Green with envy: Spotlight on tea's place in Japanese culture
Green with envy: Spotlight on tea's place in Japanese culture
As much as sushi and ramen may dominate the chatter about Japanese food, green tea cannot be ignored.
Teas from Asia, especially matcha green tea, are experiencing their moment abroad, so it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve tried a few varieties already.
A common misconception is that green tea, also cha or ocha, is only mean to be paired with sushi or Japanese sweets, known as wagashi. However, drop by any local Japanese restaurant, and you will find, more often than not, besides handing you the standard oshibori (wet towel), the server will also bring green tea for the table.
Inside Japanese homes, green tea also serves as an important tool to welcome guests and create a cozy atmosphere. Japan’s tea ceremony is a recognized cultural symbol which revolves around the formal act of welcoming guests with green tea. But today, even casual visits with Japanese friends will often include refreshing hot or cold green tea, depending on the season.
While there has been a slight decline in green tea consumption (due to the bubble tea trend and introduction of new soft drinks), it still holds strong. In 2016, Japan produced 77,100 tons of tea, 97 percent of that being green tea.
What makes green tea stand out among countless beverages available in Japan? Green tea has three special characteristics, according to Hitomi Nakajima, managing director of Japan Tea Central Public Interest Incorporated Association.
“First, green tea has ‘umami’ or savory and rich flavor in itself, not like other teas and beverages,” Nakajima said. “The unique flavor is made from amid acid, and it gives a complicated, profound taste without applying sugar, salt or any other seasonings.”
So, while British black tea is often enjoyed sweetened and with cream, green tea is usually enjoyed as is.
In addition, brewing the same tea leaves two or three times enables you to enjoy the changing umami flavor.
On a trip to Kamakura once, I stopped in at a traditional tea house for some green tea and sweets. The employee recommended brewing the tea leaves again after enjoying the initial brew. “The first service of tea and the second have a completely different flavor and aroma,” I remember her saying.
When I tried as she suggested, the second pour was smoother with a milder aroma compared to the sweet and sour richness of the first brew. Without realizing, she had introduced me to green tea’s evolving umami.
The second characteristic of green tea, according to Nakajima, is its many health benefits. “Since green tea has not been fermented and contains the original nutrition of the unchanged tea leaves, it works on your health in various ways,” Nakajima said.
During the 9th century, green tea was first introduced from China for medicinal use in Japan. Green tea contains caffeine, catechin and other vitamins and antioxidants which helped Buddhist monks stay alert during Zen meditation and sutra study, Nakajima said.
A drink for monks and aristocrats became a staple in Japanese homes when Nagatani Souen, a tea farmer in Kyoto, created sencha, green tea processed and dried which allowed for it to be inexpensive and accessible to all. Today, more than 60 percent of whole tea product of Japan is sencha.
The third characteristic of green tea is the consumption of it in powdered form. Today, matcha is used in drinks, lattes and desserts, including ice cream. It is also at the center of a prized custom in Japan – the tea ceremony. This ritual involves matcha tea, Japanese sweets and participants often wear kimonos. More on this ceremony later.
“Matcha enabled us to develop an art of traditional tea ceremony, while it offers a particular wonderful flavor to various drinks and sweets these days,” Nakajima added.
Green tea is a superfood
Aside from being a refreshing drink to have while relaxing with friends or enjoying some quiet time, green tea is considered a superfood by many health experts.
According to the Japan Tea Central Public Interest Incorporated Association, one cup of tea (about 4 ounces) contains about 30 – 50 milligrams of caffeine, 70-120 milligram of catechin and 10-milligram vitamin C, along with other nutrients, such as theanine, calcium, magnesium, iron, beta carotene, vitamin E, chlorophyll, protein and dietary fiber.
Just like coffee and black tea, caffeine in green tea has an awakening effect that helps us stay alert and awake while it relieves fatigue. It is also said to help burn fat and promote blood circulation.
