This week, our journey through the history of tea takes us across the East China Sea from the birthplace of tea to the land of the Rising Sun. We’ll discover how the famous Japanese tea ceremony was developed, how Japan’s isolation helped a unique tea culture thrive, and discover some of Japan’s most famous and widely loved teas.
Japan – The Art of Tea
While tea culture began in China, it soon spread throughout Asia. Everywhere Chinese sailors went, tea followed. And across the Yellow Sea, tea found a people who wanted to embrace this drink and build a whole ceremonial culture that survives to this very day.
This week, we’re discovering the history of tea in Japan.
The History of Japanese Tea
History credits the monk Saisho as being the man who first brought tea leaves from China to Japan buring the Heian period, but while Saisho and other travellers brought leaves, it would take another visionary to sow the seeds of Japan’s true tea culture.
Japan's true tea culture only really started when the monk Eisai (1141-1215) brought back tea-tree seeds from a pilgrimage to China. He planted these seeds on the island of Kyushu and around the monasteries of Hakata, and Japan’s path to the way of tea began in earnest.
Eisai and his contemporaries used tea mainly as a medicine, and used the same preparation methods as were common in China in that time. Monks and other wise tea drinkers would grind the tea leaves before pouring hot water over them in a calming, zen process.
Eisai’s zen lifestyle and ideas definitely contributed to the ideas of the Japanese tea ceremony, and they are still a key part of this ceremony almost a thousand years later.
Tea would then be planted on Honshu, near Kyoto, where monks would cultivate and use the plant in the belief it helped with meditation. Later on, statesmen and intellectuals added tea into their daily routine as well, followed by the famed Japanese Samurai.
In the 16th century, shading the tea plants from sunlight with Tana canopies began – a process which is the origin of today’s Matcha and Gyokuro teas. In the 17th Century, the travelling Chinese Monk Yin Yuan spread the way of loose leaf tea infusion in Japan, but this link between China and Japan couldn’t last forever.
Between 1641 and 1853 Japan embraced a famous policy of isolation, preventing any contact between Japan and the outside world, including the tea producing regions of China.
This forced Japan to discover its own way of tea which remained separate from Chinese culture. Japanese teas such as Matcha and Gyokuro became more and more popular, and Japanese tea makers began to innovate new ways of preparing tea.
In 1738, Soen Nagatani created the steaming method for green tea that is still being used to this day, to capture the freshness of the tea leaves. Even in 2018, this method is still widely practiced all around the world.
To this day, almost all Japanese tea is drunk in Japan itself, casually in restaurants (Bancha, Kukicha), in smaller, more formal Groups (Sencha, Gyokuro), and in the tea ceremony (Matcha).
However, as a global, modern country, Japan also imports a wide range of teas from all over the world.
The Japanese Way of Tea
Around the world, the most widespread technique used today to prevent the tea leaves from oxidizing is to heat them by placing them with a heated surface, as if they were in a big frying pan.
Tea growers all over the world need to ensure that the leaves do not oxidise. From China to India and beyond, most growers heat the leaves on a large heated surface, almost like a large frying pan. But in Japan, they do things differently.
Unlike other tea growing nations, the Japanese focus on green teas (99.9% of the tea grown is green tea), and they prepare it in a special way. They steam the leaves.
When you choose a Japanese green tea, you may see it described as one of the following:
Asamushi “shallow steam” or “lightly steamed” - a quick, usually 20– 40-second steaming
Chumushi “medium steam” or Futsumushi “normal steam” - a 40–80 second steaming
Fukamushi “deep steam” - a longer steaming of 80 seconds or more
These exact time spent steaming leaves varies from farmer to farmer, which is why terms go from shallow (asamushi) to deep (fukamushi) instead of giving an exact steaming time.
Once steamed, rolled and dried, the tea leaves are called Aracha, and only need to be sorted before they can be packed, distributed and enjoyed.
Japan’s Famous Tea Regions
Shizuoka is the biggest tea producing region of Japan and is responsible for about half of Japan's tea production. The region’s proximity to the ocean creates harsher weather conditions which are believed to produce better tea. Its speciality is sencha but Shizuoka produces all kinds of tea.
Kyoto is located in the middle of the island of Honshu. Kyoto is quite mild in climate and is known as one of the original places where Eisai first planted tea in Japan. It is famous for its high-quality teas, especially matcha and gyokuro.
The Island of Kyushu
There are four famous tea regions on this island, Kagoshima, Saga, Miyazaki and Fukuoka.
