Japanese Green Tea
Healthy & Delicious
Tea in Japan is not only a beverage. Consumed by the potfuls, it still is more popular than coffee, and has, for a long time, been part of the people’s vernacular. For instance, nichijousahanji meaning “an everyday or routine occurrence” is written with the character for tea, pronounced sa here; chanoma, with cha meaning tea, refers to the family, or living room; and when one wants to say, “Let’s take a breather!” you often hear “Ocha ni shimashou!”, literally, “Let’s have tea!” (O is the honorific prefix sometimes attached to cha.)
There are many pithy sayings from hundreds of years ago that tie the drinking of tea to good health and good fortune. Recently, many of the claims about the health benefits of tea have come to be endorsed by the scientific community. We can say that there most certainly is some correlation between tea, deeply rooted in the Japanese people’s lifestyle, and their healthy way of living.
So, just what is this beverage that we call Japanese green tea, and where did it come from?
History of Tea
What exactly is tea? When looking at the many colors and aromas of different teas, such as Japanese green tea, Chinese tea, black tea, etc., a commonly made mistake is that all these teas come from different types of tea plants. In reality, all tea comes from the tea plant (often referred to as a bush, or shrub) called camellia sinensis, which is part of the camellia family. Tea plants are low-lying evergreen shrubs that produce tiny pure white flowers, and it is generally agreed upon that Yunnan province in China is where they originated.
Tea was said to be discovered in China around 2700 B.C. The word cha comes to us from the Cantonese. Originally, the liquid was used as medicine, particularly as an antidote. In documentation from 59 B.C., it is written that cha was consumed as part of the daily health regimen.
This same tea made its way to Japan around 800 A.D. via a Japanese Buddhist monk who was studying in China, and brought some home with him. The tea of that time was called dancha. The leaves were steamed, pulverized, and then pounded and compacted into a solid form, rather similar to making mochi. This tea was consumed by shaving off bits and dissolving them in hot water. Considered as a tonic for perpetual youth and long life, it was extremely precious, and was reserved for members of the nobility and a small fraction of Buddhist monks who had gained admittance to this elite group.
At the beginning of Japan’s Kamakura era, around 1192, a monk returned from China bearing seeds of a tea plant, and the cultivation of tea in Japan began, with temples being the main cultivation sites. Around this time, the drinking of matcha, which was tea from leaves that had been steamed, dried, ground into a fine powder, then made into a foamy drink by agitating the powder and boiling water with a special bamboo whisk, spread throughout the upper reaches of society, including the warrior class. A few hundred years later, in the 15th or 16th century, a man named Rikyu and his followers developed sado, the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha. This ritual of tea, also called chanoyu, evolved as a unique culture unto itself, encompassing elements of mental cultivation in addition to the special utensils and ritualized etiquette.
With the widespread dissemination of chanoyu through the nobility, tea was no longer consumed for medicinal purposes, but rather thought of as a beverage that, through chanoyu, expressed a spirit of hospitality and offered relaxation, and let one appreciate the beauty of the seasons and flavor of the wagashi which was served alongside the tea.
It was at the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1868) that tea became part of popular culture. Easily brewed by steeping roasted leaves in a tea pot, its enjoyment was no longer restricted by ritual form. With this discovery, people were able to enjoy tea as they liked, and tea as a culture of lighthearted, friendly socialization soon spread through the country, with the capital of Edo at its heart.
Around mid-Edo (1738), methods of tea manufacturing not so different than those used today were established, and those technologies were conveyed to various localities within Japan, with each region further developing their own methods of tea manufacture by incorporating their own local techniques.
What is Japanese Green Tea?
As mentioned at the start, all teas initially come from the same camellia sinensis, but different teas come from different places in the world. While the growth and harvest method does have a determining factor in the type of tea that is produced, ultimately, the type of tea is determined by how long the leaves undergo oxidation, which refers to the oxidizing action of enzymes on the raw leaves that starts as soon as the leaves are plucked.
There are 3 major types of teas.
1) Unoxidized teas. All green teas fall into this category. The leaves are steamed soon after plucking to prevent oxidation. The heat deactivates the enzymes which have been triggered by picking the leaves. Generally speaking, that which we call Japanese green tea is classified as almost always unoxidized.
2) Partially oxidized teas. These include teas such as oolongs. Oolong is considered partway between green and black, as the leaf is first wilted, then allowed to partially oxidize, but after that it is steamed to prevent further oxidation.
3) Fully oxidized teas. These are all of the black teas. The leaves have been fully oxidized, meaning the raw leaves have the longest exposure to air out of the 3 major tea types.
What is Shincha?
In Japan, tea leaves are harvested 3 or 4 times a year. The leaves harvested around May are the first harvested leaves of the season, and are called shincha, shin meaning new. The tea bushes, having stored up nutrition all through the winter, produce their spring shoots and leaves which are full of nutrients, and have the added bonus of being low in catechin, which gives an astringent taste to the tea, and caffeine, which is responsible for a bitter flavor, yet they are high in theanine, which imparts a full-bodied flavor to the leaves. Shincha also has the bracing taste and aroma of the new green leaves. In order to fully draw out the taste of shincha, boiling water must never be used in the brewing; the leaves should steep in water about 175̊ F. Let the tea then cool to about 160̊ F and sit for a minute or two before pouring in order to extract the tea’s rich green flavor.
Varieties of Japanese Green Tea
Almost all of the tea produced in Japan is green tea. Here are the main varieties.
These tea bushes are sheltered from the direct rays of the sun about 3 weeks before the leaves are harvested. By limiting the amount of sunlight reaching the leaves, the formation of catechin from theanine (an amino acid) is curbed, resulting in a less astringent, full-bodied high grade tea.
This is the most representative of all green teas, and perhaps the best known. The leaves are steamed, then rolled, with some types of sencha steamed for longer than others, producing a stronger, darker colored tea. Higher quality sencha produces a tea proportionately richer in flavor and aroma. Sencha accounts for approximately 75% of the tea grown in Japan.
Soaked and steamed brown rice is roasted then mixed with approximately the same amount of bancha, sencha, or other tea. One can enjoy the savory aroma of the brown rice combined with the light and refreshing flavor of the tea. Genmaicha is lower in caffeine than sencha. Nowadays it is popular to blend some matcha into genmaicha.
Sencha, bancha, kukicha, or other types of green tea are roasted over high heat which gives the tea a delicious roasted aroma along with a light taste. This tea has less caffeine due to this type of roasting process, which also makes it less bitter. It is therefore said to be easy for children and elderly people to enjoy.
Matcha is also screened from direct sunlight prior to harvesting, but for a longer period than gyokuro. The leaves are steamed, but they are dried without being rolled. They are then stone-ground to a fine powder which is consumed by dissolving in boiling water. Due to its brilliant green color, distinctive taste and easy-to-use powdered form, matcha is often used in foods such as cakes and ice-cream. It is interesting to note that the entire leaf is consumed in the case of matcha.
Japanese green tea, with its unique flavor profile which includes astringency, bitterness, and full-bodiness, contains many elements which may offer many potential benefits for good health.
And so ends our introduction to Japanese green tea. After getting to know this wonderful beverage a little better, I’m sure you’ll agree that Japanese green tea, rooted in a long and interesting history, is an ideal beverage—both delicious, and good for you, too. But it’s been a long story, and I’m a bit parched. Ocha, anyone?
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