The first tea seeds planted in Japan were originally acquired by Japanese monks visiting China during the 9th century, who brought them back as a gift for their Emperor. At that time in Japan, tea was solely enjoyed by monks, aristocrats and royalty, for the belief that it allowed one to experience a more pure and sage-like life; it soothed and reduced the distractions of the day.

Eventually, tea was consumed by everyone in society and grew in popularity so much that it was enjoyed with every meal and even used in cooking. Though tea originated in China, the Japanese developed their own methods for processing and drinking tea, including an elaborate ceremony for drinking the powdered tea called Matcha. matcha In tea growing regions, the plants are grown and harvested in the most efficient, space saving way possible. The Japanese process all of their teas by steaming the fresh leaves, which brings out the brilliant green color and perhaps imparts a more grassy flavor and aroma. During our most recent Japanese tea tasting, on an unusually sunny and warm Seattle day, we all relished in the teas an aroma of fresh cut grass on a hot summer day. senchafields We tasted most of the 10 types of Japanese tea: ceremonial grade Matcha, Gyokuro Suimei, two types of Sencha, Kukicha, Genmaicha and Hojicha. Japan is the only country that grinds green tea into fine Matcha powder for use in a traditional tea ceremony. Matcha is made from Tencha, a shade grown tea (discussed later under Gyokuro). It is possible that they learned this style from the Chinese, but no records or current usage in China can verify this. The Japanese tea ceremony is not elaborate in appearance, though it can take several hours to perform. At our tasting we enjoyed whisked Matcha, served somewhat traditionally, from a bowl with cool water to preserve the fresh and delicate tea.

Gyokuro, one of the finest Japanese teas, is shade grown for the last 20-30 days before plucked. The shades, called Tana, block the sunlight from reaching the fresh sprouts which are hand plucked in early Spring. The result is a dark, almost pine green, needle-shaped leaf that is unusually sweet and milky. The brew is cloudy and chartreuse in hue, and there is no astringency at all. Gyokuro, though higher in caffeine than other Japanese teas, has a greater amount of theanine, the relaxing chemical found in tea leaves.

Sencha is the most widely consumed tea in Japan and comprises about 80% of the tea grown there. The Japanese have developed fine machinery that can mimic a hand pluck and gather 200-300 pounds of tea leaves per day (the average worker plucks 20-30 pounds per day). Due to the large quantities of Sencha produced, most is machine plucked and processed and quality varies widely from highly prized to low-grade everyday tea. The Senchas we tasted were grassy, slightly astringent and/or bitter, had hints of sweetness, and appeared cloudy and bright green.

Kukicha, produced in Spring, is also known as ‘twig tea’. It is made from Sencha leaves and twigs. Historically, ‘twig tea’ was consumed by tea farmers and made from the low grade remnants of the crop. Today many people like Kukicha because of its low caffeine content and slightly sweet taste.

Genmaicha may be the best known of Japanese teas because it is popular in sushi restaurants. Also called ‘toasted rice green tea’, it is comprised of fine needle-like tea leaves, popped and toasted brown rice, and occasionally Matcha powder. We steeped this tea several times and noticed the depths of flavor that arose with each brewing, including the strong brown rice flavor, subtle astringency from the Matcha, and an overall sweetness caused by the melding of these two flavors.

Hojicha is the most unusual of Japanese teas, with a brown and stick-like appearance. This roasted green tea has the aroma and flavor of chocolate, wheat, bamboo and earth. Because it is very low in caffeine, it is often served to children in Japan.
Drinking Japanese teas on a sunny spring day felt right, like we were cleansing our bodies and minds of winter dullness. The beauty of many teas can be seen through the country of origin and the culture created for their enjoyment; while drinking Japanese teas we told stories and discussed the history and culture of this nation of 3,000 islands. The refinement of Japanese culture steeped into our group as we tasted and enjoyed the simple, almost minimalist beverage that is tea.

These fine teas can be found at