We’ve all heard of matcha and know it’s from Japan, but how much do you know about the history of green tea in Japan? And did you know there are 15 different types of Japanese tea? Matcha is just scratching the surface!
- When green tea arrived in Japan & how it got there
- The origins of the Japanese tea ceremony
- Japan’s more recent tea history & current tea production
- The 15 (!) main types of Japanese green tea
When was green tea introduced in Japan? Who brought it?
The production of tea spread from China to Japan via monks traveling between the two countries in the Nara period (710-794 CE); tea first came to Kyoto and then spread from there. We can thank a monk named Eisai for popularizing the industry by promoting the health benefits all the way back in 1191!
During that era in Japan, the 'tea' consumed by the majority of people was actually made from barley or rice. 'True' tea, from the Camellia sinensis plant, was only produced in small quantities by and for monks to aid focus during meditation. Tea gardens in Japan consisted of a few bushes on temple grounds.
This tea was consumed in powdered form, and called "matcha" which directly translates to “ground tea". It helped with meditation through its caffeine, relaxing properties (thanks to its antioxidant ECGC), and bitter flavor that helped remind Buddhist monks that life is suffering (I'm not making this up!!). The upper classes also drank it for medicinal purposes (Griffith, 2007).
Ceremony grade matcha in a traditional chawan at Hiraizumi Temple in northern Japan, from a visit in 2017.
When & how did the Japanese tea ceremony start?
During the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), the upper classes (the famed Shoguns of Japan) began to hold tea parties / competitions, where they would serve a variety of matchas and guests would guess which were Chinese or Japanese, and which was the most expensive. These gatherings were also perfect occasions to show off exquisite teaware and not-so-subtly demonstrate wealth and status.
This pastime eventually morphed into the traditional Japanese tea ceremony we know today, where utmost attention and focus is given to the matcha being consumed. The legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) developed the philosophy of The Way of Tea, espousing the spiritual connection with tea and incorporating Zen principles into tea drinking (Griffith, 2007).
I highly recommend reading 'The Way of Tea' to learn about achieving a state of Zen through tea drinking – it's both fascinating and a pleasure to read!
The concepts and philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony can also be seen in many of Japan's public spaces: peaceful and orderly. This garden is in Yokahoma, photo taken during our last visit in 2017.
What’s the more recent history of tea in Japan?
Mass tea production techniques developed in the early 19th c. as Japan ended its two hundred years of isolation and opened up to other tea manufacturing methods. This led to green tea's widespread popularization in Japan, as more gardens were planted and more tea produced.
Up until then, very little tea had actually been produced. The limited harvesting season restricted supply and tea production was incredibly labor intensive. (Prior to mechanization, tea was made using the hand-rolling method: only 4kg of tea could be processed at one time, and it took two to three people up to six hours of rolling!) Both meant that green tea was a luxury good exclusively for the upper echelons of society, with barley tea being the everyday drink of the masses.
Because matcha can only be made during a limited season (a few weeks at most), other types of green tea increased in popularity, as they could be produced throughout the growing season. Of course, many other types of Japanese green tea are also limited by a short harvest, but lower quality tea types, such as Bancha, could suddenly be mechanically produced over multiple harvests. See below for a list of the main types of Japanese green tea to learn more!
The primary tea producing regions in Japan in 2016. Courtesy of the Global Japanese Tea Association.
What is Japan’s current tea production?
Although Japan primarily produces tea mechanically, using an industrial approach, it still produces less than China, which is predominantly hand-prepared. According to ChinaDaily, in 2016 China produced about 40% of tea worldwide (2.4 million tons). Japan only produces about 94 million kilograms and exports 2% of the world’s tea. That being said, it is still the 8th largest tea producer in the world!
The main tea producing regions are Shizuoka, Kagoshima and Mie, as tea bushes prefer sub-tropical climates – the winters further north are generally too harsh for the tea bushes to tolerate. This graph is a usual visual of current tea product – click to view an interactive graph of how tea production has changed by time and region.
