From traditional tea ceremonies that artfully prepare matcha to simple cups of sencha served at restaurants across Japan, tea is an integral part of Japanese culture and cuisine. The term “Japanese tea” is synonymous with green tea since its the only type of tea produced in the country.
Green tea is the daily elixir of the Japanese, enjoyed for its sweet, grassy flavours and innumerable health and restorative properties. With an extensive range of different flavours and styles, there’s a Japanese tea for everyone.
Use this guide to help you find your favourite Japanese tea and enjoy the mental clarity and zen green tea’s been giving the Japanese for centuries.
Tea first came to the Japanese from China during the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907 A.D, when relations and cultural exchanges between the two countries were at their strongest. However, over the following centuries, the two nations isolated themselves from each other which led to Japan focusing on tea’s medicinal uses.
In the 12th century, Myoan Eisai, the founder of Zen Buddhism, returned from a trip to China and began growing tea for religious purposes. He suggested grinding down the tea leaves to a powder and then adding hot water to them to maximise the health benefits of green tea leaves.
Hui-tsung, an emperor also wrote descriptions of how to use a bamboo whisk to mix the tea after adding hot water. This instruction became the basis for the modern tea ceremony, which was solidified in the late 16th century by Sen no Rikyu, the priest who established and popularised the practise.
Tea is produced almost everywhere in southern Japan, but there are a handful of regions that are famous for producing some of the highest quality green tea blends in the world.
Responsible for 40% of Japan’s tea plantations, Shizuoka is the largest tea-producing region in Japan. With a history of tea cultivation dating back to the 1200s, The area is rich in volcanic soil and has easy excess to plenty of freshwaters.
Following closely behind Shizuoka is Kagoshima, the second-largest producer of green tea in Japan. Kagoshima is surrounded by picturesque volcanic and ocean surroundings. The region is covered in a layer of volcanic ash known as “shirasu” that contributes to Kagoshima’s distinctive sencha.
Kagoshima is located at the southern tip of Japan’s southern Kyushu island. With a mild climate and volcanic soil rich in minerals, Kagoshima is famous for growing some of the best sencha and bancha leaves.
Kyoto was the first place where tea was introduced from China over 800 years ago, and the quality of tea produced is highly regarded by tea masters for producing the highest-quality green tea in the country. Its long history to when the first tea seeds were planted are rooted in Uji, a region in Kyoto. It is believed that Uji was where Eisai, the famous monk that brings Rizai Zen Buddhism to Japan from China told priests to plant and cultivate tea in the area.
It’s generally agreed that Uji produces the best-tasting tea. Known as Uji Gyokuro, it is the highest grade Japanese green tea. This tea is shade-grown, which increases the chlorophyll in the leaves, resulting in a bright green hue and a creamy, sweet flavour.
Japan produces up to 20 different types of Japanese green tea. The variations come from age, and different processes the leaves undergo before and after harvesting. This results in a diverse flavour palette, colour and even caffeine levels. Check out our guide to the most popular Japanese teas you’ll want to try!
Matcha tea leaves grow in the shade for several weeks before harvesting. This intensifies the flavour and increases caffeine levels. The leaves then get processed into a fine powder. When you drink matcha, you’re drinking whole leaves which gives this tea more nutrients than regular steeped green tea. Matcha is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. These chemicals are said to protect against heart disease and cancer, along with many other health benefits.
Because you end up drinking the whole leaf (in powder form), the caffeine levels are closer to brewed coffee. Matcha is easy to recognise by its bright green colour. Traditionally, matcha is whisked up in hot water into a frothy beverage meant for sipping. The result is a rich, earthy tea with vegetal grassy notes, sweet nuttiness, and pleasant bitter undertones.
Matcha is often used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. It is also often used in Japanese cuisine as it adds huge flavour and a fantastic green colour to traditional Japanese sweets and savoury dishes. Nowadays, matcha is a trendy flavour for beverages, ice cream and cakes both in Japan and around the world. People rave about matcha’s nutritional value and with good reason. It’s packed with antioxidants and is nowadays a key ingredient to smoothies and trendy cafe desserts.
