Japanese Teas - History and Tea Types
Japanese Tea History
Asian cultures are steeped in tea tradition and Japan’s dates back to around the ninth century when monks traveling through China experienced the meditative and restorative powers of the healing elixir. Tea did not make it out of the monastery until several centuries later and once introduced to Japanese royalty it took on new meaning becoming an elitist favorite.
While the country’s position in the world tea market has changed dramatically, many things have remained the same like production style. Japanese teas are steamed versus fired, the distinguishing factor that separates them in taste characteristic. In general, Japanese teas are somewhat delicate, very green and have a bright vegetal taste or, if you will, a true “tea” flavor.
Today’s production is almost exclusively green tea with much of the harvesting done by machine. The primary factor between grades of Japanese tea is determined by the season in which it is harvested.
Types of Japanese Teas
Gyokuro or “Precious Dew” is the highest grade of tea and is harvested annually in spring. The plant is shaded during the final weeks of growth producing more chlorophyll in the leaves giving it a beautiful deep emerald green coloring and a sweet, mild cup.
Sencha is the most commonly consumed tea in Japan with the finer grades frequently being served to honored guests. Available in a variety of grades and not as special as Gyokuro, Sencha accounts for ¾’s of the islands tea production.
Japanese teas do not have the same appearance as other specialty green teas. Most often the leaves appear smaller and are not completely intact. This is due in large part to the mechanized technology and production methods of modern day Japan.
Later harvests produce the more course, lower grade teas such as medium to lower grade Sencha, Bancha, Hojicha and Gen Mai Cha. Gen Mai Cha is a bit of a novelty as the tea leaves are blended with roasted rice kernels and popped corn giving this a nutty, roasted full bodied taste that is frequently enjoyed in the US.
Kukicha, also a later harvest tea, is not considered especially high quality in Japan. When the tea plants are cleaned prior to the dormancy period the small twigs are pruned from the bushes, these twigs are Kukicha. The unique crisp, almost yellow, taste profile is refreshing and bright and personally I enjoy at least one cup of this “happy” tea daily. Terrific served hot or cold it is a delightful variation on the more commonly recognized Japanese teas.
You can’t talk about Japanese tea without the mention of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. This traditional ceremony has been studied and revered for centuries and is a communion between host and guest with special attention taken to create the surroundings and how those elements coexist in harmonious relationship with the ceremony itself. A Buddhist monk named Shuko laid the groundwork for this spiritual ritual and Sen-no-Rikyu cultivated it to the art form that is still practiced and studied today.
Tea is still used as a spiritual tool in the ceremony, allowing the participant a deep felt experience of being removed from ones own hectic world. An escape from the attitude and importance placed on abundance, to the simplicity of focusing on a few objects of beauty and finding all the abundance needed in very little; a deep genuine awareness of self and being present to the moment are all gifts of this timeless tradition.
Whenever anyone asks me “what is the greatest benefit of tea” my response is always the same, “tea requires that we stop and take a moment to care for ourselves and our spirit in a world that moves far to quickly, allowing us to appreciate where we are right now at this moment, nothing more and nothing less.” What a gift.