Japanese Tea Production in 2020 by Region. Click image (or here) to view an interactive graphic showing tea production between 1883-2020. Courtesy of the Global Japanese Tea Association.
Japan doesn’t only produce green tea – it also makes black, puerh and oolong teas. However, these only account for about 5% of Japan’s tea output. Note, this doesn’t include the enormous amount of herbal teas produced and consumed in Japan – I am only talking about ‘true’ tea from Camellia sinensis.
What are the 15 different types of Japanese green tea?
The below list goes into the various sub-sub categories of Japanese green teas - I've listed 15 types, but to give you an idea 7 of those are all types of sencha!
The main types of Japanese green tea are Matcha, Tencha, Sencha, Gyokuro, Hojicha, Genmaicha and Kukichi, but soon you can impress all your friends with knowing the variations within these categories!
1) & 2) Matcha & Tencha
Matcha is a tea powder made from grinding up de-veined leaves of a shade-grown green tea known as tencha. The powder is exceedingly fine, with exacting rules about how powdery it must be. Matcha comes in varying grades, from cooking grade to tea ceremony to premium ceremony quality.
You actually drink the tea, not an infusion, which can make it mouth-dryingly bitter if it is a lower grade, thanks to the chlorophyll as it breaks down. The shading of the tea leaves triggers the tea plant into producing more chlorophyll for its bright green color and antioxidant activity. However, when chlorophyll breaks down from heat and light exposure, it makes the matcha seriously bitter!
For a full introduction to matcha, read our blog post here:
Tencha is a shaded tea, covered for 20-30 days before harvest to boost chlorophyll and L-theanine levels. After harvest, if the tencha isn’t ground up into matcha, the leaves are left whole and are not kneaded, ground or rolled in any way, meaning the cell walls of the leaf are left mostly intact. The result is that the leaves don’t give up their flavor easily, and only the highest grade tencha creates a good brew (Hibiki, 2021). And then it is elegant and beautiful!
The standard Japanese green tea you have probably encountered, and is common in both loose leaf and bagged options. Different types of sencha are harvested throughout the spring, summer and fall, but the highest grade is picked in the spring during the first harvest. Sencha is an unshaded tea and makes up around 80% of the Japanese tea market (Siam, 2021). When in doubt, your Japanese green tea is probably a sencha!
It tastes sweet and grassy and with a hint of seaweed, elegance in a cup. In general, sencha has a rich taste and aroma, with many variations depending on when it was harvest and how long it was steamed and kneaded.
A full video about how to brew Sencha can be found here for the truly dedicated! The steps are too numerous to list here, but the core of it is carefully cooling the water, wetting the leaves, then pouring in tiny, genteel amounts.
Within the huge and glorious world of senchas, there are different sub-types due to when they are harvested:
- Hachiju Hachiya: The highest grade of sencha, traditionally harvest on the second day of May, which is the 88th day since the first day of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar.
- Ichibancha: Sencha harvested in the spring, but not exactly on May 2nd.
- Nibancha: Sencha harvested over the first months of the summer.
- Sanbancha: Sencha harvested in mid to late summer.
- Shutobancha: Sencha harvested in the autumn.
Now time to look at the many variations on sencha:
4) Wakamushi (Light Steamed) & Fukamushi (Deep Steamed) Sencha
Now that we know the names of the different senchas by season, it’s time to get more complicated. There are four levels of steaming that change the flavor as well, with the least steamed yielding light yellow leaves that burn incredibly easily, so must be brewed with lukewarm water only.
Senchas that have steamed for longer result in dark green leaves and an equally green brew, with less sweetness and more depth of flavor.
If you’re interested in taking a really deep dive, the four levels of steaming are called Wakamushi Sencha, Futsumushi Sencha, Fukamushi Sencha and Tokumushi Sencha (Ohkuraen, 2021).
