Tea is part and parcel of Japanese rich history and culture. This popular beverage has been consumed across Japan for centuries and until now, it’s still popular among the Japanese. It is believed that tea found its way into the Land of the Rising Sun (Japan) from China, the real birthplace of different types of teas. The tea culture started in China and spread throughout the Asian countries and other parts of the world.
In this article, we are going to look at the history of tea in Japan, how the famous Japanese tea ceremony started and how the policy of isolation contributed to a unique tea culture as well as the discovery of the famous and widely consumed teas in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Art of Tea in Japan
The tea culture started in China before reaching Japan in the 600s AD. It was during this period that Chinese Buddhist monks and Zen priests came into contact with each other for the time. Tea became a beverage of choice for the religious classes after Japanese envoys and priests were sent to China-to learn more about the Chinese culture-and came back home with tea.
The Buddhist monks Saicho and Kukai were the first individuals to take tea seeds to Japan after staying in China for a while. The type of tea brought to Japan from China was the brick tea.
After that historic exchange of cultural practices between the two Far East countries, tea became popular, especially among the royal classes. At the same time, the Japanese Emperor (Emperor Saga) initiated and encouraged the growth of tea in Japan.
Seeds were brought from China in large quantities and cultivation began immediately. The secret about Japanese tea remained guarded within the court and among the high ranking officials for many centuries until 794 to 1185 during the Heian era in Japan.
The Rise of the Japanese Samurai
At the height of the Japanese Heian Era between 794 and 1185, the Japanese Samurai class became powerful. The arts flourished, intellectual pursuits increased exponentially and tea drinking became the order of the day.
During this bright era, the Zen priest, popularly known as Myoan Eisai, introduced several Chinese tea seeds as well as bushes to the remote island of Kyushu. From there, they were transferred to the outskirts of Kyoto. This explains why the finest tea in Japan is produced in this region.
After several tours to China and a great immersion in the Japanese tea culture, Eisai authored Kissa Yojoki, which was translated as, “Taking Tea for Health”, and the information contained in the book was praising the health and medical benefits of consuming this ancient beverage.
Later, some writers would poetically link the consumption of tea to the changing landscape and seasons. Such praises elevated Japanese tea to various forms of beauty, art and pure experience of the otherworldly peace as reflected today in the current ritual of Tea Ceremony in Japan.
By the 16th century, the ultimate artistic praise of tea became known as the Chanoyu. This is a ritual that combines mystery, discipline, tranquility, respect, beauty, harmony and complete attention while appreciating the practice of brewing tea.
This famous Japanese Tea Ceremony helps in defining the ultimate ritual in food and beverage preparation. As a result, the ritual is revered for many reasons, key among them being the mystical entrancement and hypnotic manners. According to, Myoan Eisai, the taste of Ch’a (tea) and the taste of Ch’an (Zen) are the same thing.
Eisai’s way of life and ideas contributed to the creation and advancement of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. His ideas are still in use today, almost a thousand years after introducing them to the tea makers and tea drinkers in Japan.
At the height of the Heian Era, tea was cultivated at Honshu near Kyoto. Monks would grow the plant, care for it and prepare it as a beverage in the belief that it was effective in their routine meditation. As time went by and tea became popular, intellectuals and statesmen included this beverage to their daily lifestyle. The Japanese Samurai would join the queue later to make tea one of the revered drinks in the Japanese culture.
The Policy of Isolation
By the 16th century, the idea of providing shade to the tea plants using Tana canopies was introduced. This is a process that leads to the creation of the modern-day Gyokuro and Matcha teas.
In the 17th century, Yin Yuan, a traveling Chinese Monk came up with the idea of loose leaf tea infusion and introduced it in Japan. But this strong link between Japan and China could not last forever, thus ushering in the period of isolation.
Japan adopted the famous policy of isolation that lasted from 1614 to 1853. The policy prevented any contact or association between Japan and the rest of the outside world. This included all the tea producing regions of China as well.
In the course of isolation, Japan found her way of tea that was different from the Chinese culture. That’s the time Japanese teas such as Gyokuro and Matchagrew in popularity across the country. These two types of tea motivated tea makers to start innovating new and unique ways of preparing Japanese tea.
As more and more Japanese tea makers invented new techniques for preparing tea, the number of consumers increased. In 1738, Soen Ngatani came up with a completely new method for preparing tea. This method involved steaming green tea in a bid to capture its freshness. The method is still in use today not only in Japan but around the world.
Even today, most Japanese tea is consumed in Japan in restaurants such as Kukicha and Banchaamong others. Also, this tea is drunk in smaller but more formal groups like Gyokuro and Sencha including the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony or Matcha. Despite producing her tea, Japan, just like other countries, still imports tea from other parts of the world to meet the growing demand for this beverage.
The Way of the Japanese Tea
All over the world, the most effective technique applied to prevent oxidation of the tea leaves is the use of heat. This technique involves heating tea leaves by placing them on a heated surface for a short time.
The technique has grown into popularity as the only means used today to protect tea leaves against oxidation. Most of the tea growers use large heated surfaces to heat the tea leaves. In Japan, this technique is done differently.
The main point of focus among the Japanese tea growers is the green teas. About 99.9 percent of tea grown in Japan is green tea that’s why it needs special care.
