Being a "Tea"-Totaller in Japan: A Guide to Japanese Tea
Contrary to popular stereotypes it isn’t just the English who love to start the day with a nice cup of tea.
Since this drink first found its way to Europe and the US from China and India in the 1800's, tea has become one of the world’s most popular drinks and its many flavours and blends have bored their way into our collective consciousness. From Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and her afternoon tea, to Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his famous request for “tea, earl grey, hot”, tea has many admirers across all manner of cultural boundaries.
And yet, if you ask most new visitors to Japan, which foods and drinks they are most keen to sample, tea seldom makes the top 10. Although perhaps not as well-known as its Indian and Chinese progenitors, Japanese tea is, quite rightly, regarded as being amongst the best in the world.
Photo: Simon A on Flickr
However, unlike most of us in Europe or the US, Japanese people often take their tea cold. As such, upon visiting a local 7-11 or other such convenience store in Japan, one is presented with a huge variety of teas, of many differing types.
To the uninitiated, this colourful display can seem a bit daunting at first. Some of these teas are delicious, but then again some are too sickly sweet and others have a sour, almost stale aftertaste that will have the average tourist reaching desperately for the nearest can of coke or something else more familiar.
Photo: Jorge Tōei on Flickr
To help navigate this potential holiday hazard, I present here some of my favourite Japanese teas today, along with some information as to why they are so good, and what you may like about them.
1. Mugi Cha (麦茶)
This delicious tea, brew from roasted barley is popular not only in Japan, but also China, where it is known as Damaicha, and Korea, where it goes by the name Boricha. As it is caffeine free, this drink has become popular as a coffee substitute for the more health conscious in recent years.
Photo: Richard Masoner on Flickr
This growing popularity has made it a staple of most vending machines and convenience stores across Japan. Mugi Cha is normally served ice cold in Japan and provides a very refreshing drink, especially during the hot and humid summers here. It is also rumoured to have a number of health benefits, especially in battling tooth decay and preventing cardiovascular problems.
Photo: Yuri on Flickr
For those who are experimenting with iced tea for the first time, I would recommend mugi cha as a good starting point. The flavour is mild, not so invasive and it is certainly one of the easiest teas to drink in Japan. For beginners it’s a good first choice.
2. Sen Cha (煎茶)
Green tea is of course synonymous with Japanese tea culture, but there are actually several different varieties of green tea. Of all the many types, Sen cha is the most popular. Unlike Mugi cha, which is roasted prior to being brewed, the leaves used in most Japanese green teas, including Sen cha, are steamed.
Photo: Christian Kaden on Flickr
This gives Sen cha a more “leafy” or vegetative taste than the more commonly known Chinese teas like Ooolong and Lung Ching. The leaves used to make Sen cha are grown in direct sunlight, making the tea much lighter both in appearance and taste than other green teas. This lighter flavour makes Sen cha more palatable to most people than a number of its stronger counterparts.
Although in terms of how flavourful the tea is overall, it’s definitely a step up from the likes of Mugi cha, and its more bitter taste may not be everyone’s cup of tea (no pun intended!).
3. Gyokuro (玉露)
This variety of green tea is usually quite a bit more expensive than Sen cha, but believe me when I say that you can taste those extra yen in every cup. Gyokuro tea leaves are grown using a slightly different and more labour intensive process than the likes of Sen cha.
Photo: Breville USA On Flickr
The leaves are grown not in direct sunlight, but in the shade, and for a longer period, approximately 20 days. The name translated literally into English means “Jade dew” which is characterized in this tea’s pale green hue.
The differing preparation process also gives this tea a much sweeter and more aromatic taste than its lesser cousin Sen cha.
Photo: Akuppa John Wigham on Flickr
A grade up in taste, but also in price, from Sen cha.
4. Kamairicha (かまいり茶)
This green tea differs from most of the more common Japanese varieties in that it is not steamed prior to brewing. Instead this tea is roasted in a pot. As such, it lacks the bitterness in taste for which Japanese green tea is most commonly known.
Photo: Sacha on Flickr
One for the connoisseurs, Kamairicha is unusual in that despite being a high-grade green tea, the fundamental difference in the brewing process means that it doesn’t really taste like green tea as we would know it. It lacks any of the bitterness for which most green teas are famous and if anything tastes more like a Chinese tea. Still, it does make for a nice cuppa and is certainly worth a shot if you can find it.
5. Matcha (抹茶)
Like all the best things in life, when comes to tea, I have certainly saved the best for last. Matcha, with its rich, creamy texture, bitter aftertaste and warm green colour is what most of us picture when we think of Japanese tea.
This particular type of tea is amongst the most expensive in Japan. Like Gyokuro, Matcha uses a refined process for cultivation. Leaves are grown in the shade, and then steamed before being processed into a fine green powder.
Photo: Albert Hsieh on Flickr
The unique flavour that comes from Matcha is so popular that it transcends tea, and has become a popular drink, ice cream flavour and even chocolate variety in Japan.
I must admit, whenever I am in Starbucks (other good coffee shops are available) I love nothing better than a good Matcha latte.
There are literally dozens more varieties of tea I could describe here for you today, but unfortunately my time, and the space on our website, is limited, so I’ll leave it here for now. I’m off to put the kettle on!