More than tea
To a British guy, tea is already a product that is high on the necessity list; however, in Japan the status of tea is often promoted even higher — even seen as ritualistic. That being so, it’s still a drink that Japanese people consume, they just take it very seriously.
If we compare for a second the tea culture of Britain and Japan, of which Britain is ranked third and Japan eleventh in terms of annual tea consumption; tea practices, types, manufacturing processes etc can be quite different, this is all despite tea being produced from the same plant — the Camellia Sinensis.
How different I hear you ask?
Well read on if you want to learn all about Japanese tea.
Types of Japanese tea
Before we go much further, it’s probably best to understand what we class as Japanese tea. There are technically too many different types of tea to list them all; however, as a starting point and guide whenever there is a mention of tea in Japan, green tea is what many come to expect and describes all but a handful of different types of Japanese tea.
Green tea really is an umbrella term for Japanese tea but within this term are a handful of categories in which we can sort almost all available tea in the country. These are as follows:
- Ryokucha – The most common, un-modified type of tea that has different grades depending on when it’s harvested. Gyokuro is the highest grade, followed by Sencha, with Bancha the lowest.
- Matcha – A powdered version of green tea that is often more concentrated and higher quality than other types of tea.
- Hojicha – Instead of being dried like most other types, Hojicha is created by roasting the harvested leaves.
- Genmaicha – A combination of standard green tea been mixed with roasted brown rice.
Most Japanese tea will fall within one of these four categories despite the seemingly endless variations that are available; Japanese tea in some ways is similar way to wine in that sense. Tea variations can arise from specific prefectures of japan by how they harvest and process tea in the region, as well as added ingredients. However, the base tea leaves used and the innate qualities of the tea will correspond to one of the four types of tea above.
What if you are not looking for green tea? There are other types available but account for a fraction of annual consumption. These are:
- Mugicha – A ‘tea’ made from barley.
- Kocha – Black tea.
- Kombucha – A tea with seaweed as the base.
Usage and occasions
While sitting at home and enjoying a lovely cup of tea is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility in Japan much like anywhere else in the world; there are other occasions and settings where Japanese tea is enjoyed and relished.
The first and foremost occasion that many people are aware of is that of the tea ceremony. Also known as ‘The way of the tea’, it is a ceremony in which the simple but artistic form of tea preparation and hospitality is enjoyed by those in a humble and refined setting contrary to the scenario of everyday life.
It was developed from ideas and principles that are found in Buddhism as monks would use tea in their rituals. Zen-Buddhism specifically helped tea become synonymous with the characteristics of tranquility, purity, respect, and harmony that are core to the Japanese tea ceremony.
Green tea is prepared in person, often in a dedicated tea room or tea house along with a small meal or confectioneries; however the focus is entirely on the tea. The process leading up to the culminating event (drinking tea) is incredibly formal and includes a staggering set of procedures and etiquette that you must follow, as such, the one who prepares the tea will often go by the title, tea master.
This is an insight of the importance that tea and the tea ceremony hold. To become a tea master, one must spend years studying and training at a ‘tea school’ before having the privilege to perform a tea ceremony.
Tea is also used as a sign of hospitality in much less formal situations than the tea ceremony. Comparing once again my own experiences from a British viewpoint; tea is often offered to guests within your home (most likely because you already know them) but also ever so occasionally at businesses and public places — even then more often than not I feel it is asked out of courtesy rather than an expectation that it will be accepted.
My point being that in Japanese culture this idea extends much further and tea is willingly presented more regularly. Tea has become a symbol of good hospitality.
In Japan, when you dine out at a restaurant, the meal will include tea somewhere within your visit — for free. Most commonly staff will present it at the end of the meal at your table, at other busier or non-formal venues they will offer tea as a self service. At a Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) tea and confectionery are almost always offered at check-in. Some Japanese attractions and tourist spots such as gardens and temples also offer complimentary tea that is part of the entry fee.
Not all Japanese tea is consumed through drinking. While many of us would only consider tea as a drink, in Japan, harvested tea leaves are made into all kinds of other products — such is the importance and reverence Japanese tea has gained.
One of the most common developments is the use of Macha (powdered green tea) in food. This powder green tea variant retains its flavour when added to food and as such is marketed as green tea flavoured. In Japan it’s quite common to come across green tea flavoured sweets, cakes, ice-cream, chocolate, and cookies. This is as well as being added to other kinds of drinks like lattes and milkshakes.
Another adaptation of Japanese tea leaves with it’s flavourings and benefits is through cosmetics. Things such as face masks, scrubs, lotions, and sprays, have all become commonplace and have been proven to work wonders. Drinking green tea has often been associated with various health benefits; however, specifically with cosmetics, it is the tea leaves’ high concentration of polyphenols that provide the advantage to skincare.
Green tea vs Black tea
Apart from learning about the different types, and how tea is used and consumed in a variety of ways in Japan, green tea, aka Japanese tea, has a number of qualities that differentiate it from black tea which is much more common in the western side of the world.
In the culinary world anything green is often considered to be quite healthy; as it happens the same is true when it comes to green tea. As briefly mentioned green tea is high in polyphenols which is due to the oxidation process; or compared to black tea, the lack of. Black tea is left to oxidise for much longer.
The process changes the flavour of a tea and removes the grassy taste and smell; however, the process also removes some of the polyphenols, as well as other minerals and vitamins like vitamin C for example.
In short, the less oxidation that occurs, the healthier the tea becomes.
Japanese tea at home
The popularity of green tea internationally has grown over the last decade to the extent that it has become widely available in supermarkets and cafe’s here in the UK. This is both good and bad: good, as this means trying the flavour and benefits of green tea has never been easier: bad, because green tea doesn’t always equal Japanese tea, of which there can be a remarkable difference.
In order to try authentic Japanese tea that is grown in the misty highlands of the Japanese mountains, here are a couple of good places to start.
Japan Centre is essentially a Japanese supermarket full to the brim with Japanese products that have been produced in Japan. In terms of tea, you can find all types mentioned in this post in various forms, whether that is in bottles, more familiar tea bags, or loose tea leaves themselves. The benefit to a place like Japan Centre is that you can also try some tea flavoured food infusions as mentioned above. Cookies, mochi (rice cakes), or even kit-kats are also available here.
Japan centre has a couple of stores in London where you can see what’s in offer in person but also has an extensive online shop which delivers to anywhere in the UK.
This next place is a Japanese style teahouse, and I say that to the full extent of the word. Cha-ology is a venue that offers numerous types of tea and sweets that can be enjoyed in a setting that is entirely dedicated to that of a Japanese tea ceremony. The tea and snacks offered here are of the highest quality and are as close to a true tea tasting session that you will find outside Japan.
However this level of dedication comes with an arrangement per se.
Much like a real Japanese tea ceremony there are rules that you must follow. To truly get the most out of this experience you must almost go into it with a Japanese mindset.
There is more to Japanese tea than first meets the eye and often comparatively different to our own experience. Where we see just a drink, Japan see’s a symbol of respect and gratitude — as well as a drink. They see an art that is as important to its culture as calligraphy or ikebana (flower arranging) that requires study.
Above all else, Japanese tea is there to be enjoyed and is done so by most of the population both through drinking and in many other ways. Although Japan is far below the UK on annual tea consumption, I would argue that statistic doesn’t tell the full story of its popularity or in fact the role it has in society, although I’m willing to discuss that point — over a cup of aromatic Hojicha of course.