Do you love to visit Japan? If you do, why don't you try learning basic Japanese? Being one of the most popular tourist destinations, a lot of events are held throughout the year in Japan. When you visit the countryside, oftentimes English translation is often unavailable in these local events. In this situation, knowing the basic level of Japanese would help you to communicate with the locals and find your way through those events. Moreover, it would make the locals happy that you appreciate their culture and learned their language.
Aside from the various events that are held in Tokyo, one of the famous events had to do with Japanese tea which is the tea ceremony. When we think of Japanese tea, one thing that would come to people’s minds is Matcha. It is incredibly famous and enjoyed by people around the world as seen by the numerous sweets that have matcha incorporated into it. But how exactly did it become such a huge symbol of Japan? Let’s trace back to the past together and find out!
This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on living in Japan.
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How Tea Came to Japan
Tea was believed to become a drink in Japan around the 8th century where it was recorded as a drink for religious people. When Buddhist monks were sent to China for training, some believed that they brought back the tea seeds when they returned. As tea became popular with the royal classes, the Emperor encouraged people to grow tea plants. This leads to more tea seeds being imported from China and it is how tea cultivation began in Japan.
It was believed that a Zen monk named Eisai was the person who popularized tea from his book Kissa Yōjōki (喫茶養生記, Drink Tea and Prolong Life). In this book, he teaches a lot about the medicinal value of drinking tea, the characteristics of the tea plant as well as how to grow and process tea leaves. After introducing his book and the tea consumption to the samurai class, tea became popular, and eventually, it became a staple enjoyed mostly by the upper classes of the Japanese.
Now in the past, Japanese people believed that drinking tea will help in curing diseases such as heart disease, beriberi disease, lupus, etc and it is also used to clench thirst. However, what is the real benefit of drinking tea?
Numerous studies have shown that drinking tea has a lot of great benefits to your health. It could boost your immune system, help with inflammation, prevent tooth decay and even fend off cancer and heart disease. Certain types of teas can even help boost your memory power as they can strengthen your memory cells while. In addition, it could also help you slim down or prevent you from gaining weight since it could help speed up the burning process of your calories. We’ll discuss more about the health benefits of drinking different types of Japanese tea down below.
Types of Japanese Tea
As most of you may know, green tea is extremely popular in Japan, in fact, it accounts for at least 90% of the total tea production in Japan. When people think of green tea, some assume that it is the name of a tea, when in reality there are many different types of green tea in Japan, most of which are divided according to their processing method. The first stage that separates them is the fermentation process. After tea leaves are picked, they will be steamed and the steaming process will stop the fermentation of the tea. Most Japanese green tea is non-fermented and is often steamed or pan-fried. What makes them different from each other is the way the tea plants are cultivated and whether or not and for how long they were shaded.
Before we explore the different types of teas, you may wonder what shading means. When tea plants are cultivated under the sun, photosynthesis will take place within the leaf and will increase the umami flavor in the tea leaves and make the tea leaves taste more bitter.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the different types of green tea!
It is usually grown without shades, meaning it is fully grown under the sun. However, recently manufacturers have begun experimenting with shading to enhance the leaves’ umami flavor. This tea is the most popular within the green tea category as it represents 80% of the tea produced in Japan. It is neither too bitter nor too sweet and could also be used as a coffee substitute as it could provide the same energy boost.
Like most green teas, Sencha contains a high level of antioxidants that could help fend off chronic disease, which is why most green teas could help prevent cancer. Another thing that is common in green tea is that, although they do hold some amount of caffeine, they can lower your blood pressure and prevent excessive strain on your heart which is helpful for those who are at a higher risk of getting heart diseases. Sencha tea extract is commonly used in aromatherapy as it could relieve stress and help people relax, which is why we often see them being applied to incense, lotions, and soaps.
This plant is usually grown under shade which results in larger greener tea leaves that produce a subtly sweet and bitter flavor. The leaves are often grounded to a fine powder which will then be whisked in hot water. It is also sorted into different grades according to its flavor and the highest grades matcha are often used in tea ceremonies.
As Matcha has high antioxidants, it could help stabilize harmful free radicals which can damage cells and cause chronic diseases. It could also help you lose weight since it could help speed up your metabolism. Matcha could also help increase your brain function as it has a concentrated amount of caffeine than regular green tea, and due to a compound called L-theanine, it was able to help us avoid the caffeine crash while still having the caffeine benefits such as increased alertness and enhanced memory.