Sencha wins the popularity vote by a landslide, it accounts for 80% of tea consumption in Japan. Sencha grows in full sunlight and has the highest vitamin C content of all green tea types. It is produced all over Japan and comes in a wide range of qualities. You can find very cheap Sencha producers or if money is no object, you can spend some serious cash on premium tea leaves.
Sencha turns a greenish-gold colour when brewed. It offers a refreshing, vegetable-like flavour that’s the perfect balance of sweet and bitter. Sencha contains high levels of tannins compared to other types of tea. The tannins give the tea a sharp quality, making it good for palate cleansing before and after meals.
Sencha tea usually has around 20 to 30 mg of caffeine per cup, an average amount for green tea. Sencha tea is known for its potential health benefits including its ability to fight chronic diseases and aid in weight loss. This beverage also improves the immune system, increases emerger y and stimulates cognitive activity.
The best sencha you can get has its own name: shincha which means “new tea”. Shincha is picked in the first month of the first harvest. It’s prized for its sweet flavour and high vitamin content.
Want to learn more about Japan’s number one tea? Check out this article! (Insert link)
Gyokuro represents the highest quality Japanese tea and is the most expensive Japanese green tea in the market. Gyokuro tea leaves grow in the shade for two to three weeks before they’re picked. This method ensures that the leaves contain high levels of L-Theanine.
L-Theanine improves your mental clarity and focus. It also adds umami and sweet notes to the flavour of the tea. Gyokuro is high in caffeine and chlorophyll, which promotes healthy skin.
The smooth, umami-rich flavour and the nutritional benefits make the tea worth the steep prices. It is easy to recognise as the gyokuro tea leaves have a deep, dark green colour and a rich aroma.
Kabusecha is a special shade-grown Japanese green tea. It has a similar taste and appearance to gyokuro and sencha, with dark blue-green leaves that produce a pale emerald liquid. While gyokuro is shaded for three weeks (and sencha isn’t shaded at all), the plants used to produce kabusecha are shaded for one to two weeks prior to harvest. The shading process stimulates the leaves to produce more chlorophyll, resulting in dark green tea leaves that are high in both caffeine and L-Theanine.
Kabusecha is a unique and enjoyable type of tea, as you can relish both the rich umami and oceanic notes that are characteristic to that of gyokuro, and also the pleasurable fresh features of sencha. It’s a green tea that offers a perfect balance of complex flavours with a buttery mouthfeel.
As kabusecha uses high-grade leaves produced from the first harvest of the year, it’s a tea that is loaded with antioxidants. It has high levels of caffeine to boost your performance before sports or study. Studies have shown women who regularly consume kabusecha have a lower risk of colon and stomach cancer. Other studies also link this green tea with slowing down the growth of tumours and cancer-causing cells.
Genmaicha is an interesting combination of sencha green tea leaves and roasted brown rice. It originated centuries ago when Buddhist monks mixed green tea with the rice stuck to the bottom of their rice cauldrons as a gesture of humility and conservation. This was soon followed by tea vendors throughout Japan blending sencha and bancha with roasted rice.
Genmaicha is a wonderful tea that’s known to improve oral health thanks to the polyphenols found int its leaves. The antibacterial properties found in this green tea kill bacterias that cause tooth decay, cavities and bad breath. Genmaicha also helps to regulate thyroids and remove toxins from your body. The presence of selenium in this tea contribute to regulating thyroid hormones. In general, green tea naturally contains polyphenols that provide antioxidants to your liver while detoxifying your body. Since genmaicha is mixed with sencha, drinking this tea throughout the day will help boost your immune system while continuously cleansing your body of toxins.
Genmaicha was once considered a tea for the poor for its “filler” of rice to stretch the tea leaves. Today it’s enjoyed by everyone. It’s known for having a unique, nutty and toasted flavour and a golden infusion.
