Japan: A Tale of Two Teas

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  • High above Tokyo station, I watch, as two ladies from the illustrious Fukujuen Tea House, make tea. One is elegantly dressed in a Fukujuen kimono, while the other dons the black and white style of the West. The teas are wonderfully fresh, the makers clearly love their work, and their attention to detail brings home to me the significance Japan places on this beloved drink.

    Yet the differences between the teas, their history and flavour could not be wider. Yes, the story of Japanese Green Tea, truly is a tale of two styles, two tastes… and perhaps… two cities.

    The history of Japanese tea, like all teas, begins in China. In the 9th century Chinese tea was first brought to Japan. It was enjoyed so much that the Emperor Saga promoted its growing and consumption within the royal household.

    This tea, grown in the foothills of Uji (Kyoto), sourced its flavour from the tea leaf. It was only much later that a technique to extract a powdered form of tea (known as matcha) was introduced. In less than 50 years, matcha production had replaced the leaf based industry in Uji, and a legend was born. Contrast this with the history behind the leaf-based tea production that dominates the fresh green fields of Shizuoka, and you have a story of worth telling!

    Japanese Tea

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    Unlike Indian tea, which comes from the Camellia Assamica plant, both China and Japan based tea use the Camellia Sinensis varietal. Yet this is where the similarities end. Chinese leaf-based tea is usually roasted, where as Japanese prefer steaming, rolling and drying their tea – creating a green tea that is not fermented or oxidized. This gives Japanese tea a very grassy taste.

    Matcha, interestingly enough, comes from the same varietal has other Japanese tea, however its leaves are shaded prior to a powder form of tea being extracted.

    Japanese tea is not only tasty, but also has many health benefits. Green tea contains antioxidants, including catechins, which assists anti-aging compounds and reduces cholesterol. It also helps reduce heart related risk, stress and cardiovascular problems.

    The relaxation aspects of green tea, are due to the L-theanine they produce in the brain. Out of all Japanese green teas, matcha has the highest nutritional value, as it uses the whole leave to make the powder.

    There are several types of green tea in Japan:
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    Matcha on left Ocha on right
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    Sencha –popular in Japan, produced using young, less developed leaves.

    Matcha – the green powder tea associated with tea ceremonies and processed from high quality, shaded tea leaves.

    Gyokuro – best quality leaf-based tea, produced from premium plants grown under shade. The taste is complex, with elements of sweet, savory and bitterness.

    Hōjicha – roasted tea, with an amazing brown colour and aroma, it has a milder taste and toasty caramel-like flavor.

    Genmaicha – an interesting blend, mixing Sencha and toasted brown rice, it has a unique style and low caffeine. Originally used by priests to help between fasting periods, it is a little starchy with a warm yellow hue.

    Shincha – plucked before the first flush harvest of sencha, it is one of the most expensive teas. Known as Ichibancha, “first tea”, it has a higher level of nutrients which gives a lovely sweetness to the drink.

    Sometimes the choice of Japanese tea can be overwhelming. As a rough guide, ift you like teabag / black tea style teas, then a nice Hōjicha might be your best choice. For those who like coffee, Genmaicha or a stronger Hōjicha is best.

    A light refreshing drink like Sencha, is the suitable to be taken with food such as a sandwich or sushi. For that Japanese Spirit, Gyokuro or Matcha will give you the opportunity to taste premium flavours. If you can afford it, try a quality Ichibancha Shincha.

    Yet despite the diversity of Japanese tea, the story of o-cha, can, it is said, be reduced to two areas – Kyoto and Shizuoka. Both have created a unique style, producing wonderfully elegant and sophisticated tea. Yet their journeys getting to such fame couldn’t be more different…

    Uji : The land of tradition

    Matcha – the tea of ceremony and culture – is the tea most people imagine when they think of Japan. Based on the intense grounding process of tea leaves into powder, matcha has the concentration of around 30 green teas, and the complexities and diversity similar to that of a good wine. Steeped in myth, the home of matcha to many lies within Toganoo, a mountain range that surrounds present-day Kyoto and Uji.

    Starting in the 13th century, Uji has been the historic home of tea. Today production houses such as the Horii Shichimeien, still create teas that date back to the first tea bush founded during the Muromachi period. Initially growing a variety of tea, Uji moved its focus solely on the production of matcha due to the intrinsic fusion matcha had with zen (as well as its close ties to several leading Uji monasteries).

    With its excellent soil and highly developed match-specific processing methods (such as the “Ōishita Saibai”process that extracts the best powder from each leaf), Uji has created a world-renowned tea that blends taste and history into one.