5) Shincha or New Tea
Sencha from the first harvest, usually in April. It is rare and coveted, and quite hard to source (Sugimoto, 2020). It has a beautifully young and fresh umami flavor, like drinking the raw exuberence of spring.
The one and only pan-fried Japanese green tea, it is a type of sencha where the leaves are fried immediately after harvest. The technique of course began in China (as most Chinese green teas are pan-fried), but is now quite common in Kyushu, Saga, and Nagasake prefectures, among others. It has a sweet, delicately roasted taste with low astringency and a fresh nose and liquor. Around 2% of Japan’s tea is kamairicha – it is not very common!
A very rare type of sencha that isn’t well known outside of Japan, tamaryokucha is also from Kyushu and is also influenced by Chinese tea making. Although it is steamed, unlike Kamairicha, it is “open-rolled” like Chinese green teas (Siam, 2021). This results in a curly leaf shape very different from the classic sencha needle, and it has a bright spinach and grass flavors.
A lower grade of Sencha, harvested in the second, third and fourth harvests later in the year and ‘robust’ in flavour, i.e. can be brutally strong and astringent. Still a green tea, and most commonly encountered in a Japanese version of a samovar, ready for endless cups of tea in the cafeteria. The highest quality bancha, from the first harvest, is known as shincha (see above).
The fanciest type of green tea you can imagine – the tea is shaded for around 20 days prior to its spring harvest, giving it sweetness and a strong vegetal, seaweed taste. Gyokuro has high chlorophyll levels like matcha, with a strong punch of umami. Because it is shaded, it has low levels of catechins and Vitamin C (Thoesen, 2021).
The preparation is delicate, with only a tablespoon worth of water being brewed at a time. The leaves can be steeped over twenty times, as that’s only twenty tablespoons. The liquor is a brilliant clear green, and if you like matcha but don’t want to drink the actual tea leaves, then gyokuro is your tea.
The leaves are of a high enough quality you can eat them too! Very nice dipped in soy sauce, I can attest from personal experience.
Kabusecha is somewhere between sencha and gyokuro. It is only shaded for 10-14 days and sometimes is classed as a low-quality gyokuro if it has enough umami flavor.
The shading and cultivation techniques are what develop the umami taste, so sencha has the least umami, kabusecha is in the middle, and gyokuro has the most (Yunomi, 2018). If your budget can’t stretch to gyokuro, kabusecha is much more reasonably priced and a good starting point.
11) & 12) Mecha & Konacha
Mecha is made using only the tea buds, separated from the sencha and gyokuro harvests. Because it is 100% buds, it has a powerful astringence and is also packed with umami. It is harvested during the first and second harvests, and has a strong seaweed nose.
Because it is seen as a byproduct of the tea harvest it often is reasonably priced (Japanese Tea, 2021). When brewing, be careful not to burn or overbrew the leaves, otherwise you will get an undrinkably bitter brew!
Konacha is the close cousin of mecha, as it also uses the by-products from the sencha and gyokuro harvests, every part except the buds (as they are used the mecha of course). Because it is made from all the bits and pieces that have fallen off the tea leaves, it is a broken leaf tea that creates a very strong brew quite fast (Thoesen, 2021). In other words, brew carefully!
Roasted bancha (the lowest grade of sencha), which makes it taste much better. Very common in busy restaurants across Japan, poured into water glasses. Sometimes served hot in a thermos, sometimes cold. Always thirst-quenching. The roasting process removes most of the catechins, which makes it a tummy-friendly tea and is useful as an all-day day for staying hydrated (Thoesen, 2021).
Also, hojicha is *extremely* low in caffeine due to the roasting process: it has only 7mg of caffeine, which makes it the least caffeinated of all true teas! For comparison, green tea has around 30mg. Note though that green teas have a huge range, so this number is really just a starting point for estimating caffeine levels.
If this sounds good, try our Sleep Easy Hojicha Roasted Green Tea!