Catechin restricts the absorption of glucose, keeping blood pressure low and is thought to prevent obesity. Catechin also has a sterilizing effect, which is why you might see people in Japan using it as a mouth rinse after meals to kill bacteria and prevent cavities.
Theanine is a substance unique to green tea. It affects the brain cells and gives a relaxing and healing effect. Another added benefit is the amount of Vitamin C in green tea, which gives it the antioxidant effect we want to help prevent colds and improve immunity.
Fair enough. You now know why green tea is called a superfood, don’t you? Let’s drink it daily and improve our health!
Where to get your hands on it
Today, green tea is available throughout the nation. You can buy green tea leaves at virtually any supermarket, department and convenience stores for around 1,000 – 1,500 yen ($9-13.50) per 100 gram or 3.5 ounces.
Although you can buy green tea anywhere, Nakajima recommends seeking out a specialty tea shop as these usually have employees well-versed in tea facts and can help you find your perfect cup.
Since tea leaves are a fresh product, it’s best to purchase small batches and refrigerate them at home. Green tea should be consumed within a month after purchase.
Difference between teas
Green, black and oolong teas all taste very different, but did you known they come from the same tea bush? The only difference is the way the harvested leaves are processed, whether they are fermented and for how long. Green tea is not fermented but steamed instead. Black tea is deeply fermented, while oolong is lightly fermented during production.
Further adding to the complexity, green tea is available in many different varieties:
- Sencha (steamed tea) – This is the most popular and most common form of green tea. After the steaming and cooling process, the tea leaves are crumpled and dried before packing.
- Bancha (low-quality steamed tea) – Although it has the same steaming and drying process as sencha, bancha is a coarser tea because it consists of leaves harvested after the sencha harvest. Despite bancha being considered a lower quality tea, many regional variations and different manufacturing methods make the tea popular among tea lovers.
- Gyokuro – This variety is made of leaves from plants grown under sunshades for three weeks prior to harvest. Gyokuro has a sweet, profound taste and considered a high-end tea.
- Hojicha (roasted tea) – For this cup, green tea leaves are roasted in high heat and traditionally in a special pan called a houroku. Thanks to this roasting, the color of the tea changes to a beautiful golden brown and has a crisp aroma and flavor.
- Tencha – Like gyokuro, tencha tea is made from leaves off plants grown in shade of reed screens for four weeks before harvest. Unlike gyokuro, however, tencha is steamed without crumpling the leaves.
- Matcha (powdered tea) – A famous and popular form of green tea, matcha is made of tencha leaves which are steamed, dried, and then, ground with a stone mill to a fine powder. This tea is used during traditional tea ceremony and also offers unique flavor to various sweets and drinks.
- Genmaicha – This tea is made by mixing roasted rice with sencha or bancha green tea. Because of its pleasant roasted aroma and buttery taste, the tea is popular worldwide.
- Source: Nihoncha Instructors Association
Why tea is bitter
Green tea might seem too bitter to appreciate. It is the tea’s catechin and caffeine which might give you that impression. However, both of these are known for their health benefits, including disease prevention.
So, how do we soften the bitterness?
Adding cool, non-boiled water helps brew sweet, tasty tea. Both caffeine and catechin dissolve easier in hot water, so hotter tea is bitter since it contains more of these substances. If you want to soften the bitterness, be sure to steep tea in lower temperature, so that you can reduce the extraction of them while keeping the umami flavor and aroma.
Mixing in matcha
As Nakajima mentioned, matcha is loved by a lot of people throughout the world and has been applied to various food and sweets.
Sweets and drinks made with matcha
- Matcha rollcake
- Matcha cookies
- Matcha popcorn
- Macha Pokkie
- Matcha cheesecake
- Matcha chocolate
- Matcha nuts
- Matcha pudding
- Matcha latte
- Matcha milk
Elegant tea ceremony “Chanoyu”
While being a popular flavor, matcha is the centerpiece of the traditional tea ceremony.
