- The basics of Japanese tea
- Tea tasting at ShiZen Tea
- What exactly is Japanese green tea?
- Tea tasting ① Sencha - Your Everyday Japanese Green Tea
- Tea tasting ② Matcha - A Smooth, Creamy Flavor
- Tea tasting ③ Gyokuro: The Highest-Quality Green Tea
- ShiZen Tea's take on the appeal of Japanese tea
Green tea is undoubtedly one of Japan's longest cherished drinks. For centuries, Japanese people have enjoyed its bitter yet savory taste. Today, green tea is recognized worldwide for its health benefits.
Japanese green tea is available in many varieties, ranging from the widely consumed sencha tea to upscale Gyokuro. Yet, people seem unfamiliar with the differences.
This time, we'll explore the world of Japanese green tea with a visit to ShiZen tea, a tea shop in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward that provides a sampling menu. We sampled 13 different teas and learned about their differences, and tips on how to brew the perfect cup.
The basics of Japanese tea
When we say green tea in Japan, it usually refers to tea that is grown and consumed domestically.
Depending on the processing method, tea leaves can result in green tea, black tea, or Oo-long tea. Black tea has historically been the world’s favorite tea beverage. However, green tea production is growing worldwide, and green tea is now widely consumed in many places outside Japan.
Many varieties of Japanese green tea
Places of Tea Production
China is the world's largest producer of tea. Tea has a long history in China and it even appears in five-thousand year old Chinese myths. Tea is said to have reached other countries via China. When tea was first introduced to Japan during China's Tang dynasty (AD 618~907), tea was used for medicinal purposes.
Tea tasting at ShiZen Tea
ShiZen Tea has a hidden, homey feel
Japanese tea developed its own unique style over the centuries. Although green tea has been considered a healthy drink since ancient times, many people seem unfamiliar with the different tea types and their benefits.
For this article, we visited ShiZen Tea, which is located in Tokyo's Nihon-bashi area where many old businesses operate. The tea shop runs tasting sessions aimed at exploring the fascinating world of Japanese tea. What's more, participants get a chance to try 13 different Japanese teas.
Calm, relaxing feel inside a renovated old home
The workshop begins with seven "sencha" teas, followed by five "matcha" powdered teas. Last but not least, is Gyokuro tea -- Japan's top-quality green tea. (The teas available on a certain day depend on the season and stock availability)
13 different teas to explore
The tea experience at ShiZen Tea stimulates the senses of sight, smell, and taste. The shop proprietor carefully prepared the tea in front of us. This let us better appreciate the tea color and smell, in addition to the flavor. Many of the participants are overseas visitors who join the workshop from a variety of backgrounds. Some come with a deep passion towards learning about Japanese tea, while others grow an interest during their tasting experience.
On this day, I was joined by two visitors from abroad; Patricia is a Colombian-native who loves green tea, who currently lives in Singapore. Her friend Gloria is a coffee lover, but was convinced by Patricia to join her on this day.
Workshop guests come from around the globe
What exactly is Japanese green tea?
Before the tea was served, we were guided through the various types of Japanese teas and where they were grown.
We learn and savor while the text deepens our understanding
Most of our everyday teas go through similar processing methods -- plucking, kneading, fermenting, and drying. Much of Japanese tea processing is slightly different. Normally, harvested leaves ferment naturally. But with Japanese teas, the leaves are immediately steamed after harvesting to stop fermentation.
Green tea is the collective term of unfermented Japanese teas, such as the green-colored sencha and gyokuro, and brown-colored bancha and hojicha.
Green tea -- a misnomer. Sencha, as well as the brown Hojicha and Bancha are all green tea as well.
Tea tasting ① Sencha: the most common green tea
Sencha is the most widely enjoyed tea in Japan. It is made from fresh tea buds which are steamed, kneaded and dried after harvesting. Sencha is a mildly bitter tea with a refreshing aroma.
We tried a total of seven varieties of sencha teas -- three sencha (煎茶) and four jo-sencha (上煎茶)which is top grade sencha made from tender leaves.
Preparing sencha tea
The shop owner Yosuke Aso explained that Japanese green teas are brewed in various water temperatures. In the case of sencha, the temperature should be around 80 to 90 degrees Celsius. For jo-sencha, about 70 degrees, while gyokuro teas are brewed in 50 to 60 degrees water. Simply put, high quality tea shouldn't be steeped in boiling hot water. Getting the right temperature is crucial, as it brings out the best of the tea's bitterness and flavor.
Our first cup was a summer harvested sencha tea from Shizuoka - west of Tokyo - which is a major tea producer. The tea had a pleasant bitterness with a grassy aroma and flavor.
Next, we tried gen-maicha (玄米茶) and bo-hojicha (棒ほうじ茶).
Gen-maicha is sencha tea blended with roasted brown rice. This tea has a distinctive, sweet character with a scent of brown rice. It had a gentle, calming taste.
Mr. Aso comments on the teas that he prepares
Bo-hojicha is made from tea stems roasted until brown. It's a fragrant, refreshing, and light tasting tea that pleases all palates. For a frequent hojicha drinker like me, this tea ticked all the marks.
After sampling the three sencha varieties, I was quite surprised to discover that each tea is unique in its own way.
We next sampled four types of jo-sencha (上煎茶）.
Jo-sencha is a high quality green tea made from the first buds harvested around May.