Bancha + toasted brown rice or, as we think of it, popcorn tea because that’s what it sort of tastes like! Like hojicha, genmaicha is common in cafés or restaurants as it is smooth, roasted and goes well with food. You can also find higher quality genmaichas made with sencha rather than bancha (Thoesen, 2021).
The classic genmaicha has hard brown roasted rice grains in the leaves, but we took a slightly different approach: while ours has rice grains, we also included puffed brown rice, which we think elevates this tea to a whole new level!
Try out this popcorn tea for yourself with our Glorious Genmaicha Green Tea
Literally twig tea, this gentle tea is made from the twigs and stems pruned off the sencha and gyokuro tea bushes during the dormant winter months. It is sweet and refreshing, and a friendly tea that won’t break the bank (Thoesen, 2021).
Note from Elizabeth...
I grew up visiting Japan regularly to see family living in Tokyo, and have fond memories drinking all sorts of tea – whether it was ceremonial grade matcha during my neice’s introduction to the gods, or a can of iced genmaicha from a vending machine.
There is always more to learn and discover about Japanese tea, as the growing and manufacturing process is regimented and precise, so you can take a deep dive into any of the above types of tea and discover another dozen sub-sub-sub categories! I’ve not even touched the topic of herbal teas in Japan, such as Mugicha (roasted barley), Sobacha (roasted buckwheat) or Kuromamacha (black soybean).
Anyway, I hope the brief history and introduction to these tea types whets your interest in learning more about the marvelous world of Japanese green tea!
About the Author
Elizabeth Ta'eed MSc is a teahead from Vermont and the co-founder of MatchaAlternatives.com. Her tea love grew and grew from years through regular visits to Japan, drinking tea while living in London, teaching tea classes in Madrid, and then traveling for four years to research tea for TravellingforTea.com and this shop and blog.
This week's featured teas are...
This roasted Japanese green tea is almost caffeine free, with only 7mg of caffeine per mug (green tea has 30mg by comparison!). A rich roasted rice nose, with a strong toasted barley flavor
$7.00 for a 1oz bag with Free US Shipping
Genmaicha is a Japanese green tea mixed with popped brown rice.
$7.00 for three 1oz bags with Free US Shipping
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References & Further Reading
Griffith, John. Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World, London, André Deutsch, 2007.
Sen XV Soshitsu, The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Japan Guide, Tea Ceremony https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2096.html
ITO EN Ltd., 2021. Production of Green Tea in Japan. https://www.itoen-global.com/allabout_greentea/production.html
GJ Tea, 2020. Japanese Tea Growing Regions. https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-growing-regions/
GJ Tea, 2020. Japanese Tea Production 1883-2020. https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-production-1883-2020/
GJ Tea, 2020. Japanese Tea Processing. https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-processing/
Thoesen, R, 2021. 18 types of Japanese tea. Steeped Dreams. https://steepeddreams.com/blog/types-of-japanese-tea.
Ohkuraen, 2021. Types of Green Tea. Kakegawa Green Tea Maker Ohkuraen. http://www.ohkuraen.com/en/publics/index/70/
Hibiki-An Japanese Green Tea, 2021. What is Tencha? https://www.hibiki-an.com/contents.php/cnID/53
Thés du Japon, 2014. Basics for brewing sencha, les bases de la préparation du sencha. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG6X4hWWm7w&ab_channel=%E9%9D%92%E9%B6%B4%E8%8C%B6%E8%88%97-Th%C3%A9sduJapon
Siam, 2021. Tamaryokucha Green Tea, Sencha Tea. Siam Teas. https://www.siam-teas.com/product/tamaryokucha-green-tea/
Sugimoto, 2020. What is Shincha? https://www.sugimotousa.com/blog/what-is-shincha
Yunomi, 2018. The difference between Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Sencha, and Bancha green teas. https://yunomi.life/blogs/japanese-tea-guide/the-difference-between-gyokuro-kabusecha-sencha-and-bancha-green-teas
Japanese Tea, 2021. The Complete Guide to Mecha - (Bud tea). https://japanesetea.sg/japanese-tea-pedia/mecha/