The technique used involves steaming the tea leaves in three different ways; shallow steam, medium steam, and deep steam. In the Japanese language, these techniques are referred to as Asamushi, Chumushi, and Fukamushi respectively.
These terms are used to describe best the different times spent while steaming tea leaves and this varies from one farmer to another. After they are steamed, rolled and friend, these leaves take up the name Aracha. At this stage, they’re sorted before packaging and distributing them to consumers.
Famous Tea Regions in Japan
Shizuoka remains the largest tea producing area in Japan. This region is responsible for producing almost 50 percent of tea in Japan. It’s proximity to the sea exposes it to the harsh weather conditions which in turn influence the quality of the tea produced. The main type of tea produced in Shizuoka is Senchaalthough the region is famous for the production of all types of teas known so far.
2. The Island of Kyushu
Four major regions exist on the Island of Kyushu and these include Saga, Miyazaki, Fukuoka, and Kagoshima. The climate on this island is subtropical which is suitable for cultivating different kinds of teas.
Teas such as Sencha, Kukicha, Bancha, Gyokuro, Kabusecha, and Kamairicha are produced in large quantities on this island. Also, the Island of Kyushu is home to two regions (Kumamoto and Miyazaki) famous for producing high-quality tea although in small quantities.
Located strategically in the middle of Honshu, Kyoto experiences mild climatic conditions unlike the rest of Japan. This region is well known for being the birthplace of tea in Japan. Kyoto was the first place where Eisai planted tea trees in the country. The main type of tea produced here is Gyokuro and Matcha which are considered high-quality teas.
Aichi is situated on the Eastern coast of Honshu, bordering Mie to the west and Shizuoka on the east. This region is not as famous as Shizuoka and Mie and it produces tea in small quantities compared to other tea producing areas in Japan. Aichi is important as a tea producing region in Japan and most of the tea produced here is mainly Matcha.
5. Nara and Mie
Although not as famous as other tea producing regions in Japan, Nara and Mie are also producers of high-quality tea in the country. Most of the tea is cultivated on Yamato Plateau which has an altitude of 200mm to 500m above the sea level. Most of the teas produced in this region include Kabusecha, Bancha, and Sencha.
Japanese Famous Teas
Sencha is the most widespread type of Japanese tea, making nearly 70 percent of the total tea produced in the country. This type of tea is grown almost everywhere in Japan and is available as either cheap or expensive tea leaves. Sencha green tea is distributed to consumers in the form of Asamushi, Chumushi, Futsumushi,and Fukamushi.
Matcha is used in the form of powder, especially during the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea is obtained by grinding tea leaves into a powder known as Tenchawhich is ground further into Matcha before consumption.
3. Gyokuro or Jade Dew
This is the pinnacle of Japanese tea art and is less than one percent of the total tea produced in Japan. Most of this tea is grown in Kyoto. Gyokuro tea is uniquely treated by covering the plantation for about two or four weeks before the leaves are picked. This practice ensures that the leaves accumulate more amino acids and theanine to make the tea sweet and unique.
3. Kukicha (Bocha)
Also known as the twig tea, this beverage is prepared from the stems of the tea plant. Kukicha is best described as a nutty tea, a side product of Kabusecha, Gyokuroor Senchaproduction. This type of tea contains small quantities of caffeine. Sometimes it’s referred to as Karigane and is easy to brew compared to other types of green tea.
4. Hojicha or Brancha
This is another type of Japanese green tea and is prepared from the roasted tea leaves combined with some parts of the tea plants. Brancha is assumed to be the usual tea taken every day by most of the tea enthusiasts.
Genmaicha is green tea mixed with roasted brown rice. Historically, this type of tea was considered cheap and affordable for many people. Brown rice was added to act as filler for anyone who could not afford pure tea. Today, Genmaicha contains some quantities of Matcha, giving it a unique grassy flavor coupled with a distinctive roasted aroma.
Arcaha is the tea that hasn’t been sorted yet. The term refers to different kinds of leaves that are sorted and categorized into other tea varieties before processing.
This type of tea originated from Kyushu and is well known for the curly shapes of its leaves after processing. The tea has a citrus aroma and a tangy taste. It can be pan-fired or steamed during preparation.
Shincha is the initial flush tea that is picked first at the beginning of the harvest. The tea is sweeter compared to later flushes because it is minimally processed to give it a fresh taste.
Kamairicha is prepared by pan-firing using the Chinese style to make it less bitter than most of the steamed teas.
This is a perfect variant of Sencha and it is shaded a few weeks before harvest time. Actually, it’s halfway between Gyokuro and Sencha.
Another typical example of the “side product tea”, Mecha is processed from the tips and buds of the tea plants at the beginning of spring.
Unfinished product of high quality dried tea leaves extracted from plants and then rolled into Gyokuro or processed into Matcha.
Konacha is a low-grade Japanese tea made from leftovers of Gyokuro and Sancha dust after processing. It is popularly served in most of the Sushi restaurants in Japan.
To Wrap Up
History of Japanese tea is linked to Chinese tea since the 9th century. During the famous Japanese Isolation period, tea brewers and growers in Japan discovered different ways of preparing this beverage and to this day, their techniques are in use across the globe.
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