gown tea (defined above) that has the leaf material removed from the fibrous veins and stems of the leaf structure. It is only this leaf material remaining that is tencha.
Matcha – Tencha ground between two stones into a fine powder that is whisked into the cup and consumed whole rather than steeped and removed like all other teas.
Directly Sourced from the Otsuka Green Tea Co.
TeaSource has worked for many years with the Otsuka family as a direct source of high-quality Japanese teas. The Otsuka Green Tea Company was founded in 1869 in Shizuoka, Japan. It has been owned and operated by the same family for five generations. We are lucky to work with such skilled and honest professionals. They are located in Shizuoka, not far from Mt. Fuji.
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