Sencha, gyokuro, matcha, hôjicha, Kyûshû, Uji or Shizuoka… Japanese teas have multiple identities according to their growing and processing methods or their geographical origins. Here are some keys to follow the enchanting paths of Japanese tea and to discover the infinite richness of this natural treasure.
Across the sea, from the continent to the archipelago
Tea was probably born in the subtropical area situated at the confines of China, Burma and Laos. In any case, it was in China that it first gained the preponderant role it still has today for millions of people, becoming both the delight of poets and a necessity of everyday life.
This divine beverage was brought to Japan in the wake of bouddhist monks, back home from long years of studies on the continent. A first attempt at settling tea culture in Japan occurred in the ninth century, with the monk Eichû (743-816). But tea, which was still compacted in bricks and boiled with other ingredients such as salt, remained an expensive and rare good, and the interest it had roused quickly dwindled. The second attempt was a success. Eisai (1141-1215), the founder of zen, brought back tea in Japan, for good this time. Tea leaves were grinded into a thin powder, and whipped with a small quantity of water, a mode of preparation close to nowadays matcha. First considered as a medicine, or as a tonic to support monks during their meditations, tea became an important element of religious rituals, therefore spreading to laic populations.
From aristocratic tea contests to the austerity of tea ceremony
Tea then became the object of extravagant competitions for the powerful and wealthy, who had to distinguish honcha (“real” teas, issued from the seeds brought by Eisai) from hicha (other “false” teas). But tea also became a favourite of the lower classes, who enjoyed drinking a cup with friends, after a bath.
In the fifteenth century, a new approach to tea appeared amongst monks and warriors. From a buoyant and showy entertainment, tea drinking became a spiritual and esthetical practice, a fugitive moment of silent communion between the tea master and his guests, between nature and men. Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu (literally “hot water for tea”) and more generally sadô (or chadô, “the way of tea”) embodied the concepts of wabi-sabi, a sensibility to the effects of time and to the impermanence of the world, a melancholic taste for rusticity, imperfection and simplicity.
But, with time, the chanoyu became a rigid and codified ritual. In the seventeenth century, while Japan was closed to the outside world, some audacious scholars opted for tôcha (litterally “Chinese tea”), nowadays kamairicha. In this process, born in China, the oxidation of the tea leaves is stopped by heating them in large metallic pans. The leaves are then brewed instead of being grinded and whipped. This new method ordered the conception of new accessories, and tea pots therefore became an important tool of senchadô, the tea ritual established by tôcha amateurs.
Sencha, gyokuro, bancha… the many faces of Japanese green tea
The term senchadô was in fact invented later, and refers to sencha, now considered the most characteristic of Japanese teas. The large majority of Japanese teas are green, which means that their oxidation process is stopped as soon as possible after the picking. Sencha appeared in the eighteenth century, when tea producers had the idea to steam and roll the leaves instead of heating them in a pan. Gyokuro was born about a hundred years later ; the difference residing in the shading of the leaves during three weeks before harvesting time. But these two types of teas remained quite expensive and, for a long time, most of Japanese population kept on drinking cheaper teas, like bancha (a lower quality steamed tea) or kamairicha.
With the reopening of Japanese borders in the middle of the nineteenth century and the Chinese opium war, tea became an important exportation good for Japan, and its production increased greatly in Shizuoka, around Mount Fuji. Sencha was sent in large quantities to America, and the Japanese government also encouraged the production of red teas (oxidized teas, often called “black” in western countries) or wulong (semi-oxidized teas).
But, with the return of China on the international market and the arrival of new competitors, Japanese tea exportations received a severe blow and Japanese red and wulong teas almost disappeared after the 1960’s-1970’s, even if some producers now try to resurrect them. However, in the same time, the Japanese market expanded, and the rising of the national average income increased the demand for sencha or gyokuro. As the population became mostly urban, home-grown tea also tended to disappear, to the advantage of professional producers and retailers.
Unfortunately, Japanese people may drink more tea in quantity, but they rarely know how to prepare it properly, using the same brewing temperature and time for all kinds of tea, and sometimes even not owning a proper teapot! Japanese people also often favour industrial tea bags, or teas conditioned in pet bottles or cans. Easier to prepare and to drink, cheaper… these beverages gradually replace good quality teas, who also suffer from the growing success of coffee, red or wulong teas. A strange turnaround, while western countries acknowledge the qualities of Japanese tea!
