Tea plays an important part in Japanese culture, particularly as part of the famous Japanese tea ceremony. Japanese tea comes in many varieties, from the traditional, powdered matcha to kombucha, a variant of which is becoming popular in the West.
Tea-drinking is first documented in Japan in the 9th century, in an entry to the Nihon Kōki – part of Japan’s official national history, completed in 840. It is mentioned in reference to Eichū, a respected Buddhist monk, who brought the dried tea leaves with him from China. The entry goes on to say that Eichū personally prepared and served the tea to Emporer Saga, who was on excursion in Karasaki (modern-day Shiga) at the time. So impressed was the Emperor by this delicious new beverage, tea plantations began to be cultivated in Japan within a year, under an Imperial decree.
Tea plants (sometimes called tea shrubs, or tea trees) are variations of the evergreen shrub, camellia sinensis. The leaves and leaf buds of this species of flowering plant are picked, dried, cut, and used to make tea.
While camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant, all varieties of tea – including green tea, black tea, oolong, white tea, yellow tea, and more – are derived from it. The difference in colour, flavour and strength is down to how the bushes are treated both before and after picking.
The very best tea is hand-picked, as even the most sophisticated machinery cannot be guaranteed to remove only the leaves and leaf buds. Stems of the tea leaves can negatively affect the flavour of the tea. Likewise, tea farmers need to be able to check individual leaves for quality as they are being harvested, something that can only be achieved with a team of human workers, hand-picking the produce.
Depending on the colour of tea you prefer, different processes are applied to the leaves while they are being dried. Green and white teas (which are popular in Japan) are either left to dry in the sun, or pan-fired to speed the process. This results in a light, fresh tea, popular across the world.
Darker and more robust teas, such as black tea and oolong, achieve their distinct colour and flavour thanks to a complex 4-step oxidation process. This includes withering the green leaves to remove most of their high water content. They are laid on a bamboo tray or mesh surface for anywhere up to 18 hours following harvesting, until they are sufficiently dehydrated.
After withering, the tea leaves are rolled to break down their internal cell structures and release essential oils. These oils react with oxygen in the air and help produce a deeper aroma and flavour. This oxidisation process is performed in a warm, moist environment and sees the chlorophyll in the leaves gradually break down and release tannins which darken the leaves themselves.
This is the stage where strength and flavour of the tea can be controlled, with a longer oxidation time resulting in darker, stronger tea. Once the preferred level is reached, the leaves are dried out to stop the oxidation process and prepare them for packaging and sale.
While matcha is a uniquely Japanese invention, it is not the only type of tea that Japanese people enjoy. As with most cultures, they have hundreds of specialist blends with their unique flavour notes and tones. These are some of the most popular ones:
Matcha is a form of powdered green tea that is used as much for a flavouring in confectionery as it is for drinking. Tea leaves intended for matcha production are left to grow in the shade for three or four weeks prior to harvest. This causes the plant to produce more caffeine and theanine, giving its unique flavour and vibrant green colour. Unlike other forms of tea, matcha is not steeped in hot water, but suspended in either water or milk, depending on the preference of the consumer.
Matcha is almost exclusively used as the tea of choice in an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
Sencha is made from tea leaves that have been grown in direct sunlight. This type of green tea has a bold, bitter-sweet flavour that increases in intensity the longer it is brewed. It is popular both as a hot drink, or a refreshing iced beverage.
Sobacha is produced from roasted buckwheat kernels, producing a caffeine-free alternative to other Japanese teas. This gives the tea a nutty, earthy taste.
Not to be confused with the fizzy, fermented drink currently en vogue in Western countries, tradition kombucha is a Japanese tea made from powdered dried kelp and seasoned with sugar and salt.
Gyokuro means “jade dew” in Japanese and differs from regular sencha thanks to being grown under shade using straw mats for 3-4 weeks prior to harvesting. This increases the levels of theanine and caffeine in the leaves of the plant, giving it a distinct aroma and sweet flavour.
Konacha (meaning “powder tea”) is often served at sushi bars. It is a form of green tea created using what is left of the tea plant after it has been processed for gyokuro or sencha. This includes dust, small leaves, and tea buds, which gives konacha a strong, powerful flavour. It is also commonly used in Japanese cooking.
Hojicha is a mild Japanese green tea produced using leaves that have been roasted over charcoal in a porcelain pot. This gives the leaves a light, golden colour, compared to other forms of Japanese tea. When infused, the tea is red in colour with a sweet, nutty taste and fragrance. The roasted process reduces the amount of caffeine in the tea, making it a popular choice as an evening drink, as well as for the elderly and children.
Genmaicha is a speciality tea, where green tea is mixed with roasted brown rice to impart a rich, nutty flavour to the tea. As some of the rice grains pop during the roasting process, it is sometimes known as popcorn tea. Historically drunk by the poorer people of Japan, as the cheaper roasted brown rice was used to bulk out the tea, it is now appreciated across Japanese society for its distinctive taste.
Mugicha is another caffeine-free Japanese tea, this time made from roasted barley. It is golden brown with a fresh taste and is often drunk cold, with ice.
One of the more unusual Japanese teas on our list, gobocha is made from the shavings of the burdock root and is reputed to have many health benefits, from soothing aches and pains to reducing wrinkles. While we can’t attest to that, we will say it has a unique, earthy flavour that is worth exploring.
These are just some of the Japanese tea products and variations that prove particularly popular at SushiSushi. Click on a link to learn more, or visit our online store for more Japanese tea products.
Here at SushiSushi, we source our Japanese lacquerware from some of the most well-respected and established producers in Japan. These include: