Taking a small break from talking about anime this week to instead continue my sporadically ongoing Japan drinks series. Despite being one of the largest consumers of coffee in Asia, Japan is still very much a tea kingdom – “the ultimate mental and medical remedy … to make one’s life more full and complete” according to Japan’s oldest tea specialty book, written by a Buddhist priest in 1191.
Although tea was first introduced to Japan from China as a luxury product in the 700s, used largely by priests and noblemen (and then only as a medicinal beverage), it later became a staple among cultured people in Japan – the gentry, the Buddhist priesthood, and samurai society. By the end of the sixteenth century, the “Way of Tea” was firmly established and green tea was destined to become Japan’s most popular non-alcoholic drink of choice for the masses.
While today there are literally hundreds of varieties and grades of tea produced in Japan, all with their own unique characteristics, the purpose of this particular list is to go over some of the most common of them, giving a very brief overview of how they’re made and, probably more importantly to many readers, how they taste.
Quick note: Though I refer to any kind of green tea here as just that, it’s generally known in Japan as ‘ocha’, or sometimes ‘ryokucha’ or ‘nihoncha’. These are all just generic names rather than a specific type of green tea. With one exception, all the beverages making an appearance on this list are green teas. Black tea, which has not been included anywhere on this list, is called ‘kocha’ in Japanese.
Perhaps the most well-known example of tea in Japan, and certainly the most well-known example of green tea, matcha is the one being used in all those tea ceremonies (as well as in various snacks and sweets like ice cream and cake). Made only of the highest quality leaves, which are first steamed and dried before being finely ground into powder form, hot water is then added and the tea whisked with a bamboo brush. The tea is ready to drink when the bright green liquid turns foamy. Despite its fame even among non-tea drinkers, matcha is probably the most polarizing tea on this list in terms of personal enjoyment – it has a strong, bitter flavour with only a slightly sweeter aftertaste. However, it comes across as far lighter and sweeter when used in confectionaries, and is a very popular choice of flavour when it comes to things like pocky and Kit Kats, helping to balance out the richer chocolatey taste.
You may not have heard of the name, but if you’ve visited Japan for any length of time then you may well have drunk sencha without knowing it. If there was ever a single ‘standard’ green tea in Japan then it’s this one, produced from the first and second flushes of tea leaves. Like matcha, the leaves are steamed and dried before being brewed with hot water, although the finished product looks yellow-green in colour and the bitter flavour is far milder. Said to make up a whopping 80% of all green tea consumed in Japan, sencha is commonly served in cafés and restaurants – a relatively high-grade yet everyday tea that even some kids are fine with drinking.
Considered the lowest quality of green tea, bancha is made from the same tree as sencha but is plucked later, making it coarser and obviously also cheaper. However, it’s very low caffeine levels and richness in minerals makes it a good green tea for the health-conscious, with a robust but not overly bitter taste. The colour tends to be a little darker than sencha, sometimes a golden or even brownish shade of green, and the tea is commonly served not only in restaurants but also in hospitals, as well as offices and various work stations, all across Japan.
After processing sencha and bancha, the dust, buds, and remains of leaves that are left over can be made into konacha. Though not considered high quality, konacha has quite a bold and distinctive flavour, and is thought to pair very well with certain foods such as sushi (and as such is typically provided for free self-service at conveyer belt sushi restaurants, where it’s called ‘agari’.). Vivid green in colour, the strong taste also makes it a good ingredient in cooking and baking to help add colour and flavour.
When sencha or bancha tea leaves are roasted over charcoal, the result is hojicha; a warm reddish-brown tea with a less astringent taste, low-grade but also both richer and toastier than other forms of green tea. Savory but light, hojicha’s mellow flavour combined with low caffeine levels make it a popular tea to have during or after meals in the evening, or just before bed.
Last on this list but certainly not least, mugicha is an outlier in that it’s made not from tea leaves at all but rather from roasted barley kernels. Because it contains zero caffeine and zero sugar, it’s considered by many to be a perfect alternative to water, particularly when it’s served ice cold against the oppressively muggy heat of Japanese summer. It can also be served hot however, and is regularly consumed by both children and adults alike. The flavour is fairly light – toasty and ever-so-slightly bitter – and although it’s easily found bottled in supermarkets and convenience stores, a lot of people prefer to make their own, since a single mugicha tea bag is sufficient to make around one liter of tea.
Question of the post: Do you have a favourite type of Japanese tea? Are there any kinds (either listed here or not) that you haven’t tried yet but someday want to?
19 thoughts on “Drinking in Japan: Part III”
I haven’t tried any of these, but i’d eventually love to try all of them. I’m not a big tea drinker myself, and i’m still waiting to find a tea that I enjoy. Which out of these do you like the most? And do most people in Japan drink the tea as is? (Without any sort of additives?)