The climate is subtropical, allowing farmers to grow a wide range of teas; sencha, bancha, kukicha, kabusecha and gyokuro, as well as the famous local speciality kamairicha.
Kyushu is also home to two up and coming regions which make some small quantities of high-quality tea: Miyazaki and Kumamoto.
Nara and Mie
Less famous than other Japanese tea growing areas, teas from this region are mainly grown on the Yamato Plateau at an altitude between 200m and 500m. They mostly make sencha, bancha and kabusecha.
The Aichi prefecture in Japan is located on the southern coast of Honshu and bordered by Shizuoka to the east and Mie to the west. Although it produces a smaller total volume of tea, and is less well-known than Mie and Shizuoka, Aichi is still very important, especially in producing matcha.
Japan’s Famous Teas
Sencha: this is the most widespread kind of Japanese green tea, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the tea produced in Japan.
It is produced almost everywhere in the country, and a broad range of Sencha is available, from very cheap to the most expensive of tea leaves. After the steaming process, the tea leaves are rolled and dried to remove humidity and give the leaves their characteristic needle shape.
The result of these processes is called Aracha, which is not yet a finished product. After a final preparation, the Sencha ready to be enjoyed and will be distributed using one of the following descriptions:
Gyokuro, the Jade Dew: the pinnacle of Japanese tea art. Less than one percent of Japan’s tea production is Gyokuro, and the small amount that is made is grown mostly in Kyoto. What makes Gyokuro different is the way it is treated just before being picked. The plantation is covered for two to four weeks before the tea leaves are picked.
This produces tea leaves that have more theanine and amino acids which causes the sweetness and umami unique to Gyokuro.
Matcha: the powdered Japanese green tea used in the famous Japanese tea ceremony. First brought to Japan by the Zen monk Eisai, Matcha has a very long and storied history.
Matcha is obtained by stone-grinding a tea called Tencha to produce a powder. Tencha itself is almost never drunk without first being ground into Matcha. Like Gyokuro, this is grown in the shade, before the leaves are steamed and dried.
Kukicha (Bocha), the twig tea: mainly made from the stems, Kukicha is a nutty tea which is often considered a side product from Sencha, Kabusecha or Gyokuro production. It contains a lower amount of caffeine and is easier to brew than other green teas.
A special kind of this tea is made from the stems of Gyokuro, making it sweeter and more tender. This kind of tea is also called Karigane.
(Bancha) Hôjicha: Japanese green tea, made from the roasted leaves and ferns of the tea plant. It is usually thought of as an everyday tea but if the best tea leaves are used it can be of excellent quality comparable to many of the more special teas.
Genmaicha: a green tea combined with roasted brown rice, this is historically a cheap and affordable tea. The rice was essentially used as filler for those who couldn't afford pure tea, making it the tea of choice for the common Japanese consumer.
Today this tea often contains matcha and is appreciated for its unique grassy flavour and roasted aroma.
Tamaryokucha: a tea from Kyushu known for the curly shape of its processed leaves. Tamaryokucha has a distinctive tangy taste and citrus aroma, and can be steamed or pan fired during preparation.
Arcaha: a tea that has not been sorted. This refers to all sorts of leaves which are then sorted and split up into Sencha, Kukicha, Bancha or other varieties. Matcha and Gyokuro are usually separated and sorted before processing.
Shincha: the first flush tea, picked earliest in the season during the first few days of the first harvest. This tea tends to be sweeter than later flushes, and is usually very minimally processed to ensure an incredibly fresh taste.
It should be consumed in the first few weeks after harvest before the famed freshness begins to fade and the quality of the tea drops.
Kabusecha: a variant of sencha that is shaded for one to two weeks before harvest. Essentially this tea is half way between Sencha and Gyokuro.
Kamairicha: a tea which is pan-fired in the Chinese style, this tends to be less bitter than steamed teas. Kamairicha is known for its curved shape, instead of the more usual needle-like form of Japanese tea.
Mecha: another “side product tea,” Mecha is made from the buds and tips of the tea plant early in the spring.
Konacha: this is typically a low-grade tea made from dust and leftovers from Sencha and Gyokuro processing. Konacha is often served in sushi restaurants.
Tencha: unfinished Matcha or Gyokuro (high quality dried leaves from shaded plants) ready to be rolled into Gyokuro or ground into Matcha.
Japan’s teas can challenge China in terms of quality and variety. Have you tried many of the Japanese teas we stock? Do you prefer them to Chinese teas? Share your experiences in the comments section below, and feel free to ask any questions.
Next week, our journey around the world of tea continues…
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