    Shizuoka : the home of modernity

    Shizuoka’s tea history is very different. While matcha is grown in the region, Shizuoka’s farmers chose to specialize in other tea varietals, due in part, to the lack of Buddhist influence. Shizuoka is now one of the largest green tea production regions in Japan. About 40% of all tea plantations can be found here, with Makinohara and Shimizu dominating the industry.

    Shizuoka’s green tea history dates to 1241, when a monk named Shoichi Kokushi planted green tea seeds after a trip to China. However it was only during the Edo period that the industry really expanded, due in part to its proximity to Tokyo and the need by Tokugawa to ensure Kyoto did not ‘dominate’ the market.

    Focusing on Makinohara, but then expanding to other towns, the export potential of o-cha was significantly developed during the Meiji period. One of the main Shizuoka innovations is a variety of bush called Sencha Yabukita. Famous for its hardiness, aroma and sweet taste, it now accounts for 94% of Sencha based tea, and with a high yield in a variety of climates, it has become popular overseas.

    Tea making – the battle continues !

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    And so, here I sit, as two styles of Japanese tea compete for my attention. Their diversity reflected not only in their history, but also in their preparation….

    The first contender is Fukujuen’s Uji matcha. A lovely Fukujuen lady joins me at the counter, dressed in the tradition of Uji. All the tools for otemae are carefully laid out. Their simple design, and elegant harmony, underlines the ethos of this ancient, spiritual drink.

    Quietly, without fun far, the natsume (tea box) is opened. Several scoops of powdered tea are placed into the chawan bowl, awaiting the water which bubbles gently inside a traditional kettle. The water is then poured into the bowl using a hishaku (ladle); the sound conjures up memories of rustling leaves in the autumn wind.
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    With a strong brisk whisking motion, the young lady skillfully creates a soft green froth and a deep, subtle tea. Her focus and concentration never leaves the bowl. After the tea is made, the tools are carefully rearranged and the drink served, along with a lovely wagashi (sweet) selected to complement the matcha flavour. The taste is exquisite, as is the coating of light green which marks both chasen (whisk) and chashaku (scoop). A truly Japanese experience, and a perfect example of Uji strength and harmony.

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    I finish my tea with delight, and then a new set of tools come out from under the cabinet. The contrast could not be starker, as Japanese tradition is replaced with the modern symbols of Fukujuen’s o-cha. The clean, fresh, style of white ceramic tea pots, elegant containers and cups neatly arranged in tasting order, reflect a modern mood.
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    And then a new lady, one who initially greeted me when I arrived at the cafe, steps up to the plate. Dressed in a classic western uniform, she smiles and starts her preparation with the same dedication has her kimono-clad counterpart. But this time, her style and approach to the tea is more familiar to me.
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    With three teas on display, she carefully tries to explain the differences. Her English is limited, and my Japanese non-existent, and yet the tea brings us together, and we are able to successfully understand each other. We even share a joke about language and culture – smiling and laughing… the true sign of a successfully “tea meeting”.
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    Gyokuro, Hōjicha and Sencha tea is made for my enjoyment. As the water from the heated kettle boils, her meticulous tea making precision reminds me of my home in England. The water is then transferred into a white kyūsu (teapot), the leaves added, and the drink carefully poured into pre-heated cups. Each style of green tea highlights to me the wonderful sophistication of Japanese O-cha. The whole experience is amazing, allowing me to truly witness first hand, the diverse styles of Japanese tea.

    To anyone interested, I highly recommend exploring the world of Japanese tea. And, the best news is, you don’t need to go to Uji or Shizuoka to do it. Just head down to your local supermarket, where a host of varieties await you. You will not regret it. Like a good wine, as your knowledge of the drink grows, so too will your appreciation of the skills that go into the taste and preparation of tea. And the best thing is… unlike wine, it’s not so expensive and actually healthy for you!

    Fukujuen Tea House

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    It would be rude of me not to mention and thank Fukujuen Teas for giving me the opportunity to sample their products.
    Fukujuen has a rich history. Founded in 1790 as a tea merchant in (Uji) Kyoto, it has a long association with tea. It currently has a magnificent 3 floor flagship store in Kyoto, as well as several smaller shops. It also boasts one of the finest factories / laboratories in Kyoto.

    In Tokyo, it formed an alliance with French cuisine and created a restaurant with a beautiful blend of east and west. Wonderful food and great tea can be found here, and the Fukujuen philosophy, focusing on tradition, ingenuity and developing new styles to match future needs, makes Fukujuen Tokyo a must visit.

    Fukujuen Tokyo Official Website