Tea in Japan: growing, varieties and traditions
Tea in Japan: growing, varieties and traditions

Origins and traditions
Hideki poured boiling water into a cup, mixed the tea, raised the cup to his forehead, lowered it and took a few sips. I imitated him awkwardly.

"Slowly, very slowly," he told me. "Then you will enjoy the pleasure of the movement even before you enjoy the tea." Tea has a long history, introduced to Japan about the year 800 in the form of a powder that was used to treat the sick and to concoct drinks for the rich and for priests. Because Japan had close relations to China and was influenced by the Buddhist religion and food philosophy, tea growing was introduced during this period, mainly in the Nara region.

"We are drinking shincha," he said. "It is a kind of very mild ocha, green tea, but for the tea ceremony we use leaves picked from very old special tea plants. When it comes to tea, we are as fussy as the most traditional English lord," he laughed.
"Tea," my host continued, "is a true ceremony. It is Cha-no-yu, a story that goes back to Sen-no Rikyu, a Zen monk of the 13th century, who wrote a tea code, laying down strict and complicated rules." I admired the subtlety of the words and understood the message. Out of respect - and to prove a Westerner could do it - I drank in silence and discovered an extraordinary means of communication.


Cultivation and processing
Green tea is not a variety of tea, but a method of harvesting. While black tea – whether English or Chinese – is harvested at maturity and dried naturally, green tea is produced from young leaves that are immediately heated with steam for 30 seconds to stop any fermentation, preserving all the leaves’ medicinal and nutritional values.

Some varieties

    very popular; picked in May or June; it is both mild and sweet. It’s a medium quality tea used as a daily beverage

    protected from the sun by a tarpaulin, it is picked somewhat later; its flavor is more pronounced and is less bitter. It’s a superior quality tea

    a product of the second or third harvest, it’s produced from the rather tough remaining leaves and is of lesser quality

    roasted Bancha tea

    Bancha tea blended with roasted whole grain rice

    green tea that is grown solely for the tea ceremony, finely ground to a powder just before being prepared

    barley tea that is usually drunk iced

Preparation and serving
Japanese tea is made by heating young leaves with steam while rubbing them; they are then set aside to dry. It is drunk plain, without milk, sugar or lemon, served very hot in little handle-less cups. The water in Japanese is very soft, so it’s preferable to use distilled water or spring water to obtain a similar delicate flavor. 

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