We tried Mori-sencha tea from Shizuoka. The key to preparing a good cup of tea is using hot water that has been cooled. This reduces bitterness and brings out the tea's full flavor. Jo-sencha tasted smoother than sencha, with a hint of sweetness.
Easy to follow explanations by Mr. Aso
The seven sencha varieties we tried were all grown in different areas and harvested at various times of the year, resulting in different flavors. Mr Aso says the workshop features tea leaves with distinct flavors. Learning and actually tasting the diverse flavors was truly an eye-opening experience.
Tea tasting② Matcha -- a smooth and mild flavor
We continued to explore more tea.
Matcha is a green tea, just like sencha and bancha. The biggest difference between sencha and matcha is the way the tea leaves are grown. The leaves used for matcha tea are shaded from the sun. Covering the leaves suppresses catechin which causes bitterness, and gives the leaves a deeper green color. Tea leaves that undergo steaming and drying without kneading are called tencha. Matcha is high quality tencha that is stoneground.
We tried four warm matcha teas from Shizuoka, Fukoka, Kagoshima and Kyoto and
one cold matcha made from leaves grown in Shizuoka.
Whisking the matcha
While preparing the tea, Mr Aso explained the medicinal properties of drinking green tea. Surprisingly, the bitterness caused by catechin helps to prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol, and helps prevent arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure.
Shading the matcha leaves from sunlight suppresses the growth of catechin, which makes the tea bitter. Matcha tea actually contains less catechin than sencha tea, and is instead full of theanine, which is said to promote relaxation, and interrupt the stimulatory effects of caffeine.
It’s no wonder that we feel calm when we sip matcha.
We also learned how green tea is loaded with other nutrients such as Vitamin C, thus keeping Japanese people healthy. Gloria -- remember, she prefers coffee -- seemed impressed with the health benefits of green tea too.
Creamy and frothy Matcha green tea
Like sencha tea, the taste of matcha depends on where the leaves were grown. While some have stronger aromas, others may have sharp after tastes. You might come across one with a smoother touch, or a good balance of sweetness and bitterness. Explore many to find the right match for you!
Don't be shy to ask questions and jot them down
Matcha is synonymous with one of Japan's most time-honored traditions still practiced today -- tea ceremony. During the Muromachi and Adzuchi periods (around 1570 to 1600), matcha tea was a luxury cherished by samurai warlords, and tea masters such as Sen-no-rikyu elevated matcha tea into an exquisite art form. Mr Aso told us that even during the Sengoku (warring nations) period, samurai warriors removed their swords before entering tea ceremonies. It is easy to imagine how the samurai class took solace in matcha, at a time when Japan had just emerged from one of its most violent periods in history.
In the meantime, we indulged in our matcha tea with a Japanese treat prepared by Mosuke, a centuries-old confectionary shop in Tsukiji, Tokyo.
Tea tasting ③ Gyokuro : premium quality green tea
The last tea we tried was a Gyokuro. The growing method is similar to matcha. When the first buds come out, gyokuro tea bushes are shaded from sunlight to interrupt the growth of catechin. As with matcha, this process brings out a richer, sweet flavor.
The next step is similar to sencha. After harvesting, Gyokuro leaves are steamed, kneaded and dried.
Gyokuro has a rich, savory character with only a mild bitterness. Gyokuro is a premium quality tea that uses only the best, hand-plucked parts of the leaves.
Gyokuro: a high end tea
This time, we had a total of five cups of gyokuro reusing the same leaves. Gyokuro is brewed in a low water temperature of 60 degrees to reduce bitterness caused by catechin. The first cup had a surprisingly melty texture with a rich green tea taste full of umami-flavor.
From the second time and on, the water temperature was raised little by little. Each time warm water was added to the teapot, the tea became milder with a good blend of astringency and rich flavor.
enjoy the tea leaves until the end
After our fifth cup, we ate the gyokuro leaves with forks. The soft tea leaves bursted with tea flavor without any bitterness. In some parts of Japan, people enjoy the leaves with seasoned soy sauce.
The teas featured in the workshop can be purchased on the spot
And that was then end of our tea tasting session. If you fancy any of the teas served during the workshop, they are also available for purchase.
ShiZen Tea's take on the appeal of Japanese tea
Mr Aso prepared our tea with plenty of care and attention
Shop proprietor Yosuke Aso is New Jersey born and grew up in New York. He came to Japan for university. He first encountered Japanese tea when he launched his own company called Okawari, which aimed to introduce Japanese products worldwide. One of the first items he considered was Japanese green tea, and as he sampled various teas grown across Japan he soon found himself fascinated with the world of Japanese green tea.
While coffee culture remains strong in many parts of the globe, Mr Aso wanted Japanese people to rediscover their traditional beverage. He launched ShiZen Tea hoping to spread Japanese tea to the rest of the world.
Sessions are conducted in Japanese & English
Mr Aso says Japanese tea is special mainly for two reasons. The first is how the flavor depends on where the tea is grown, and the fact that Japanese tea boasts a long history.
Mr Aso says he wants more people, both Japanese and international visitors, to discover the unique appeal of Japanese tea. The tea tasting sessions are a testament to his passion for tea.
Besides running tasting workshops, ShiZen Tea also operates as a cafe serving Japanese tea and lunch dishes.
Learn Japanese history while enjoying cups of calming Japanese tea
The tea tasting was a calming experience that made me forget my daily worries even for a short while. The session is ideal for anyone interested in Japanese tea, whether you're a beginner or a tea connoisseur. Book a session and relish each cup of calming Japanese tea.