In this article, I will try to provide an overview of the development and present appearance of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan and list and explain the most common types of Japanese green tea. Given a history of tea cultivation in Japan that reaches back to the 9th century, hundreds of registered tea cultivars, a spectrum of teas principally comprising green teas, Oolong teas and black teas, and several regional tea cultivation centers distributed all over the country, each with its distinct climate and characteristics, this is not an easy task. The following overview must therefore forego a detailed representation of individual aspects, while at the same time populating a comprehensive list of topics to be covered in future articles.
Origins of tea cultivation in Japan
While Buddhist monks brought tea and teas seeds from study trips to China back to Japan already starting from the beginning of the 9th century, the Zen scholar and monk Esai is generally considered as the central figure in laying the foundation stone of tea cultivation in Japan. In 1191, he also brought tea seeds, along with pertinent knowledge of the cultivation and processing of tea as well as the beneficial health and taste properties of drinking tea from China back to Japan. In particular, he is credited for his engagement in promoting and spreading tea cultivation across Japan and the introduction of tea drinking to the Japanese warrior caste (Samurai), at that time a kind of Japanese class of nobles with great influence in politics and society. In his book “Kissa Yohjoh Ki” (grossly translating to “Better Health Through Tea”, published in 1211, Esai describes especially the health-relevant effects of drinking tea on body and mind.
Japan’s first tea plantations were located in Uji, Kyoto, and until today and despite the region’s relatively small share of only 3.5% on the total Japanese tea production, “Uji Cha” (Uji tea) enjoys a special reputation in Japan. From here, tea cultivation spreads to a few more regionals centers distributed all over the country. The region with the largest share of Japan’s overall tea production is Shizuoka (40%), followed by Kagoshima (ca. 19%), Mie (ca. 7%) and Kyoto.
Cultivated and processed are predominantly green teas. Although also Oolong teas and black tea have their – though comparably modest – place in the Japanese world of tea, its is especially Japan’s characteristic green teas that shape the world’s picture of Japan’s tea industry. Unlike Chinese green teas, Japanese green tea is typically not roasted, but steamed in order to stop oxidation processes. However, as we will see later, the roasting of green tea as a method is by no means unknown in Japan.
The Invention of Shaded Tea
An important milestone in the history of Japanese tea cultivation is the introduction of the shading of the tea plants for certain types of Japanese green tea during the 16th century. The shading of the tea plants for several days up to 3 weeks before the harvest effects activities in the tea plant that lead to an altered composition of ingredients: increased amino acids (esp. theanine) and alkaloids (esp. caffeine, theophylline) as well as reduced bitterns (esp. catechine). This way, the shading increases a Japanese green tea’s degree of sweetness, but also leads to the intensification of fragrance and leaf color. Originally, the shading was done through the spreading of straw on the tea plants. Today, this method has given way to the spanning of nets over the tea gardens. Apart from a considerable reduction of work expense, the use of nets offers the advantage that the degree of UV light filtering can be controlled and standardized via the mesh size of the nets as well as the number of layers.
Regarding the degree of shading, there are 3 basic categories of green tea produced in Japan today: unshaded green tea (Sencha tea), half- or part-shaded green tea (Kabusecha / Kabuse Sencha tea) and fully shaded green tea (Gyokuro tea). “Kabuse” nets (jap. “Kabuse” = “net”), filtering out ca. 50% of the sunlight, are used for the Kabusecha method (part-shading), which is based on the idea of reproducing natural lighting conditions (shade from trees and larger bushes). The complete “housing” of the tea fields for the production of Gyokuro tea is done by means of a similar method, only that closer meshed nets – or several layers of nets – are used, in order to achieve a UV filtering degree of 90%. With a shading period of about 3 weeks, fully shaded tea (Gyokuro) is tendentiously shaded for a longer period than half-shaded tea (“Kabusecha” or “Kabuse Sencha”). However, shading periods of up to 3 weeks are also not uncommon for Kabusecha tea. Although the degree of shading is often highlighted as a basic quality criteria for Japanese green tea, this can be questioned, as for once, the modified taste profiles caused by the different shading techniques are ultimately a question of taste, and second there is a range of other quality criteria applicable to Japanese teas, too, such as harvest period and leaf grade, to mention only the two most important ones.
