The World of Japanese Tea

As you probably know, the various varieties of tea; green, white, oolong, and black; come from the same plant of the genus Thea Sinensis. The two main species within this genus are Camellia Sinensis and Camellia Assamica. Camellia Sinensis mainly occupies the region of North Asia; China, Tibet, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Camellia Assamica flourishes in more tropical climates such as India and Sri Lanka. There is also a subspecies, Camellia Assamica Subspecies Lasiocalyx, known as the “Cambodian Variety” grown in Southeast Asia.

Tea cup on wood

What separates them into the various varieties (reportedly over 2,500 worldwide) of tea is the amount of oxidation (often referred to as fermentation) they are allowed to undergo. The application of heat arrests oxidation and the timing of such can determine the end tea product. Green teas have oxidation arrested immediately after harvesting the fresh leaves. Black tea is allowed to oxidize completely. Oolongs occupy a very wide range of oxidation, mostly from around 12 to 70 percent, but can technically be up to 99%. Some oolongs at the far ends of the spectrum are nearly indistinguishable from green or black teas. White tea is technically a very lightly oxidized Oolong, but is comprised of just the unopened top buds of the plant which at this stage are covered in downy white “hair,” hence the names “White” or “Silver Needle” tea. Herbal “Teas” are not derived from the Camellia Sinensis and therefore not “true” teas. However, the word “tea” has crept into the English vernacular for almost any type of “infused” beverage. We aren’t snobs and you can use the word any way you like.

Japanese Tea Production

Further separation occurs in the tradition or method of heat application. In Japan, oxidation is arrested predominantly by gentle steaming of the freshly harvested leaves. The steaming process actually takes but a few seconds, 15-20 seconds in most cases. Deep-steamed, or “fukamushi” tea, is steamed two to three times as long to process the desired characteristics of this tea type. “Kama-iri,” pan-fired, tea is processed as the name implies. This is the main technique used in other parts of Asia, such as China and Taiwan. Is is also widely used in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Areas such as Kumamoto, Saga, Nagasaki, and Miyazaki are well known for their kamairi teas.

Tea bowl

In general, the processing of tea in Japan involves quick steaming (except for the kamairi pan-fired teas) within hours of harvest, followed by a series of alternating drying and rolling to bring the mositure content down to about 6%, to break down the cells of the leaf to facillitate the proper chemical reactions, and to create the desired shape of the finished leaf. In the case of tencha, the base tea for matcha, the finished leaves are cut instead of rolled after steaming and drying, then ground (preferably by a granite stone) into fine powder. In addition, Tencha, as well as Gyokuro, are also examples of kabusecha, or “covered teas.” These teas are shade grown 2-3 weeks before harvest. This reduced exposure to sunlight reduces the tannin content, thereby reducing astringency, and increasing the retention of theanine and flavor-producing glutamic acid.

In much of Japan, the harvest period occurs in late spring, exactly 88 days after the traditonal first day of spring in early February. However, harvest may begin as early as March in Okinawa and as late as late May in Niigata. For most of the country though, late April or early May is much anticipated as the “shincha” or “new tea” season. This first flush commands over two-thirds of the domestic market due to the fact that shincha contains the most flavor and highest vitamin content of all of the harvests. The shincha season lasts just through the end of June. Subsequent harvests can occur two or three more times before the onset of autumn.

Several unique cultivars have been developed throughout the ages to suit the various tastes and environmental conditions of the many regions growing tea in Asia. As mentioned in our “Tea History” section, the cultivar most prevalent in Japan today is Yabukita, which was just developed in 1954. Some are particularly adapted to certain types of Japanese tea, such as the cultivar Saemidori, which is used often for Gyokuro. Other cultivars are developed to best suit a region, such as Sayamakaori, used in Sayamacha in Saitama Prefecture. Still more cultivars include such names as Sofu, Musashikaori, Okuhikaori, and Meiryoku. Each cultivar possesses not only particular growing characteristics to benefit the farmer, but different flavor profiles for the consumer to enjoy.

And just like fine wine; the appellation, or region, and other environmental conditions greatly affect the final taste of the end product. The soil, the sun, the rain, and the altitude all contribute to the unique characteristics of each tea. Additionally, the hand of the artisan also plays a large part in the outcome of each harvest’s growing, processing, and packaging (this aspect is often overlooked, but very critical with Japanese tea.) It is this carefully orchestrated collaboration and delicate balance of science, nature, and human tradition that have led to a wide variety of wonderful teas being produced in Japan.

Tea picker

Regional pride aside, many fine teas are grown in areas from the cold and rugged Tohoku (North East) region to the tropical islands in Kagoshima and Okinawa. The dominant production centers, however, lie in Central and Western Japan. Shizuoka, at the base of Mount Fuji, is the leading producer of tea in Japan, growing over 45% of the country’s tea. Many Japanese would not even be able to tell you of tea’s other growing regions, or that Kagoshima Prefecture on the Island of Kyushu follows this at about 24%. Other regions with significant growing shares include Mie Prefecture, 8%; Miyazaki, 4%; and Uji (in Kyoto) at 3%. Fukuoka, Saga, and Kumamoto, all in Kyushu; and Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, also contain large growing regions. For matcha, the Nishio region in Aichi Prefecture is the nations’ largest producer.

Charaku Fine Japanese Tea hopes to introduce you to the pleasure of enjoying a wide variety of Japanese tea tastes and traditions.

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