Japanese Tea Leaves and Pots
A Green Tea Lover's Guide to
Sencha, Matcha and Gyokuro

A complete guide to japanese tea, covering loose leaves, tea pots, history and ceremony.



eisaiThe custom of drinking tea spread from China to Japan during the 700's, when a series of diplomats from Japan visited the Chinese capital of today's Xi-An.

Over the next few centuries, the diplomats returned to Japan with tea from China.

In the 12th century, Myoan Eisai, founder of the Rinsai school of Buddhism, brought back seeds and distributed them to other monks, and Japan had its own tea gardens.

Since then, Japan has evolved its own unique methods of growing, processing and drinking tea.

This guide will help you navigate the rich, flavorful world of tea in Japan:

Sencha

Sencha is the most commonly drunk beverage in Japan. If there is only one Japanese tea you want to explore, I highly recommend you start with sencha.

Like most Japanese tea, it is fixated by steaming, then rolled into a needle shape before drying.

senchaThis is different from the Chinese method of pan-firing, and it helps give sencha its distinctively intense green color and flavor.

Of Japan's 47 prefectures (provinces), Shizuoka, Kagoshima and Mie are the three major tea-producing regions.

Other important tea-growing regions include the areas of the ancient capitals—Nara and Kyoto—where Japanese Buddhism has its roots, and various parts of Kyushu, with its comparatively mild climes.

Sencha - An Enigma of Japanese Loose-Leaf Green Tea?

Sencha Green Tea Health Benefits - How to Brew Hot and Iced

Gyokuro

gyokuroLiterally translated as "Jade Dew" for its pale green infusion, gyokuro is famous for being the most expensive of Japanese tea.

While sencha grows in full sun, gyokuro grows in shade.

About 20 days before harvesting begins, they are shrouded in black cloth that lets in only a small amount of sunlight.

Limiting the sunlight prevent theanine from converting to catechins, resulting in lower astringency, more sweetness and a richer flavor.

An oika aroma, similar to nori seaweed, is a unique characteristics of gyokuro.

When brewed correctly, it has a complicated flavor that is intensely vegetal, mellow and sweet, all at the same time.

Gyokuro Green Tea A Real Challenge? A Brewing Guide

Kabusecha

Kabusecha is similar to gyokuro, but the shading only takes place one week prior to picking.

The result is somewhere in between gyokuro and sencha in flavor.

Compared to sencha, it is darker green, more full bodied and less astringent.

Tencha

Tencha is used mainly to make matcha - the ceremonial Japanese tea powder.

Similar to gyokuro, the tencha tea plants are grown in shade. The finer tips are used to make gyokuro, while the larger leaves are used to make tencha.

Generally, the tea plant may be covered longer than the standard 20 days used for gyokuro.

Unlike gyokuro, the tea leaves are steamed without being rolled. After removing the stalks and veins, the tea leaves become tencha.

Because powdered green tea remains fresh for only a short period of time (4 weeks in winter and 2 weeks in summer), the leaves are stored as tencha until matcha is required.

The highest grade matcha is stone-ground to a fine, vibrant green powder immediately before shipping.

Matcha

gyokuroMatcha is a high-quality green tea powder. Traditionally, it is used for chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony.

Ceremonial-grade is the highest grade. It is hard to find outside Japan. It is used by the major tea schools and Buddhist temples in Japan specifically for the tea ceremony, where it is blended to be served straight.

Premium grade is more of an everyday beverage. It is still very good, and much easier to find.

Ingredient-grade is cheaper and is added as an ingredient to foods and beverages. This grade of matcha needs a stronger flavor to compete with the other flavors in foods and beverages. It is mixed with older tea leaves, which have stronger flavors.

The best matcha comes from the Uji, Aichi, Shizuoka and Kyushu regions of Japan.

I tried (and recommend) O-Cha's "Kiku Mukashi" matcha from Uji.

Although it is usucha matcha, it is not bitter. Rather, it has a pleasant, mineral flavor that somehow reminds me of seaweed. It tastes as green as it looks in a glass!

Matcha Green Tea - Japanese Powder Guide - Types and Grades

Hojicha

hojichaHojicha is different from the other Japanese teas we have looked at so far.

Rather than being steamed, hojicha is roasted to a rich brown color. This tea makes an excellent nightcap, as the caffeine levels are low.

Hojicha Green Tea - A Perfect Decaffeinated Drink?

Genmaicha

The word "Genmaicha" means brown rice, rice that retains the bran covering.

It is created by mixing sencha or other teas with roasted brown rice, at a ratio of approximately 50:50. Sometimes matcha powder is added.

You may enjoy the savoriness of the roasted brown rice combined with the refreshing green of sencha.

Since sencha has already been diluted by rice, the caffeine content is low. It is said this tea is suitable for children and the elderly.

O-Cha's Matcha Iri Genmaicha was particularly good.

I loved the way the nutty, malty taste of the rice smoothed out the astringent bite of the sencha. This is a nice, substantial tea that I particularly enjoy as a late afternoon pick-me-up.

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References

Heiss, Mary Lou and Robert J. (2007) The Story of Tea-A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. pp 164-187

Wikipedia. "Green Tea." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_tea#Japanese_green_teas

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Known as kyusu, Japanese tea pots are objects of beauty and practical equipment. How to buy a tetsubin, small kyusu and houbin.

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Tea Trays - For Ceremony and Everyday Use

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