While travelling in Japan, you will notice that instead of water, complimentary tea of various types such as oolong, ryokucha, or sencha is often served at restaurants while vending machines and stores are filled with various types of bottled tea that you may not have even heard of in your country. Drinking tea is a way of life for the Japanese so why not try the top 3 choice teas of Japan while you are there?
There is a tea leaf plucking song originating from Sayama in Saitama Prefecture which has the following lyrics: iro wa Shizuoka, kaori wa Uji yo, aji wa Sayama de todomesasu which literally means Shizuoka for the colour, Uji for the aroma and end it off with Sayama for the taste. As such, these three places are considered the best spots for the top three ‘choice teas’ in Japan. Note that the term ‘choice teas’ refers to the place of production, not a specific brand so as long as the tea is from one of these three places, they are considered a choice tea.
In order to qualify as Shizuoka-cha, the tea leaves must have been produced in Shizuoka Prefecture. Note that there are two types of Shizuoka-cha though i.e. the pure Shizuoka-cha which is 100% made up of Shizuoka-produced tea leaves and the Shizuoka-cha blend (静岡茶ブレンド) which have been mixed with tea leaves from other locations but must still contain at least 50 percent of Shizuoka-produced tea leaves. As such, when buying Shizuoka-cha, do take note of this difference on the packaging.
If you travel using the Tokaido Shinkansen or Tomei Expressway between Tokyo and Nagoya or Osaka, you will pass through the lush green tea fields in Shizuoka Prefecture which is the number one tea producing prefecture in Japan. Shizuoka-cha first came into existence when a distinguished priest named Shouichi Kokushi brought back tea seeds from China during the Song Dynasty in 1244 and planted them in Ashikubo. During the Meiji restoration, the Makinoharadaichi area was developed to be a tea-growing region. In 1883, Shizuoka was only responsible for 14% of the country’s tea production but now, it accounts for about 40% of Japan’s tea. It has been said that due to Shizuoka’s position as a top tea-producing prefecture, its residents who would naturally consume a high amount of tea have always been ranked in the top three of the most healthy prefectures in Japan.
The main tea producing areas in Shizuoka
There are 7 main tea-producing areas namely Fuji-Numazu, Shimizu, Honyama, Makinohara, Kakegawa and Tenryu. Depending on the region, the type of tea leaves produced vary. For example, tea leaves from Fuji-Numazu tend to be lighter in colour while Honyama’s version is dark green. Due to variations in processing methods such as frying or steaming, the aroma and taste of the tea differ too. As such, depending on your preferences, you can choose the type of tea which suits your tastes best. If you would like to see the tea plantation workers in action during the harvesting season, do pay a visit to Shizuoka in May except for the Makinohara region where the peak season is in the middle of April.
If you’ve been to Kyoto, chances are you would have tasted Uji-cha. Even if you haven’t been to Kyoto, there are many matcha speciality dessert shops in Japan and overseas selling Uji-cha as it is or in the form of various types of desserts such as ice-cream.
Uji-cha generally refers to the tea produced in the southern region of Kyoto Prefecture with Uji City accounting for most of the output. As Sayama-cha’s output volume is much lesser than Shizuoka-cha and Uji-cha, the latter are collectively known as the top two teas in Japan.
Due to increasingly tighter regulations governing the display of ingredients in food products, it has become mandatory for tea makers to indicate where their tea leaves come from. As there is an inadequate supply of tea leaves produced within Kyoto Prefecture to meet the demand for Uji-cha, the Chamber Of Kyoto Prefecture Tea Public Interest Incorporated Association (社団法人京都府茶業会議所) decided on 25 March 2004 that the term Uji-cha will include tea products originating from the nearby Nara, Shiga and Mie Prefectures only if the processing of the tea leaves is performed within Kyoto by Kyoto companies. For Uji-cha that is mixed with tea leaves from outside Kyoto, words such as Uji-cha Blend (宇治茶ブレンド) should appear on the packaging.
