What is Japanese tea like?

There are many different types of tea drunk in Japan from green tea to English style tea sold at supermarkets in plastic bottles with sugar and milk already added. There are so many teas that it may be quite confusing when choosing one to drink when shopping.

One of the first things to know about tea in Japan – is that it’s called cha. The Japanese word for tea. Japanese is a language all about being polite at the correct time to the right people. Sometimes the prefix ‘o’ might be added. Therefore it may also be call ocha.


A flickr photo of someone drinking tea from tea break's flickr blog

Japan has five main teas – that may be called Japanese these are sen-cha, ban-cha, genmai-cha, hoji-cha and ma-cha. But Japanese will commonly drink Chinese style oolong tea – cold. What is green tea? Well in Japan green tea is leaves from Gyokuro (a plant commonly grown in the shade. The leaves must remain green to be green tea. They turn brown if they’re roasted.

Green tea is extremely healthy for you. There’s a reason why the Japanese live so long – and it’s not because they drink so much whisky and smoke all the time. It’s most likely down to the diet. Tea forms a large component of most Japanese people’s diet. A quick search for green tea brings up interesting tit-bits such as “A study published recently in Cancer Research points to the fact that Green Tea Polyphonols (the anti-oxidants present in green tea) might help in prevention of Prostate cancer by blocking the growth of blood vessels to the tumour.”

Let’s go through these teas and I’ll give my hard won wisdom on each.

Sen-cha – Green tea leaves are stemmed and when moist pressed into small strips or pellets. This is one of the most commonly drunk green teas – especially cold. It’s quite tasty has a good kick of caffeine and antioxidants. Much milder than macha. Available bottled in most shops to be drunk cold.

Ban-cha – I am not a fan of ban-cha. This is a drinking tea for common occasions – while working or reading. It’s commonly drunk hot or cold depending on if it’s winter or summer. It’s made for stems, big leafs and buds, leftover from sen-cha. These are dried in the sun and then steeped in boiling water.You can taste it too – tastes like twigs to me. Took a lot of getting use to. An acquired taste but enjoyed by most Japanese people.

Genmai-cha – This is ban cha but made with brown rice (genmai). The flavour is noticeable different. Genmai is probably slightly more preferable to ban-cha in my opinion. I still feel it tastes quite sticky but not quite so strongly.

Hoji-cha – All the same stuff to make ban-cha but roasted first. It tastes better to me because it’s moving slowly towards British tea with all the roasting business. I quite like to drink this iced. It’s probably a heresy to the Japanese but I think a slice of ginger in the bottom of tall glass makes an excellent drink.

Green Tea, macha and brush from movement in silent on flickr
Mat-cha – This is the tea ceremony tea. Powdered tea leafs give a bright green powder. It’s quite bitter and very bright and foamy. Not a smooth liquid drink but instead a bubbly mixture. You’ll receive the greatest amount of antioxidants and caffeine from this because you’re actually consuming the tea leafs themselves. It can also be prepared like regular tea using a Kyushu (Japanese kettle), generally a smaller kettle is used due to the expense of the tea. If prepared in a kettle then the powdered matcha tea won’t be used rather the whole Gyokuro leaf. The water poured into the Japanese kettle is usually as below boiling point.

One of the main drinking teas though is oolong tea. This is often drunk cold. Oolong tea is Chinese is stems and whole leafs steeped for quite a long time to get the flavour. The tea is light and not at all bitter so often drunk while eating. Tea mixes are often drunk too – often nine or ten different tea flavours mixed together.

It’s quite common for green tea – especially macha to be used a flavour in many things. It is used in cafĂ© / bistro style drinks like lattes or it maybe mixed with cream and steamed. There seems to be an infinite variety of drinks that are created from it. Just this weekend I had a macha expresso.
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