Last Updated on 08/30/2021 by Desmond
In video games, catering, movies, science, art, and many other fields, Japan has tremendous influence and achievements, especially the great contributions on ACG. And about the tea culture, Japanese Tea also famous worldwide for its unique charms. People have indulged its complex and elegant brewing methods and the profound Zen idea; they are so mysterious that people can’t refuse their explore desire.
Brief History of Japanese Teas
The tea-drinking habit originated in China, spread to Japan 1000 years ago. Thus, Japanese tea also has a long history. At first, it was an event just for the nobility, later develops into a unique Japanese culture and profound philosophy. The history of Japanese tea can be generalized into 3 stages:
In the Tang Dynasty of China 1400 years ago, i.e., the Heian Period of Japan, the exchange between the two countries was frequent. At that time, China was in its prime, many Japanese Buddhist monks came to China to study, and they brought the tea leaves back to Japan. From “Nihon Kōki” records, it was a monk named 最澄 started growing tea plants on Mount Hiei.
In the Kamakura Period(1185-1333), China came into the Song Dynasty, and many monks still came to China to study Buddhism. In the article about Chinese Green Tea, we’ve talked about that there was only green tea in China at that time. And the processing and brewing methods are similar to the Japanese Matcha today.
A monk named 明菴栄西 had been in China twice and living for 24 years long; he had in-depth knowledge of Buddhism and Tea. After back to Japan, he wrote the “喫茶養生記,” which is primary for introducing the health benefits of teas. Then he recommended this book to the Shogun of the time and started scale growing tea trees. Since then, the tea-drinking habit started popular in the upper class. It was also the beginning of the Japanese tea culture.
Do you remember we’ve mentioned that the upper-class in China Song Dynasty love taking tea-drinking as a game – tea battle? They compete on guessing the tea origin or who can stir the most beautiful foam while making tea. It also happened in Japan.
In the Muromachi Period(1336-1573,) the Japanese samurais and nobility love having tea battles much. They were out of love for the Chinese porcelain teawares, so they took them as a bet. Even though these behaviors were banned by the Shogun later, it is widely believed that the Japanese tea culture changed into serious Sado from a funny social activity, was begin from a later civil war that lasted 10 years – the Ōnin War(応仁の乱).
After a war, the sadness always spread and cause people self-examination to their life. The “Wabi-Sabi Cha,” which was ever popular in Tokyo, came back again. Under the influence of Buddhist Meditation, the intellectuals started to pursue the beauty of defective and simplicity. The trend of tea-drinking, which is primary on the teawares appreciated, gradually turned to teas itself and the mystery of Zen. 村田珠光, a disciple of Master Ikkyū, combined the tea and Zen, created the Japanese Sado.
Later, in the Momoyama Period(1573-1603,) Sado was improved incrementally by 千利休, who is regarded as the saint of tea, and his disciples. They also established the “Wabi-Sabi” thought. Tea drinking must be held in the special, rough tea house and follow the complex tea brewing steps. Since then, having tea became a spiritual cultivate. The unique Japanese Sado, which is rich in philosophy and Buddhism thought, was spread up to now.
Related Reading: Japanese Tea House – Silent Place For Tea Ceremony And Meditation.
Japanese Teas Characteristics
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the steamed green tea is the only tea in China. Thus, the tea that spread to Japan was the same one, also the processing and brewing methods.
The Chinese tea culture was influenced by many factors later. The processing method turned to fry from steaming and developed various styles like dark tea, yellow tea, white tea, Oolong tea, and black tea.
Even though there are other tea styles in Japan now, the steamed green tea still is the mainstream. The Japanese green teas are classified into Gyokuro, Bancha, Sencha, and Hojicha. Besides, some blended tea, like Genmaicha tea, and the one which is not from Camellia Sinensis – Kombucha, are also an essential part of Japanese teas.