It is usually made from roasting the stems and leaves that are collected later in the season. Hojicha is also very popular among the elderly and children since it contains almost no caffeine and isn’t very bitter. The reason is that when you roast tea, it decaffeinates it and creates a nutty and smoky flavor that is similar to roasted coffee beans.
The presence of L-Theanine, an amino acid that’s present in green tea, could help ease symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety which is why people often feel relaxed after drinking it. The vitamin C in Hojicha could also lighten your acne scars or undo skin damage, as well as preventing wrinkles. Moreover, like most green teas, Hojicha can boost your immune system and help you fight off cold, and even lower your risk of getting cancer.
It is one of the most expensive green teas in the world. This plant is usually shaded using the canopy shading method for a long period of time to enhance the leaves’ sweetness and this shading method also increases the caffeine levels in the leaves. Unlike sencha which is usually harvested using mechanized equipment, Gyokuro leaves are harvested by hand to guarantee that only the softest tea leaves are obtained. By ensuring this, they would be able to bring out a stronger umami flavor.
Gyokuro can help maintain your blood glucose level, thus it could help in preventing diabetes. Moreover, since it contains a high amount of fluoride and mineral content, it can help keep your teeth strong and if you have bad breath, it can reduce the number of bacterias inside your mouth which could solve your bad breath problem.
It is a type of green tea that is mixed with roasted brown rice (genmai). Conventionally, it is made using Bancha, which is a lower-grade green tea that’s harvested from the second flush of sencha. However, recently, some manufacturers have also made Genmaicha using other types of green teas such as Sencha, Hojicha, Matcha, or even Gyokuro. The roasted rice brings out a nutty flavor which creates a beautiful balance with the tea’s bitterness, so it is easier to drink for people who are just starting on their green tea journey.
Aside from giving you the general benefits that green teas usually provide such as increased metabolism and lower the risk of heart disease, Genmaicha also provides other health benefits. The brown rice in Genmaicha helps you to balance your blood sugar, thus preventing blood sugar spikes that are usually the cause of cravings and binge eating. Moreover, the selenium in brown rice could also regulate thyroid hormones, which could help prevent fatigue, poor vision, sleeping problems, etc, and it could also help with asthma.
Still not your cup of tea? Maybe you will prefer our Ultimate Guide to Sake Brewery!
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Now that we’ve explored some of the popular types of green tea, let’s take a look at the other types of tea that Japan offers!
It is notably one of the essential summer drinks in Japan, however, instead of tea leaves, it was made from toasted barley grains which are then infused with water. Similar to Hojicha, it is caffeine-free and has minimal or no bitterness at all. Japanese people also believe that this is a yin drink that could cool down your body after you drink it.
Mugicha also contains vitamin A and C, amino acids, and melatonin that would help improve your overall health. The fiber that’s present in the barley could also help with your digestion and also acts as a natural antacid that could help relieve heartburn or an upset stomach that may be caused by an imbalance of gut acids.
2. Oolong tea
Although it is a Chinese traditional tea, this tea is also produced in Japan. In general, green tea has a lower rate of oxidation while black tea has a higher rate. Oolong tea’s oxidation rate falls between 10-90% meaning it contains both green tea and black tea compounds, thus giving us the benefits that both teas can offer.
Aside from green tea’s health benefits that we’ve discussed above, Oolong tea has several other health benefits to offer. The polyphenols in Oolong tea could slow down the digestive enzyme α-amylase. As high blood sugar levels are caused by the over-activity of α-amylase, it could potentially be helpful to people who are suffering from type-2 diabetes. Drinking Oolong tea could also help balance the healthy bacteria in your gut, which could help in preventing metabolic disorders, inflammatory bowel diseases, or other diseases that could be caused by imbalanced gut bacteria.
This tea is made from the roasted shavings of burdock (gobo) root, which is a type of vegetable root that is quite popular in Japanese cooking. It has an earthy flavor that’s similar to a mushroom broth and since it was believed to contain anti-aging benefits, it became very popular in Japan.
Gobocha has been used as a Chinese as well as Western herbal medicine for thousands of years. It is used to treat colds, high blood pressure, liver disease, bladder infection, and even skin conditions such as dry skin, eczema, or even acne. Although it is safe to consume for most people, some people such as pregnant women and people who take medicines to lower their blood sugar should not consume this tea.
This Kombucha is different from the Kombucha that you usually find in Western countries. Instead of a fermented drink made with yeast and bacteria, this is a tea made from a kelp (konbu) base. It has a broth-like flavor as kelp is one of the main ingredients for making the broth. Some people also add pickled plum (ume) to this tea to give it more flavor.