Harvest Periods and Leaf Grade
Just like in China, the teas of the spring harvest are also generally considered the year’s best teas in Japan. The full harvest cycle for Japanese green tea (April to autumn) is divided in the early picking (April), a main picking season (May) as well as a row of subsequent summer and autumnal harvests. The shading of the tea plantations is omitted for the later harvests, with the consequence that shaded teas, despite their great impact on the overall picture of Japanese green tea, ultimately make up only for a small portion of Japan’s total green tea production (e.g. Gyokuro ca. 3%). In Japan, a tea’s leaf grade is basically determined on the same basis than with Chinese teas, though there is (still) one major difference: while in China most tea is still handpicked today, so that a picking standard in the form of a ratio of picked young buds to adjacent leaves can be established, the tea harvest in Japan is mainly done by machines, with the effect that the leaf grade is a function of the preset cutting height/depth, along with the timing and frequency of pickings. That the advantages of the manual picking and processing are ultimately undeniable becomes obvious, among others, from the fact that Japanese tea farmers tend to manually pick and process small batches by themselves each year, in order to present them in regional, national and international tea competitions.
Japanese Tea Cultivars
From China, we know that the cultivar, i.e. the botanical sub-variety of Camellia Sinensis that a tea is yielded from is not only an integral characteristic of that particular type of tea, but in many cases even establishes the same in the first place. There are many different tea cultivars existing in Japan, too, hundreds, to be more specific. These are officially registered since 1953 public, whereas there are still also non-registered and/or nameless tea cultivars being in use besides the registered ones. However, this wealth of different cultivars is relativized by the fact that a single one of them, the Yabukita cultivar, represents more than three quarters of all tea cultivated in Japan. This is because this cultivar with its distinct “umami” taste does not only meets the taste preferences of Japanese tea drinkers best, but also the straight vertical growth of the branches and the concentrated strong budding on the branches’ ends fits the machine-harvesting method better than the growth characteristics of other cultivars.
Japanese Teas / Types of Japanese Green Tea
Being based on the above-mentioned distinction criteria (in particular shading, harvest time and processing method), the following types of Japanese green tea and other teas produced on their basis are most common to Japan today:
A Sencha tea is always an unshaded green tea. Beyond this, the term Sencha initially reveals only little about the quality of a Japanese green tea, i.e. its picking period and standard. However, the best Sencha teas will always be harvested during the spring (April, May) up to early summer (June) and predominantly consist of buds and young tea leaves, as technically speaking later pickings as well as lower leaf grades do not fall into the Sencha tea category, but are referred to as Bancha Tea instead.
Fukamushi Sencha or “Fukamushicha”
Fukamushi Sencha is a Sencha tea that is subjected to an extended period of steaming in the context of its processing. The extended steaming process leads to a modified taste and aroma profile of the ready processed green “Fukamushi” Sencha tea.
Accordingly, Bancha tea is produced either from lower leaf grades (high ratio of older, larger tea leaves) or from tea leaves picked during the late summer and autumnal harvests. Now, one could ask for what would be the point in producing such an obviously “low-quality” tea, but this would in fact be the wrong question. We often see the term “poor people’s tea” used in connection with Bancha tea, which however is ultimately misleading and/or only part of the truth. That is to say that in fact the Japanese have found ways to produce amazingly delicious teas from such lower quality leaf material and pickings by means of special processing methods, some of which are enjoying enormous popularity both in Japan and worldwide today. Examples for this are
Hojicha Tea: Bancha tea, after undergoing the full green tea processing cycle (including rolling), is subjected to an additional roasting step. The result is a harmonious taste blend of characteristic green tea notes and the roast taste produced by the roasting.