Because the leaves are fixed by steaming so that it retains more natural ingredients, especially the chlorophyll. Except for the Hojicha and the deep-steaming Sencha, most Japanese teas are emerald green. And about the Matcha, it will be low-temperature drying directly after steaming fixing, then crushed into powders. So the Matcha we often see shows a vivid green.
Due to the low processing degree and the difference in brewing way, the flavor of Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea can be said totally different. Japanese green tea tastes more herbaceous and has a great astringence. Besides, like the Matcha, which is brewed with colder water, it equals to intake the whole leaves in raw, so it tastes more astringence. Of course, in this way, the beneficial components of tea, like tea polyphenols, can also be totally absorbed. But people who are sensitive to caffeine should pay attention too.
Popular Japanese Tea Types
Many people may misunderstand that Japanese tea just refers to Matcha. Indeed, Matcha is an impressive tea, even taken as a cooking ingredient often, thus known by many people. Actually, according to the cultivation and processing way, Japanese tea can be classified into various types. Expect green tea, the others don’t from the Camellia Sinensis are also attractive.
Teas From Camellia Sinensis
Gyokuro(玉露) is the most top grade Japanese tea. Just the same as Matcha, the Gyokuro leaves will be covered before picking, avoiding the sunshine that makes a deeper astringence. Thus, Gyokuro has a unique seaweed-like flavor, which is called “覆い香” in Japanese. Due to the demand on the leaves quality is high, Gyokuro is always in a low yield and high price.
Matcha can be said to be the representative of Japanese tea. When preparing, put the Matcha powder in a tea bowl, adding water, and stir beautiful foam with a bamboo brush. Matcha is made from top-grade raw leaves. The leaves will be sent to steaming fixing after picking, then ground into powder after cool down directly. It also tastes seaweed-like, a little bitter and astringence, with a mellow and rich aroma.
Traditionally, Matcha is the protagonist of Japanese Sado performances. Due to the unique flavor and cute color, it is often used as an ingredient for making other food or beverages, like cupcakes and lattes. That’s this versatile characteristic making Matcha popular worldwide.
Sencha is the most consumed tea of the Japanese. It looks needle shape, tastes a noticeable astringency, with a cool and refreshing mouthfeel. According to the steaming time, it is also classified into ordinary Sencha and deep-steamed Sencha. The deep-steamed one is 2-3 times longer on steaming time-cost than the ordinary one, so the astringency is lighter and the fragrance richer; but the broken leaves also increase.
Bancha is a comprehensive definition, typically classified by the origins and harvest time; you can consider it the local tea’s total name. Most Bancha is made from the relatively mature leaves, which are harvest late, and without been through covered cultivation. Totally saying, Bancha’s quality is somewhat lower.
The tiny tea stems and broken leaves will be filtered out after the Japanese tea primary processing, and they will be made into the Kukicha. Of course, the top-grade Gyokuro and Sencha’s stems will have a higher price than the ordinary ones. Kukicha tastes slight, and it only can make out 1-2 infusions. In Japan, it is usually for making Chazuke.
Hojicha is made from Sencha, Kukicha, and Bancha by roasting. Its infusion turns to the clear brown, tastes light without the astringency of steamed green tea but a rich roasted aroma. You can also try to DIY Hojicha at home with a frying pan or oven.
Genmaicha is served to the customers in many Japanese and Korean cuisine restaurants. The Genmaicha is typically made from Sencha or Bancha blends with roasted rice. The robust roasted rice aroma covers the green tea’s astringency flavor, creates a unique flavor.
Not From Camellia Sinensis
Mugicha is also popular in Japan and Korea. Unlike Genmaicha, Mugicha is totally made from roasted barley, without any tea trees’ leaves, so it is non-caffeine. It tastes a robust barley aroma, with great help on weight loss and digestion.
Konbucha is different from Kombucha. In Japanese, Konbu refers to kelp plants. As an island country, Japan is rich in marine resources, and the Konbu has been developed in various edible methods. These kelps are rich in glutamic acids, which are the main ingredients of MSG. So the Konbucha tastes umami greatly, and it’s very fit to enjoy with rice.