This tea is popular for reducing gas and helping with your digestion. This is because it is a source of probiotics, which are living microorganisms that help keep your gut healthy through healthy bacteria, such as B vitamins, antioxidants, etc. Kombucha can also help to detoxify and purify your blood and helps fight anemia as it also contains iron.
Thinking of what to pair with tea? Head over to our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets!
Brewing Japanese Tea
In this day and age, most of us drink tea using tea bags as it is the fastest way and the most convenient way of enjoying tea. However, for people who are interested in brewing Japanese tea the traditional way, we’ve got you covered. We will be using the green tea brewing method as an example, but you can use this method for other tea types as well.
1. Choosing your teapot
When brewing Japanese loose tea leaves, the first thing you need to do is to choose your teapot. In Japan, there is a popular utensil that Japanese people like to use to allow their tea leaves to fully expand. This utensil is called Kyusu, a clay Japanese teapot that’s used to brew a wide variety of Japanese tea leaves. Since it is made out of clay, it was able to retain the heat inside it and thus reduce the steeping time. Depending on the clay that it is made out of, Kyusu could also reduce the tea’s astringency which would produce a softer flavor from the tea leaves.
2. Get the right leaf to water ratio
After choosing your teapot, you need to get the right leaf to water ratio. This part is different for each tea as each of them has its own flavor. Usually, for Sencha, the leaf to water ratio is 200ml for every 3-5g (1 teaspoon) of tea leaves. It is recommended that you weigh your tea leaves, but using teaspoons works as well.
3. Pay attention to the water temperature
The next thing that you need to be careful of, is the water temperature. If you use water at high temperatures to boil the tea leaves, there is a high chance that your tea may turn out bitter as it will over-extract the green tea’s natural components. This temperature usually ranges from around 140℉-200℉ for most green teas and you can easily look it up online if you want to be sure which temperature is the best for your green tea.
4. Steep your tea leaves
Once you have completed the 3 tasks above, you can place your tea leaves into your teapot and let them seep. Generally, you need to soak most green teas for around 30 seconds - 2 minutes. And after it is done, simply pour out the tea into teacups and serve it. After pouring all the tea into teacups, you can re-steep the tea again. In general, you can re-steep the tea leaves 2-3 times, however, it is best to re-steep Japanese green teas’ leaves as soon as possible, since they are likely to degrade if you leave them wet.
When brewing Japanese tea for the first time, you are bound to make mistakes. However, you can avoid it by taking a look at the list that we’ve compiled down below.
1. The quality of the water
Water is something that’s often overlooked when you are just starting to learn to brew your own tea. However, there are different types of water and most of them are not suitable for brewing Japanese tea. For example, tap water, hard water, distilled water, etc are water that contains a lot of minerals that could alternate the tea’s flavor. This is why, when brewing Japanese tea, it is recommended to use soft water that contains little to no mineral.
2. The leaf to water ratio
Although it’s listed as the second step in brewing Japanese tea, a lot of people actually don’t pay much attention to this part. The reason why it’s recommended to weigh your tea leaves rather than using teaspoons is that tea leaves differ in size. Sometimes you may have tea leaves that have broken into small parts and other times you have large tea leaves that haven’t broken. Hence, you could add more/fewer tea leaves than the recommended leaf to water ratio if you use teaspoons.
3. Water temperature
Similar to the leaf to water ratio, this step is often overlooked, not just by beginners but some cafes also ignore this part. Oftentimes they use boiling water to steep the tea leaves which could turn the tea bitter. Therefore, try to look up what temperature you are supposed to brew your tea in as it varies from tea to tea.
4. Steeping time
Aside from the 3 things that we’ve mentioned above, you also need to pay attention to the steeping time. Before steeping your tea, make sure to look up how many minutes you need to steep your tea leaves. For example, in general, black tea’s infusion time is around 5 minutes but Sencha’s infusion time is only 1 minute. Moreover, if you were to re-steep the tea leaves, it would take less time and a higher water temperature than the one that you used during the first steep.
As you might have noticed, all of the mistakes we mentioned mostly happened when people didn't do enough research. Thus, you can avoid these mistakes by just simply researching and you will be able to brew a delicious Japanese tea.
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Japanese Tea Ceremony
When we think of Japanese tea, Japanese tea ceremonies will surely appear as it is a deep-rooted tradition in Japan. Even so, most of us don’t know the origin of this ceremony or the purpose behind it. So, let’s find out together!
