The history of Japanese green tea originated in 805 when Buddhist monks Saicho and Kukai returned to Japan from traveling in China with young tea trees. But this is just the beginning of the story. Today, we’ll explore more of the history of this beverage and how it came to be.
How Japanese Green Tea Came To Be
In the 12th century, tea seeds were again brought to Kyoto by the famous Zen priest Eisai.
Eisai penned one of the oldest books on specialty tea in 1211, a two-volume book inspired by his last visit to China.
In it, he describes the positive health effects tea can have on both the mind and body, focusing primarily on tea’s medicinal qualities in improving brain function, vitalizing the heart, and eliminating indigestion. He also goes more in-depth, describing the shapes of tea plants, the different tea flowers and leaves of each plant, and how to process the tea leaves for drinking.
An influential figure, Eisai, helped introduce tea consumption to the warrior class during the Heian Period. Then, as the warrior class gained political prominence, the custom of drinking tea became widespread around Japan. It even makes its way to Edo, the former name of the city of Tokyo.
Soon, green tea will become a staple beverage among the cultured people of Japan. Although only privileged individuals primarily enjoyed it, green tea production increased by the end of the 16th century and was available to all people in Japan. (Click here to learn more about Eisai.)
Picture of Kukai – Kukai brought back green tea from China in 805
With the rise of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, Japan increased its cultural exchange with southern China. Among the merchandise being traded and passed overseas was green tea's roasting and processing methods.
Poetry, writing, paintings, and calligraphy depicting tea emerged during this time, eventually leading to the art of the tea ceremony.
How Japanese Green Tea Evolved to a 250 Billion Yen Business
Green tea has since evolved into a billion-yen business over the past decade.
Ayataka, a brand of Coca-Cola in Japan that produces bottled green tea, has grown into a 777-billion-yen industry. Green tea is one of the most popular packaged beverages on the market in Japan.
Today, many Japanese people prefer their tea conveniently packaged in plastic bottles. Other companies are strong competitors to Coca-Cola in Japan’s tea-growing nation.
Japanese retailers generally only stock in-demand beverages, so the pressure to develop new green tea products and adaptations is high. Ito En, another of Japan’s traditional tea makers that produces bottled green tea in Japan, began adding powdered tea to their green tea drinks. This makes them cloudier and more indicative of richer-tasting teas traditionally brewed in a teapot.
What is Green Tea?
Green tea and black tea originate from the same species of Camellia sinensis. What differentiates green tea from black tea? How the tea leaves are processed gives them their unique taste and color.
There are two principal varieties of Camellia sinensis tea plants used when brewing tea.
Camellia sinensis, a smaller-leafed tea plant native to China, is primarily used for green and white teas. Camellia sinensis evolved as a shrub and grew in warmer regions with drier and cooler climates. This type of plant has a high tolerance for low temperatures and thrives well in mountainous areas.
To process the green tea, leaves are harvested from the tea plant and heated through steaming or pan-frying. Japanese green tea is steamed, whereas Chinese green tea is pan-fried.
Drying the leaves prevents oxidation and maintains their green color while locking in the fresh tea flavors. When green tea is brewed, the color is usually green, yellow, or very light brown. The flavors of the tea vary depending on whether the leaves are toasted through pan-frying, firing, or steaming. Pan-fried tea typically has a grass-like, vegetal flavor, while steamed leaves are sweeter and more seaweed-like.
What Type of Japanese Green Tea is Available?
There are many different green teas available, all originating from the same Camellia sinensis tea plant.
There are a few factors that differentiate these various types of green tea:
- Where the tea plants are grown
- How they’re cultivated
- The various climate conditions the plants endure
Many green teas originate from China.
Some notable types include:
- Gunpowder green tea and Dragonwell green tea, which are both grown in the Zhejiang Province of China,
- Snowy Mountain Jian, a green tea grown in the Yunnan Province of China
- Xin Yang Mao Jian, a unique tea grown in the Henan Province
Japan has a great variety of green teas, including Gyokuro, a green tea widely considered one of the best in Japan. Gyokuro tea is a shaded green tea grown in the shade rather than under the sun. Other varieties include Sencha green tea, the common "everyday" Japanese green tea.
Although Gyokuro is a type of sencha tea, it has a unique cultivation method that originated in Japan. Before harvesting, Gyokuro tea leaves are kept out of the sun for at least two weeks. This causes the alkaloid caffeine and amino acid theanine in the leaves to increase, resulting in a sweeter tea flavor.
Matcha Green Tea
The most notable form of green tea from Japan is matcha green tea, made from powdered gyokuro.
Matcha tea leaves are also grown in the shade. But unlike typical gyokuro leaves, they're not just steamed, dried, and rolled during the cultivation process.
Matcha leaves go through a unique refining phase where the leaves are cut, the stems and veins are removed, and just the meat of the leaves is left before they are dried out. The leaves are then called tencha and ground into a powder known as matcha.
Matcha green tea is widely known for being used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. (Read my other popular article, 25 Matcha Trivia You (Probably) Didn't Know here.)
Many consider green tea to be one of the healthiest beverages in the world.
It's loaded with antioxidants, such as polyphenols, L-theanine, catechins, and EGCG, as well as other powerful nutrients that can have incredibly positive effects on the body. Notably, these include lowering your risk of cancer. Drinking green tea can also speed up your metabolism, leading to weight loss and an overall decrease in body fat. Green tea also contains caffeine, which acts as a stimulant to improve brain function.
Although all types of green tea have their benefits, try to drink higher-quality brands of green tea. Some lower-quality brands may contain excessive fluoride levels, which can be dangerous when ingested in large quantities.
How It's Used Throughout the World
Over the centuries, green tea has spread worldwide, with different cultures incorporating it into their unique recipes and preparations.
- In Taiwan, bubble green tea has hit a huge wave of popularity. This high-calorie treat is made with iced green tea and powdered milk sugar. Adding small balls of tapioca gives it an extra chewy texture.
- In Morocco, green tea leaves are served with mint and sugar in a beverage called Touareg tea. This green tea is served in a tall, narrow glass and can be served up to three times a day.
- Green tea has also gained widespread popularity in Europe in recent years due to its prominent health benefits.
Above is part of a chapter from my recent book, I Will Teach You How to Be Healthy by Drinking Using Japanese Green Tea: Surprising Facts and Tips for How You Can Take Best Advantage of This Amazing Plant.
This post was first published in 2017 and updated in 2022.
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