The tea ceremony known as chanoyu, originated in China, but was developed and refined in 16th century Japan. The ceremony incorporates Zen philosophy and unique aesthetics of “wabi,” where art is harmony, simplicity and tranquility.
According to Nakajima, “Wa-kei-sei-jaku” are four words that represent the art of the tea ceremony. (“Wa” stands for peace of mind, “kei” means respectfulness for guest, “sei” is purity and clean and “jaku” stands for calmness).
“In brief, the ritual art of the tea ceremony shows the mind how you welcome guests through brewing and serving a cup of matcha tea,” he said.
There are many opportunities at museums and events to participate in a traditional tea ceremony, so keep an eye out to try it for yourself!
How to produce green tea
- Picking tea leaves in the field
- Steaming the leaves
- Drying the tea leaves and crumpling them
- Arrange the size of leaves
- Dry leaves completely
How to brew tasty tea
Brewing your own cup may seem intimidating, especially if you think you need to be an expert after reading Nakajima’s description. Don’t worry, it’s easy!
Keep in mind while brewing that the richness and sweetness can be adjusted depending on the ration of tea to water and how long you steep.
- For sweeter and richer tea, use more tea leaves and brewing in warm water that did not reach a boil.
- For a milder, more balanced cup, uses less tea and brew in warm water.
- If you don’t mind bitterness but you want to make it mild, then apply boiled water and steep the tea leaves for just a few seconds.
- Remember: Longer steep time makes the tea stronger.
The following is a brewing way recommended by Nihoncha Instructors Association. Try it first, then you can adjust the water temperature and steeping time to make it your favorite taste.
- Prepare teacups and teapot.
- Pour boiled water into all the teacups. (4 ounces per cup)
- Put the tea leaves in the teapot. (For three people: about 9-10 grams)
- When the boiled water has cooled down to around 70 to 80 degrees Celsius in the teacups, pour the water into the pot over the tea leaves.
- Wait for one or two minutes to steep the tea leaves. While the first brew takes one or two minutes, the second brew takes only around 30 seconds.
- Pour the tea into the teacups. Avoid filling the cups with tea in a single pour. Instead, pour a small amount in each cup and then continue to add more until all cups are filled because this will ensure to distribute the richness and sweetness amongst all the cups.
A: (Yunomi) Chawan – teacup
B: Kyuusu – tea pot
C: Chazutsu – tea canister
D: Yusamashi – bowl for cooling boiled water
E: Chasaji – tea spoon
F: Chataku – teacup saucer
Traditional sweets and green tea
Try these traditional wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and Ryukyukashi (traditional Okinawan sweets), which pair well with green tea.
Wagashi (mainland of Japan)
Dango - A sweet dumpling that comes in an assortment of colors and is made from cereal and rice. Soy sauce and sweet bean paste are often used to flavor it. Applying sugar to a well-pounded dango can preserve it for long time.
Monaka - A wafer filled with adzuki bean paste. The paste can be made from sesame seed, chestnuts or rice. Most wafers are square-shaped.
Senbei - A Japanese rice cracker in various shapes, sizes and flavors that are usually baked or grilled over charcoal. A typical senbei is flavored with soy sauce, mirin, and wrapped with a layer of seaweed. There also are salt- and sugar-flavored senbei.
Chinsuko - An Okinawan cookie that originated during the Ryukyu Dynasty. It is made from wheat flour, sugar and lard. Chinsuko is one of the most important traditional sweets on Okinawa.
ChiIrunko - Often called “Okinawan kasutera,” Chirunko is a brightly colored steamed cake topped with a smattering of peanuts that have been dyed red with citrus peels boiled in sugar syrup. The recipe includes plenty of eggs, which were scarce and thus highly-prized during the Ryukyu Dynasty era.
It is said that this cake was eaten only by nobility.