Spring Bancha: A typical spring Bancha comprises the picking of the tea leaves remaining after the first Sencha picking in spring. A well-processed spring Bancha cannot only very well compete with a Sencha from a later harvest, it also has its own distinct, quite appreciable taste profile.
Kyobancha: Kyobancha tea is a specialty of the Kyoto region: Leaves of the previous year are picked prevernally (in March), even weeks before the first Sencha harvest and after undergoing green tea processing (without rolling) are subjected to a particularly intensive roasting. The intense roast taste of the resulting tea, whose visual appearance is reminiscent of wilted autumn leaves, is surprisingly pleasant and for example meets the fancy of friends of strongly oxidized Oolong teas or mild black teas.
Kabusecha or “Kabuse Sencha” Tea
As explained above, Kabusecha or “Kabuse Sencha” tea is a half- or part-shaded Japanese green tea that is shaded for several days or up to 3 weeks with so-called “Kabuse” nets spanned over the tea fields, so that about 50% of the sunlight is filtered out.
As explained above, Gyokuro is a Japanese green tea that is fully shaded with close-meshed nets or several layers of nets for about 3 weeks before its harvest (typically May/June). It is characterized by its particular high sweetness and the intense and distinct taste and aroma.
Basically, “Shincha” means nothing more than fresh tea, i.e. in a wider sense every Japanese green tea that is freshly picked and processed immediately after picking is considered a Shincha tea. With time, however, another, deviating Shincha concept has evolved and established in parallel, according to which only the fresh teas of the first spring harvest (fresh “First Flush” teas) qualify as Shincha tea. Tastewise, Shincha teas stick out with their exceptional freshness and intensity. Japanese green tea producers shy no expense to process the teas of their first spring harvest immediately after picking and as quickly as possible get them to the market, where the Shincha teas of the new spring are already expected eagerly and with high anticipation both in Japan and by Western green tea lovers.
Genmaicha Tea is a genuine Japanese tea specialty. It’s a blend of Sencha or Bancha green tea and roasted rice grains, resulting in a highly unique taste combination of the two ingredients. In another version of Genmaicha tea, Matcha powder can also be added to the blend.
Green Tea Powder and Matcha Tea
The method of milling green tea leaves, either wholly or after the removal of leaf stems and veins, to a fine powder that is whisked into hot water to prepare Matcha Tea, actually originates from China, but has been adopted in Japan already at a very early stage. While soon fallen into oblivion again in China, green tea and Matcha powder teas have ever since been an integral part of the Japanese tea culture. While green tea powder consists simply of the milled whole green tea leaves, genuine Matcha powder is exclusively produced from Tencha tea, i.e. freshly picked tea leaves freed from leaf stems and veins.
As the Matcha powder is whisked into the hot water to prepare Matcha tea and is not strained out again later as is the case with whole leaf teas, all active ingredients are taken in when drinking Matcha tea. Apart from the intense and distinct taste, this is also responsible for the increased invigorating and health-related effects of Matcha tea. Matcha tea is the tea used per standard in the Japanese tea ceremony.
Japanese Tea Culture and Japanese Tea Ceremony
A key figure for the present appearance of the Japanese tea culture – or: Japanese green tea culture – and the Japanese tea ceremony was the tea master Sen no Rikyu, who lived and worked during the 16th century and is also referred to as the father of the “chanoyu”, the Japanese “Way of Tea”. He received instructions in the art of the traditional tea ceremony from early child age on and developed the same essentially to It received from an early age introduction into the art of the traditional tea ceremony and refined and developed the same essentially to what we know today as the Japanese tea ceremony. The ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is deeply rooted in Japan’s social structure and culture and reflects the same in a multitude of aspects. The tea used per standard in the Japanese tea ceremony is Matcha tea.
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