In the summer I’m a big fan of iced mugicha, and in the winter I love drinking warm hojicha, so I’d say those are my two favourites. Easy to get too, as they’re both sold all year round in convenience stores (and sometimes vending machines).
Yes, in fact I’ve never seen anyone add anything at all to their green tea in Japan other than water or ice. It absolutely doesn’t go with milk, sugar, lemon, or anything else people might tend to add to various kinds of Western tea.
Not a tea drinker myself, but my wife is enthusiastic about tea and approves of Sencha.
Fine choice. 🙂
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I’m a regular drinker of all these except matcha, which I would equate to a double shot espresso in strength of caffeine and flavour. One very upscale restaurant served it to me with a glucose comfit to hold in your mouth and suck the tea around! I love good sencha, but in small quantities. Bancha, and Hojicha are favorite thirst-quenchers, with Genmai cha -the one with toasted rice and popcorn mixed in- as a delightful winter warmer.
Just finished reading The Book of Tea by Okakura, although I have to say it tells you very little about tea, and a lot about art, philosophy and theology. It also appears that at the time he wrote it (1906) Okakura was more likely to be found drinking china tea with milk and sugar in the salons of wealthy Boston socialites than kneeling on a tatami mat sipping matcha 🙂
I’m not a big fan of matcha either, although given its bitterness, people often do eat it with traditional Japanese sweets here (which are often a real work of art – do a quick Google image search for ‘wagashi’ and you’ll see what I mean!). Personally, I’m more a fan of iced mugicha (in summer) and warmed hojicha (winter).
I haven’t read that one, but it sounds like it could be fun – maybe I’ll check it out sometime. 🙂
I can’t believe that I’ve actually drank all the varieties you’ve mentioned in this article. That’s a first for me! But I do love all of them, mugicha has a special place in my heart since my host mother made it all the time when I lived with her.
Nice one! Mugicha is one of my absolute favourites as well, especially iced in the summer. Thanks for commenting, and glad you enjoyed the article!
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In Japan, what type of green tea do they use for the bottled types used in their local vending machines? I’ve tasted some of them during my last trip to Japan (mostly the Ito En and Iyemon types) and was impressed at how they are unsweetened so they still have that tea taste (unlike the types in my home country, which all taste like sugar water).
Would it be just the one type, or is it a tea blend?
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Yeah, I’ve noticed that about bottled drinks in Japan too – not just tea, but also orange juice and such. Probably the most common bottled teas found in vending machines here (at least in the areas I’ve been in) are hojicha and green tea blends, but I’ve seen all kinds of bottled tea sold in vending machines other than matcha. If it’s a blend, it says so on the bottle (often both in English as well as Japanese).
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Gorgeous photos! Japanese tea is some of the best in the world, and I have a tough time choosing between mugicha and genmaicha. They’re both so refreshing to drink on hot summer days!
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Oh, these particular photos are not mine – they’re just stock images.
Mugicha is always my favourite summer drink here – so light and refreshing!
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I have never heard of this, but it sounds fun.
Well, if you ever get the chance to try any of these, hope you enjoy! 🙂
Pretty much the only things I drink these days besides plain old water are milk, tea, and sparkling water. I quit drinking sodas and any sweet drinks like fruit juices years ago, I never liked coffee, and I only have alcohol on special occasions (though I don’t mind popping a Kirin Ichiban every once in a while). So partly by choice and partly by necessity I’ve ended up becoming a very experienced tea drinker, and of the ones I’ve had on this list, hojicha is definitely my favorite, followed by sencha. Actually when my friends went to Japan last year and asked what they should bring back for me, some loose-leaf hojicha was one of my special requests (and they came through for me – I now have a bag of it in the cupboard that I’m trying not to use up too quickly). I prefer that mellower/toastier flavor over some of the stronger/more bitter varieties, and the fact that it’s low-caffeine is an added bonus. I’ve never had mugicha, but based on your description I’d probably like that too. I guess when anime characters are talking about drinking barley tea, that’s probably what they’re usually referring to?
Hojicha is one of my favourites as well – the only tea I like more is mugicha, preferably iced on a hot summer’s day.
Yes, that’s what anime characters are drinking whenever anyone mentions barley tea. In the summer, it’s very often the free drink in a big jug on the table that’s served up in restaurants rather than water.
Sencha and Hojicha are my favorites. Thank god for Asian supermarkets. Although, I suppose any tea in Japan would be leagues better than my old kettle and off steeping times. Great article (=
I didn’t drink a whole heap of different kinds of tea when I was living in my own country, and haven’t lived there since 2012, so I’ve more or less forgotten what the tea situation there was like. I do love that I can buy decent tea from anywhere in Japan at any time though – if a konbini isn’t nearby, then the nearest vending machine most likely stocks a few different kinds, both hot and cold.
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂
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That sounds like such a convenient option – choosing hot or cold drinks from a vending machine or even konbini’s. It on a totally different level haha.