Bancha means “ordinary tea” since it is served as an everyday variety of tea.
Bancha is sencha picked from the later harvests – sometimes as late as the fourth harvest in October. It’s considered a low-grade tea for this reason. It’s priced accordingly, making bancha an affordable option for everyday tea. It has significantly less caffeine than sencha or gyokuro.
Although bancha is not as refined as its green tea cousins, it does offer many health benefits, the main being detoxifying your body. It’s a tea rich in antioxidants to combat free radicals and cell-ageing and trace elements. It has a strong diuretic effect and the ability to alkaline blood, rebalancing its pH value which can often become too acidic with certain foods we consume on a daily basis such as products made with flour. Bancha is also rich in calcium, vitamin A and iron, making it a perfect drink companion for those who suffer from mild anaemia.
Made of mature tea leaves and stems from autumn harvests, bancha is gently roasted to develop a sweet, nutty flavour that brews into a gold infusion.
Houjicha is made from bancha tea leaves. They come from the later harvests of the year. But there’s one cruel step added at the end – the leaves get roasted. Roasting houjicha gives it a smooth, nutty, earthy flavour, making it a great tea to drink with meals as well as on its own.
Houjicha is very low in caffeine due to the roasting method. Houjicha provides a sense of relaxation due to the presence of L-Theanine (an amino acid that helps reduce stress and lower anxiety), aiding in both physical and mental health. Houjicha is often given to children and people recovering from an illness.
It’s a great alternative for people who don’t like the sharp taste of sencha.
Looking back at history, the origins of Japanese tea may have started in China, but Chinese and Japanese green tea could not be more different. Right off the bat, China and Japan have very different terroirs that affect the flavour of the tea.
Japan has lower elevation resulting in less harsh weather and less protection against insects. Because of this, Japanese tea farmers invest more time taking care of the plant itself by shading it, trimming the leaves etc. After harvesting the tea leaves, the Japanese will often use machines to process the leaves.
China, on the other hand, primarily leave the leaves and tea plants alone. This creates more variation in flavour as you will never get the same leaf for each brew.
The process to stop the tea from oxidising is also quite different. China more commonly uses pan firing whereas Japanese green teas are steamed. By changing the
Check out the information below to understand the differences between Japanese and Chinese green tea at a glance.
Japanese Green Tea
- Produces 95 million kg of green tea in total per year.
- Tea plants grow at up to 300 m elevation.
- Tea is harvested in the late spring (larger leaves).
- Leaves are steamed and dried.
- Leaves are processed by machine which results in consistent flavour.
- Green tea is brewed in Kyusu or Tetsubin – clay or cast iron teapots
- Japanese green tea has savoury, vegetal notes and is famous for having a strong weren’t and deep umami flavour profile.
- Tea brew is often a bright deep yellow or green in colour
- Popular types of Japanese green tea include matcha and sencha.
Chinese Green Tea
- Produces 2400 million kg of green tea in total per year.
- Tea plants grow at up to 700 m elevation
- Tea is harvested in early spring (smaller leaves).
- Leaves are pan-fried.
- Leaves are hand processed resulting in more variation.
- Tea is brewed in Gawian teapot and Gongfu set.
- Chinese tea has floral and fruity notes.
- Tea brew is a pale light colour and almost see-through
- Popular types of Chinese green tea include dragon well and gunpowder.
Japan is renowned for its refined and high-quality blend of green teas. Whether you prefer the savoury, nutty flavours of genmaicha or the umami-rich, vegetal notes of gyokuro, there’s a Japanese tea that will suit everyone.
But we want to know what you think! Let us know in the comments below what your favourite Japanese green tea is!
About the Author
Amy is a travel writer and photographer with a passion for tea! Amy has traveled to many different tea regions of the world from Darjeeling, India, Japan, Taiwan, northern Thailand, and Vietnam to experience first-hand and learn about different tea cultures. She now lives in Kyoto where the Japanese tea ceremony was born and remains its spiritual heart.