Senjuko - A pretty lotus-shaped cake with pastry on the outside filled with a mixture of sesame and peanut butter and refreshingly fragrant
Kippan – A traditional Okinawan sweet made by boiling mixed local citrus fruits and sugar syrup down until it has become a chewy, mochi-like texture. Usually, white sugar powder is sprinkled over this sweet.
Hanabo-ru – A cookie made from wheat flour and egg yolk then shaped like a wisteria flower. This Ryukyukashi requires the skilled techniques of an experienced patisserie chef. The Portuguese introduced this sweet to mainland Japan in the 1600s, and it was later introduced to Okinawa.
– Souce: Masae Arakaki of Arakaki Kashiten
Museums to check out
If you want to learn more about tea or would like to check out a tea ceremony, explore the museums below.
Fujinokuni Chanomiyako Museum
This museum has a plethora of tea information, hosts a tea ceremony, brewing and grinding tea leave demonstrations.
Location: 3053-2 Kanayafujimicho, Shimada City, Shizuoka Pref. (1-hour-and-40-minute drive from Camp Fuji)
Hours: Wed – Mon, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: 300 yen; College students or younger and age 70 and older: free
Iruma City Museum ALIT (Tea Museum)
Iruma City is famous for its local Sayama Tea. The museum displays several tea houses, tea cultivating gears, hundreds of panels explaining green tea.
Location: 100 Nihongi, Iruma City, Saitama Pref. (20-minute drive from Yokota AB)
Hours: Tue – Sun, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: adult: 200 yen; high school and college students: 100 yen; middle and elementary school students: 50 yen
For further information on Japanese tea and its culture:
Japan Tea Central Public Interest Incorporated Association
Location: 2-8-5 [5F] Higashi Shimbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Okinawans keep it cool with Sanpin cha
Shoji Kudaka, Stripes Japan
While brewing your own green tea at home or indulging in a nice cup at a tea house in Japan, convenience stores and supermarkets do offer a much more convenient option in a bottled form.
A quick browse through the offerings at your local shop will show you just how many varieties of brands and flavors are readily available for consumers. On Okinawa, another variety is also dominating the beverage section – sanpin cha, or jasmine tea.
Sanpin Cha’s history dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 – 1879).
According to Tsutomu Suga, a columnist who authors several articles about the history of tea, the name “Sanpin” has its roots in the chinses word “香片(xiāngpiàn)” for jasmine tea. Suga believes jasmine tea used to be recognized as a signature product of Fuzhou, China. Given the fact that the Ryukyu Kingdom had an outpost in this harbor city on China’s east coast, Jasmine tea was most likely brought to Ryukyu from there, according to Suga. It had to wait until after the end of the kingdom to reach all the people of Ryukyu, not just nobility.
Today, you’ll find it served in restaurants and alongside other tea varieties in stores. According to Suga, sanpin cha can either be fully fermented as it was in Fuzhou, half-fermented like in Taiwan, or even as green tea scented with jasmine imported from China.
I enjoy the jasmine tea as a refreshing and re-energizing beverage. It tastes a bit milder than oolong tea with a delicate bitterness and distinct scent that both relaxes and reawakens your senses.
And this tea reminds me of the visits to my grandparents’ homes as a child. Having it with Sata Andagee (Okinawan doughnut) or Kurozatou (black sugar) still brings back memories of the old days.
Enjoying the tea with local sweets is still quite popular but you’ll also find new pairings like the sanpin-cha-wari cocktail, which mixes sanpin cha with Okinawan liquor, Awamori.
According to the book, “Cha to Ryukyu-jin (tea and people of Ryukyu)” by Koichi Takei, another popular tea during the Ryukyu Kingdom was Kuma cha, a green tea harvested in Kumamoto Prefecture (then known as Higo). The author draws similarities between Kuma cha’s strong flavor and that of sanpin cha, including how the strong scent drew the people of Ryukyu to drink both as refreshments during the subtropical island’s steamy summer.
Sanpin cha remains a part of that strategy for keeping cool in the hot Okinawan summer. As for me, the scent and flavor both refresh me and remind me of the past.
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