The Japanese tea ceremony is a ceremonial way of preparing and drinking tea in a special tea room. One of its main purposes is to welcome the guests in a calming atmosphere inside the tea room. It originally came from the ritual tea-drinking practiced by Zen monks in Japan during the 8th century. However, it wasn’t until the Muromachi period which takes place during the 13th and 14th century did it become popular amongst people of all social classes. Around this time, Sen no Rikyū, who served as a tea master to Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, constructed a simple wabi hut tea room named Taian. He played a large role in the modern Japanese tea ceremony as he was the one who established the etiquette of the Japanese tea ceremony as well as the style of wabi-cha which emphasize greatly on simplicity and quietude.
Japanese tea ceremony usually takes place in a tea house/room (cha-shitsu). It is normally about 3m (9 feet) square or smaller and gives off a calm and refined simplicity. Before entering this room you will most likely go through a garden that surrounds the tea room and wash your hands on a stone lantern that’s usually near the entrance. As the garden around the teahouse is kept tranquil and simple to stimulate a calm spirit, it is unlikely that you’ll see flowers with flashy colors. People will then enter this room through a small, low door (nijiriguchi) which is designed by Sen no Rikyū to suggest humility.
Want to learn more about Japanese culture? Read our Guide to Japanese Culture!
How tea ceremonies are conducted
Before entering the tearoom, the main guest will bow and take the closest seat to the alcove (tokonoma) which is where a scroll or seasonal flowers are displayed. Once all the guests are seated, it is customary to bow once more before you can observe the tea room’s decorations. The ceremony will then start off with the host bringing the tea utensils into the tea house. These utensils usually include tea whisk (chasen), tea container for the powdered green tea (natsume), tea scoop (chashaku), tea bowl, sweets plate, kettle, and brazier. The host will then offer the guest Japanese traditional sweets, which are supposed to be eaten before you drink the tea and start preparing the tea in front of the guest. After the tea is served and consumed, you will bow and express your gratitude. Afterward, you will be able to examine the tea bowl by lifting it. The tea ceremony will be over after the host washed all the utensils and placed them back.
Tea Ceremony Etiquettes
Although you are not expected to know all of the etiquettes inside the tea room, there is some basic etiquette that you should follow when participating in a tea ceremony.
- Come on time
This shouldn’t come off as a surprise to most of you as being on time is basic etiquette that is highly regarded in Japan.
- Wear appropriate clothes
Try to wear modest clothing and refrain from wearing gaudy jewelry or strong perfumes. You also need to remember to wear clean socks to the tea ceremony as you will be taking off your shoes.
- Try to keep quiet
Refrain from talking in a loud voice as to not break the calmness of the tea room. A tea ceremony is considered a meditative practice that calls for a calm environment that forbids any distractions.
- Show appreciation
Try to compliment or ask something about the tea ceremony that you are genuinely curious about. Although there is usually a person who will help translate your compliments or questions to the host, if you’d like to personally express your feelings, learning Japanese might be a good thing to do before you went there.
Places to Buy Japanese Tea
Now that we’ve talked so much about Japanese tea, we’ll present to you 2 popular places in Japan where you can purchase Japanese tea.
This tea store, located in Tokyo and Kyoto, is a place where you can purchase, drink as well as receive some education on Japanese tea. If you are someone who is just starting out on your journey into the tea world, this store will be able to help you find a flavor suitable for you or even a perfect teapot to help you brew your tea. They also provide their menus in English so you don’t have to feel pressured to know Japanese. Moreover, if you prefer shopping online under this pandemic situation, you can also purchase their product online.
- Sencha-do Tokyo
This tea store is located in Ginza, and we would recommend this place if you’d like to gift green tea to someone. As their names suggest, they primarily focus on Sencha, and from it, they were able to create several tea products with unique tastes. Their tea can packaging gives off a simple yet classy vibe, and they also provide a visual graph that shows how sweet, strong, or mild the tea would be. As this graph is available in their store as well as in their online store, it could be helpful in choosing a gift for a tea lover or for yourself.
Aside from this store, they actually have a tea cafe named Tokyo Saryo which is quite popular. If you are looking for a new, unique tea store to visit, this would be the perfect place for you. Aside from providing your Japanese tea leaves, this store is famous for combining the western hand-dripped brewing method into their tea. As Japanese tea is traditionally brewed using Kyusu, this is certainly a very unique idea.
As Japanese tea began to grow in popularity, there may be more people who are willing to know more about Japanese tea. We hope that this article has been useful in informing you about Japanese tea.
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