Japan is famous worldwide for its tea, a healthy beverage that can be enjoyed both hot and cold. The tradition of tea in Japan dates back more than 1,000 years when it was introduced from China. Initially, it was used as a medicinal beverage consumed among priests and the wealthy. However, during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), tea-drinking parties became popular among affluent members of society. The father of modern tea traditions, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), advocated for an austere, rustic simplicity in tea ceremonies known as Sado (茶道). Today, Japan produces over a hundred different varieties and grades of te.
The most famous Japanese tea is matcha. It is a finely ground green tea made from shaded plants. High-quality matcha is grown in almost complete darkness to allow the plant to produce more chlorophyll, giving the powder its bright green color and subtle flavor. After harvesting, only the leaves at the top are ground into a fine powder. When making matcha, the powder is whisked with hot water to make the tea, which is most often used in tea ceremonies and served alongside Japanese wagashi confections. The tea is classified into different grades, with ceremonial grades being the highest and exclusively used for tea ceremonies. The matcha used in ceremonies is thick and has a grassy aroma that refreshes the palate of the drinker.
Hojicha is a type of green tea that has been roasted at high temperatures over charcoal, giving it a distinctly sweet and nutty flavor compared to matcha. Its taste is very similar to roasted coffee beans. It was first originated in the 1920s when tea merchants in Kyoto began roasting tea stems over charcoal. Unlike other green teas, hojicha has a more reddish-brown color, and the roasting process also decaffeinates the tea. This makes it a perfect beverage to enjoy in the morning or night.
Sencha is a type of green tea that comes from the same plant species as matcha, known as camellia sinensis. Sencha is much more consumed than matcha, with about 80% of the green tea processed in Japan being sencha. It is produced from the first and second flushes of the stem, shoot, and some of the opened leaves of the green tea plant and then steam-pressed. The tea plants for sencha are grown in the full sunlight, which gives the plant a darker color and more bitter flavor. The texture is also quite different; Matcha is a fine powder whereas Sencha are rolled leaves shaped like thin, straight needles. When brewed, it has a greenish-golden color, which is very distinct from matcha leaves.
Mugicha is another popular tea made from roasted barley grains. Like hojicha, it has a toasty, nutty flavor with very little caffeine. The tea can be served hot or cold but is especially popular in Japan during the summer.
In Japan, kombucha is a completely different beverage from the fermented drink known in the west. It is made from kelp, known as kombu in Japanese, which is brewed to create a rich and salty tea similar in taste to a broth. Kombucha is typically combined with ume sour plums to add a bit of tartness to the drink.
Buckwheat is typically used for soba noodles, but the kernels are also roasted to make sobacha or buckwheat tea. It has an earthy, wheaty flavor in addition to being caffeine-free. The drink also contains antioxidants and provides dietary fiber.
Gobo is a type of burdock root, a vegetable typically used in Japanese cooking. The premium burdock roots can also be steam-roasted to make gobocha or burdock root tea. This caffeine-free beverage has an earthy flavor akin to a mushroom broth and is famous for containing lots of fibers and antioxidants. The tea gained popularity due to the belief that it has anti-aging properties and health benefits.
Genmai is brown rice in Japanese. Although brown rice isn’t as popular as regular white rice, genmaicha is a popular tea beverage found all over Japan. It’s made from green tea mixed with roasted rice and has a nutty flavor with the reduced bitterness of green tea. It can also be combined with other kinds of tea such as matcha or hojicha to add additional flavor.
Gyokuro is considered to be one of the highest grades of green tea in Japan. Its name translates to Jade dew, referring to the color of the tea leaves. It’s darker in color and has a slightly sweet flavor compared to matcha. This tea is similar to sencha, but at least 20 days before harvesting, the tea leaves are shielded from the sunlight, giving the leaves their dark green color. Because of the labor-intensive production process, it is also the most expensive green tea. A fun fact is that you can brew this tea at a temperature as low as 60°C (140℉)!
Japanese Tea History
Japanese tea has a rich history that dates back to the Nara Period (710-794) when it was first introduced from China. Initially, tea was only available to noblemen and priests as a medicinal drink. However, during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), Eisai, the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, brought back from China the custom of making tea from powdered leaves, which led to the widespread cultivation of tea across Japan.
Tea drinking became popular among people of all social classes during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573). Large tea parties where people would guess the names and origins of different teas became a common social activity. Collecting and showing off prized tea utensils also became popular among the wealthy.
At the same time, a more refined version of tea parties emerged, emphasizing simplicity, etiquette, and spirituality. These intimate gatherings were attended by only a few people in a small room where the host served tea to the guests. The tea ceremony has its origins in these gatherings, which continue to be an important cultural tradition in Japan.