A Sip of History & Flavor – Exploring Kyushu’s Green Teas
For many, imaginings of Japan often bring to mind green tea and tea ceremonies steeped in traditional attire and customs. But, although Uji and Shizuoka are arguably the more recognizable destinations for tea cultivation, the origins of Japan’s tea tradition began in Kyushu, when Eisai, an early Zen master, brought seeds back from China and planted them in Saga prefecture. After presenting this fascinating history, we turn to the main types of sencha and gyokuro from Fukuoka, Saga, and Kagoshima prefectures. Finally, I lay out the unique characteristics of each, so that everyone can discover which would suit their taste-buds best!
The history of green tea in Japan began in Kyushu as the Nara period came to a close and the Kamakura era began. In 1191, the monk Eisai returned to Kyushu from his second voyage to China. Eisai, a former Tendai sect monk, was deeply affected by the Linji (Rinzai) teachings in China and had returned to build the first Zen Buddhist temple in Japan. At the same time, he also brought with him what are thought to be the first green tea seeds in Japan which he planted on Mount Sefuri in Saga prefecture. After its cultivation there, the tea was transplanted to Shofuku-ji Temple in Hakata, Fukuoka prefecture following which it spread to Japan’s main tea producing regions. So, green tea, so central to Japanese daily life, actually originated in Northern Kyushu! Below, I present a brief guide to three of Kyushu’s main tea producing regions and their particular types of Japanese green tea.
Fukuoka prefecture’s Yame region is most famous for its sencha and gyokuro. Although Yame does not produce a high volume of tea annually, its teas are consistently ranked as some of the highest quality in all of Japan. Compared to other types of sencha, Yame sencha is known for its lack of bitterness, and mellow and sweet taste. This makes it a great introductory tea for anyone deterred by sencha’s often intense astringency. Yame is also the top producer of gyokuro, generally considered to be the highest grade of Japanese green tea, contributing to almost half of its nationwide production. Gyokuro is grown high in the mountains surrounding Yame, where the tea plants are shaded in order to preserve amino acids and antioxidants which are lost when the sun’s warmth bakes the delicate tea leaves. Named “Jade Dew” for its beautiful color after steeping, gyokuro is known for its low astringency and rich umami and sweetness, a direct result of shielding the leaves from sunlight before the harvest.
Saga, the first site of tea cultivation in Japan, still produces tea in the mountain terrain where Eisai first planted it. Ureshino is one of the most well-known teas from Saga prefecture. Grown in the Ureshino area, bountiful in both onsen waters and mountains, this tea has an over 500-year history. With the perfect balance of astringency and sweetness, it enjoys much domestic popularity. Since Saga and Nagasaki are neighboring prefectures, Ureshino tea also has the honor of being the first Japanese tea introduced to the West via the latter’s trading port in the 1800s. Imari, another popular sencha from Saga-ken, is cultivated in the mountains bordering Nagasaki prefecture. Following World War Two, this cultivation region had been decimated by war and returnees took it upon themselves to recreate the tea fields despite the lack of machinery. As a tea grown deep in a mountainous area with varied exposure to sunlight, it has the perfect balance of a fragrant astringency and a sweetness as well as a characteristic deep flavor.
Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu, is second only to Shizuoka prefecture in terms of volume of green tea produced. In addition, with its tea picking season starting at the beginning of April, it is well-known as offering Japan’s "first flush", a term given to the first new tea leaves of the year. Kagoshima tea, grown in the prefecture’s strong southern sunlight, is popular for its deep green color and mellow flavor. Chiran tea, cultivated in the Minami-Kyushu City region of Kagoshima, has won numerous awards, such as Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries’ for sencha. It is said that Chiran tea’s rich taste is thanks to the tea trees’ positioning between the sea, the steep mountains, and active volcanos. In fact, perhaps due to these idyllic conditions, Minami-Kyushu City is the highest green tea-producing municipality in Japan.