Japan is known for its production of green tea - Sencha, Matcha, Kukicha, Bancha, and more! Here we'll explore the different types of green tea and how the tea production in Japan got started.
Tea History in Japan (1,2)
Tea has been produced in Japan for well over a thousand years. It is believed Buddhist scholars brought back seedlings of the tea plant from a trip to China sometime during the late Nara and early Heian periods. Emperor Saga, after being introduced to tea by a Buddhist monk, is said to have encouraged tea cultivation and tea drinking in the country of Japan during the early Heian period. It was in the twelfth century that a Zen Buddhist monk by the name of Eisai wrote a book called Kissa Yojoki. The book discusses tea cultivation and tea preparation as well as details on how beneficial green tea could be for health and longevity of life. The success of this book is said to have led to the emergence of a shared tea culture in Japan and formed the basis for what has led to today's Tea Ceremony, or chanoyu.
What is green tea?
Green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. What makes green tea leaves different from their black, white, and oolong counterparts is the level of oxidation in the leaves. To be considered a green tea, the leaves must be 20% or less oxidized. Oxidation occurs naturally in the leaves when they are plucked, so heat is applied as part of the processing to stop the oxidation.
Native to China, the Camellia sinensis sinensis subspecies of the tea plant is typically used to make white or green tea. The plant is often used in the tea production of China, Japan, and Taiwan, though many different cultivars of the subspecies exist around the world today.
How does Japan and China differ when it comes to green tea? (3,4)
We start by comparing the sheer volume differences in terms of green tea production from China versus Japan. China produces more green tea than any other country in the world, producing approximately 80% of the total world's supply. Though Japan is among the top ten countries in terms of production, it's volume level cannot compete with that of China. Furthermore, only a small percentage of the green tea produced in Japan actually gets exported. To consume green tea produced by Japan anywhere else in the world would be considered a rarity in most occasions. Most of the green tea found around the world in restaurants and stores will have been tea produced in China. Because of the ubiquitousness of China green tea, we use it as a baseline for comparison purposes to learn about green tea produced in Japan.
Though green tea has been grown and produced in Japan for over a thousand years, tea originated in China over five thousand years ago. Even to date, much of the tea produced in China is processed by hand, whereas machines are used in the processing of tea in Japan. The tea leaves from China may be twisted into wiry figures, hand rolled into balls, or flattened into sword-like shapes. The tea from Japan, on the other hand, is rolled mechanically into needle-like shapes or is ground into fine powder. As such, the tea experience in China may be considered more artful as opposed to the more pragmatic approach to the tealeaf production in Japan.
Another difference between China and Japan green tea is the number of cultivars from which the tea is harvested. In Japan, most of the tea is produced from the Yabukita cultivar of the Camilla sinensis sinensis plant. In China, however, there are thousands of different cultivars used to produce green tea. If you're looking for the widest breadth of green tea options, China is the place to go. However, this is not to say one should discredit the many available options, and the fine quality of those green teas, available from Japan which we'll explore in more detail below.
Lastly, we want to highlight the difference in the flavor of the tea from Japan versus that of China. Applying heat is what stops the oxidation process, thereby making green (as opposed to black or oolong) tea from the harvested leaves. During the post-processing of the tea leaves in China, the leaves are pan fried after having been stored. The pan-frying lends to a toasty note in the flavor of the resulting tea. It is believed the small time allowed for storage before applying heat enables a slight fermentation to occur on the leaves, which is thought to result in an added tart or sour flavor many find undesirable. In Japan, however, the leaves are almost immediately steamed once they have been harvested from the tea plants. Japan green teas are often described as being a bit vegetal and, in some cases, as having a slight grassy flavor due to more chlorophyll in the leaves.