Uji-cha’s roots are said to be in the Kamakura era where a distinguished priest named Myoue Shounin wanted to promote tea in the Doganoo area in Kyoto Prefecture and started to grow tea trees in places such as Yamashiro, Uji, Ninna Temple and Daigo Temple. Subsequently, tea began to grow in popularity to the extent that tea gatherings were banned in 1336 by Ashikaga Takauji, the first shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. It was only until Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun and Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun recognised the high quality of Uji-cha that they started their own tea plantations and rewarded those who grew tea. This then led to the Uji area being known as a top-class tea producing region.
At present, most of the tea cultivation and production methods used in Japan are said to be based on Uji-cha’s method. In addition, due to the high quality of the tea, it has resulted in the development of premium breeds such as the Gyokuro (玉露), Tencha (てん茶) and Sencha (煎茶). The light steaming method to process the tea leaves in Uji has resulted in a yellowish tea with a tinge of green and is smooth on the palate despite being slightly bitter.
Main areas for growing Uji-cha
Due to land requirement needs as a result of urban development, there are more tea plantations on the mountainous areas now as compared to the flat plains at a lower altitude. Uji-cha is mainly grown in four areas namely Uji, Ujitawara, Wazuka and Yamashiro. The harvesting season takes place in the second half of April so do swing by for a visit to get the freshest Uji-cha and see the tea leaf pickers in action.
Most people may not have heard of Sayama-cha primarily because it is not as widely available as Shizuoka-cha and Uji-cha. The term Sayama-cha generally refers to tea produced in western Saitama Prefecture such as Sayama City, Tokorozawa City and Iruma City as well as the Nishi Tama region in Tokyo Prefecture. Sayama-cha is the number one agricultural crop grown within Saitama.
Sayama-cha’s origins can be traced back to 800 years ago when the first tea tree seeds brought back from China by monks were planted at present-day Kawagoe City in Saitama Prefecture. At that time, the tea was used as a refresher for monks who were dozing off while studying and only became popular in Saitama Prefecture from the Edo era.
Owing to the location which is comparatively cooler than Shizuoka and Kyoto and there is frost and snow in winter, Sayama-cha’s tea leaves are rather thick and have a strong taste even when a few leaves are used to brew the tea. Comparatively, tea leaves cultivated in the south tend to be lighter in flavour due to the warmer climate. There are two harvest seasons i.e. the first round from April to May and the second from June to July.
Map showing the distribution of tea tree fields in Saitama Prefecture along with major tourist attractions
With increasing urbanisation, there is more land required for housing, commercial and industrial use thus causing the number of tea tree fields to decrease. In addition, unlike southern tea production regions like Kagoshima Prefecture which is warmer than Saitama and has 5 harvesting periods annually, Sayama-cha is only harvested twice a year thus contributing to the low output. As such, most of the larger tea tree fields are concentrated in the western and southern part of Iruma City while smaller fields are spread out in various residential estates. To cope with the problem of inadequate sunlight and rising land prices, there are more tea tree fields developed in the east of the prefecture and the Chichibu region.
In order to be considered as Sayama-cha, the tea leaves would have to be grown within Saitama Prefecture or in the western part of Tokyo Prefecture. To differentiate between the two, tea from Saitama Prefecture can be simply called Sayama-cha or use the specific name of its origin such as Kawagoe-cha (川越茶) or Chichibu-cha (秩父茶) while those from Tokyo will be named Tokyo Sayama-cha (東京狭山茶). Similarly, for tea products which include at least 50% of Sayama-cha leaves but is mixed with tea leaves from other locations, they will be branded as Sayama-cha Blend (狭山茶ブレンド).
Having read about the top 3 choice teas of Japan, are you interested in checking them out during your next holiday in Japan? As spring beckons, make plans to check out the beautiful tea tree fields which will be perfect for scenery and to find out for yourself which tea suits your taste buds best!