Another problem is a growing lack of workforce. During a visit to Japanese tea fields, one hardly meets young people, the difficult task of picking the leaves being carried out mostly by old ladies. Younger people don’t want to perform such a hard work and prefer to leave for the big cities and the security of an office…
Covered, steamed, grilled, brewed or whipped teas, a large palette of tastes
Sencha is considered to be Japan’s most common tea, but the name refers to many different qualities and tastes. Fukamushi-sencha has gained a wide audience during the past forty years; it differs from “classic” sencha by a longer steaming process, delivering a softer taste, with less astringency. Bancha is a cheaper tea, but it is quite refreshing and offers a reduced amount of caffeine. It is made from later harvests and lower leaves than sencha. Genmaicha, which is made of bancha or sencha agremented with puffed rice, may be considered of a poor quality by experts but can offer a good introduction to the herbal and vivifying taste of Japanese tea. Hôjicha (grilled tea) can also appeal to a large audience, with is soothing taste and its small amount of caffeine.
Gyokuro is probably one of the most renowned teas in the world. And also one of the most expensive! This “precious dew” is harvested only once a year, in the spring. The shading of the plants alters the quantity of light absorbed by the leaves, resulting in a sweeter tea, much less astringent than sencha, and rich in theanine, chlorophyll and caffeine. In a general way, Japanese green tea is very rich in antioxidants and has revealed its positive role against cancer and other diseases, of course when associated with a balanced diet!
Gyokuro is prepared with a small quantity of water, resulting in a thicker liquor. Brewing temperatures are also inferior to those usually recommended, around 50° Celsius. Gyokuro being quite expensive, other teas (kabuse) have been developed to offer a resembling taste while being more affordable and easier to prepare. Kabuse are also protected from the light before harvesting time, but not as long or as much as gyokuro.
Matcha, the powdered tea at the center of chanoyu is somewhat bitter but also very rich and smooth. It adds a marvellous and surprising flavour to cakes and ice-cream!
From the south to the north to Japan, an infinite variety of fragrances and tastes
Exploring the various flavours of Japanese tea is like travelling along the roads of the archipelago, from the southern islands to the North of Tôkyô. Uji, near Kyôto, is the most renowned tea area, the historical birthland of Japanese tea culture since its second importation from China. Uji is still considered the capital city of Japanese tea, particularly of matcha, but the reality is quite different, most of matcha being now produced in the area of Nishio, in Aichi prefecture.
Shizuoka, around the Fujisan, is the most important production area, both in terms of culture and of processing. Around 70% of Japanese teas are transformed in Shizuoka factories, even if there were not grown in the prefecture. Shizuoka offers a very wide range of qualities, from the famous and delicate mountain teas, to the seas of tea rows planted in valleys for low quality productions.
The longtime competitor of Shizuoka has been Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyûshû. Kyûshû teas have a particular flavour, due to a shinier climate and the use of different tea hybrids, rather than the otherwise omnipresent yabukita variety. The dramatic events of march 2011 also increased the popularity of southern teas, the customers being quite anxious to buy products that were grown as far as possible from Fukushima.
A cousin of wine
With the richness of its different “terroirs”, tea appears as a cousin of wine. Like wineries, a same tea parcel can produce a different taste from one year to another. But, to please the customers, who like a certain constancy, most Japanese teas are blended. Blend doesn’t mean poor quality, some blends being made of good products, but the buyers must be careful to buy blends from a same type of tea, and if possible from a same area.
You now have the principal keys to discover Japanese teas. Enjoy your trip along the paths of this beverage, whose qualities have been celebrated in Asia from immemorial times. Tea is not only a refreshing drink, it also contributes to the preservation of a good health, and can be a precious ally against cancer and aging. Its preparation has also lead to the development of fascinating spiritual exercises and artistic rituals. Tea is also simply a great companion for everyday life, from morning to evening, and Japanese tea, with its refreshing and vegetal flavours, its elegance, its rich antioxidant properties, is getting more and more appreciated all around the world, a well deserved recognition!