When you think of Japanese tea, which variety comes to mind first? If you immediately picture matcha green tea, you’re not alone – it’s one of the most recognizable teas from Japan, thanks in large part to its many culinary uses and the popularity of the Japanese tea ceremony.
But while matcha may be the most well-known Japanese tea, it’s far from the only variety. The vast majority of tea produced in Japan is green tea, but these can vary greatly in flavor, aroma, and quality depending on their regional origin and manner of processing.
History of Japanese Tea
Japan’s tea history dates back more than a thousand years, as early as the 9th century. Buddhist monks are believed to have been the first to transport tea from China to Japan, prompting its origins as a drink of the religious class.
According to legend, Emperor Saga – the 52nd emperor of Japan – was the first Japanese emperor to consume tea. Delighted by the beverage, he ordered the construction of several tea plantations near the capital. This marked the earliest beginnings of tea cultivation in Japan.
Following these events, tea was still only consumed on a small scale by Japan’s royal and elite classes. At this time, tea was typically associated with its medicinal and healing benefits, rather than sipping for enjoyment.
It was not until the 12th century, when the Zen monk Eisai transported tea seeds from China to the Japanese city of Uji, that tea was first cultivated on a large scale in Japan. The publication of Eisai’s book, Kissa Yōjōki (Drinking Tea for Health) is credited with spurring the true start of Japan’s tea culture.
Over the next several centuries, Japanese tea culture developed the qualities and distinctions that it is known for today, including the sacred tea ceremony. During this period, it also became the beverage of choice among all socioeconomic classes in Japan – a tradition that is still true today.
Japanese Tea Regions
The Uji region in the Kyoto Prefecture remains one of the top tea-producing areas in all of Japan. Many of the finest, highest quality sencha and matcha green teas are produced in Uji.
Tea produced in the Shizuoka Prefecture, near Tokyo, accounts for nearly 40% of Japan’s total tea production. This makes it the largest cultivation region by volume, and much of the tea produced here is sencha.
Other major tea regions in Japan include the Kagoshima Prefecture, the Kumamoto Prefecture, and the Fukuoka Prefecture. The unique climates of each of these regions can impact the final flavor, aroma, and quality of the teas produced there.
Guide to Japanese Tea Varieties
The star of Japan’s ancient tea ceremony, matcha is a special variety of green tea that is made from shade-grown leaves with the stems removed. These leaves are finely ground into a vibrant green powder, which can then be added to hot water and whisked into a frothy, nourishing beverage.
High quality matcha green tea will have a beautifully light vegetal flavor, which is why it’s so important to purchase your matcha powder from a trustworthy source. Matcha’s unique flavor and coloring make it a popular ingredient in many dessert recipes, too.
Although it has not quite achieved the same level of global recognition as matcha, sencha is actually the single most popular variety of tea in Japan, and makes up nearly 80% of Japan’s tea production.
Sencha is known for its delicate sweetness and clean vegetal flavor. In Japan, sencha is consumed all day long, from morning until evening. If you ever find yourself as a guest in a Japanese home, you will likely be served a hot cup of sencha green tea.
Unlike matcha, sencha is prepared by infusing the full leaf in hot water. Additionally, sencha teas are typically grown in the sun, rather than in the shade. The exact qualities and flavors present will depend on the time and place of harvest, as well as processing methods. First flush (or shincha) harvests are considered to be the highest quality variety of sencha.
Sencha Kyoto Full-Leaf Tea is composed of a blend of first and second flush sencha green tea leaves from the Uji region. It has a clean, robust flavor with vegetal top notes. For a cuppa that’s a bit sweeter and more floral, we recommend Spring Cherry Green Full-Leaf Tea, which combines the finest sencha tea leaves with delicate rose petals and rare white paklum buds.
Genmaicha is a unique variety of Japanese tea that combines green tea leaves (typically sencha) with toasted rice. It originated among the peasant class in Japan, who used the rice as a filler ingredient in place of expensive green tea leaves. But over time, the slightly-nutty flavor of genmaicha tea caught on among all classes.
Today genmaicha is a popular everyday option among tea drinkers in Japan. Our Tea of Inquiry Full-Leaf Tea combines large sencha green tea leaves with fire-toasted rice for a smooth, robust cup. This flavorful blend is also available as tea bags.
Savory hojicha is a unique variety of Japanese tea that is produced by roasting green tea leaves at a high temperature over charcoal, rather than steaming them. This process gives hojicha its distinctive reddish brown color and nutty, refreshing taste. Roasting the leaves also diminishes their caffeine content, making hojicha a popular after-dinner tea in Japan.
Our Big Green Hojicha Full-Leaf Tea has an earthy and robust flavor that tea connoisseurs will simply love.
Whether you’re looking for an uncommon variety to add to your collection or a classic staple that’s perfect for all-day sipping, the flavors and aromas of Japanese teas have earned a reputation as some of the finest around the globe.