Japan’s teas are almost all green. They can be exquisite and are very different from China greens: Every aspect of Japanese tea is distinctive: tea, ritual, tea ware, farming, processing. They stand out as soft, pleasant and light but without any grassy, vegetal or bitter flavors.
Here are a few special Japanese teas. Unless you are a devotee and/or visitor to Japan, you may not recognize the powder and whisk on the left and the twigs in the middle as even being tea, or that the bowls contain some of the most refined Japanese greens.
The powder is matcha, the twigs are kukicha, and the bowl contains sencha varieties. Japan is the only major tea producer that has been able to apply mechanization across the full harvesting and processing sequence without loss of quality. That’s driven by labor and land scarcity. Avoid the cheap tea bags. They are the left-over harvest of bancha; the better leaf is refined to make sencha. Bancha is bitter and boring.
Choose your supplier carefully
Few of all the best Japan teas are exported. US and European supermarkets and grocery stores rarely display even tea bags and most tea drinkers will only have come across Japanese basic green as a side accompaniment to a restaurant meal. As well as unfamiliarity, there are good reasons not to buy Japanese teas, almost all of which are greens:
They are hard to shop for: Suppliers are relatively scarce; so many varieties, names, styles; senchas that look the same and are very different; unusual additions, not additives, to the finished tea, including popped rice and seaweed.
Brewing is a challenge: They almost all require lower temperatures and shorter times – 1-2 minutes – than other greens. Get this wrong and they can be undrinkable.
They go stale quickly: Five-day-old sushi? Not exactly a delicacy and not the most fun way to get food poisoning. Japanese teas are noted for their freshness. Suppliers ship them in vacuum packs or well-sealed laminated envelopes. Once opened they lose their extra zip and quickly get flat.
Three teas to try
Those are the negatives. The positives are that they can be so, so flavorful and subtle. Try just three of the many options, ones that are soft, pleasant and light but without any grassy, vegetal or bitter flavors, that are easy to brew, and in the mid-price range, about what you’d pay for a price range. These ones are very approachable and may well motivate you to try more exotic others: Uji sencha, one of the best of the many regional varieties of the main Japanese green tea; houjicha, a soft and smooth tea that is particularly suited to a relaxing pre-sleep drink; and kukicha, a truly eccentric’s notion of tea: it’s made from twigs but has a wholly tea flavor and aroma that are very satisfying.
They make an excellent contrast with the China greens discussed above. You may well find that they become an anchor taste for your choice of lighter teas. The main challenge is that they demand careful brewing: about half the time of other greens.
The central focus in Japanese tea making has been to produce an aromatic, almost scented drink. This makes freshness so essential. The aormas fade first. Senchas and gyokuro lose their expansive flavor more quickly than other teas. The delicacy of the steaming and shaping create a leaf that is vulnerable to higher temperatures and overlong steeping. You must decide if they are worth the effort.