Tea 茶 (Cha)
In Japan, tap water is drinkable. In restaurants or cafes, a glass of water is served as you seat yourself. Of course, it’s free. Also in some restaurants or cafe, a cup of green tea is served. Don’t worry. It’s also free.
Green tea is very important in the Japanese life. They drink it at any time of the day.
Chinese character for tea is“茶”which is pronounced as ‘cha’. It illustrates grasses and a sharp knife to cut them. Probably this character was invented to indicate the fact that tea is made by cutting the new born leaves.
Tea has its origin in China and Japan introduced tea culture from China. The exact time when the first tea came to Japan is not clear, but we can find a reliable record which mentioned that a cup of tea was dedicated to Emperor Saga in 815. In the 12th century, a Zen priest named Eisai brought a tea plant from China and since then the tea cultivation has started. Originally tea was used as a medicine, but gradually it was associated with cultural events such as “blind tea tasting (tea-guessing)” or “tea meeting”.
In the 15th century, it was refined into the minimalist form of tea ceremony known as “Wabi-cha” by Murata Juko who had been ejected from the temple at the age of 17-18 for spending too much time for tea-guessing and then undertook a harsh training regime under the iconoclastic Zen master called Ikkyu. His sprit was inherited by Takeno Joo and his desciple Sen no Rikyu completed “Wabi-cha” as an aesthetic and spiritual art form at the end of 16th century.
In the middle of the 17th century, Zen master Ingen introduced Chinese pan-fired tea and in 1738 Nagatani Soen developed the processing method for Sencha which enabled to dissolve the taste and flavor of tea leaves even when they are steeped in a teapot. But the cooking and boiling method to make an extract was a mainstream in those days. It is after the Second World War when the current stable production system was established that Sencha culture pervaded among commoners.
Both black tea and green tea are made from the leaves (sometimes buds or stems) of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis). The difference arises depending on the degree of oxidation. Black tea is fully oxidized, Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, White tea is lightly oxidized and Green tea is not oxidized. Oxidation is prevented by heating and deactivating enzymes in the tea leaf. Depending on the method to heat the leaves, Green tea can be divided into two: i) pan-fired green tea (mainly produced in China and Taiwan), ii) steamed green tea (mainly produced in Japan). The former has a slightly sweet, roasted aroma, whereas the latter has a characteristic fresh aroma and strong umami. In Japan, the Green tea usually means the latter type of tea.
Just for reference, in the process of oxidation of Black tea which is called as Red tea in Japan, catechins changes into thearubigin or theaflavin which is the origin of redness of the Black tea. Catechin is a kind of polyphenol that makes the tea taste bitter and astringent. Because of its low content rate of catechins, tea leaves produced in Japan are not good for Black tea whose important characteristics are in astringency and strong aroma.
Classification of Japanese tea
A: Shaded / Non-shaded
Steamed Green tea is also divided into two: i) shaded tea, ii) non-shaded tea. Shading prevents L-theanine (umami-compound) from turning into catechin which makes tea taste bitter. So one of the characteristics of Shaded teas is strong umami and rich taste. Teas such as Gyokuro, Kabuse-cha, Ten-cha( which is used to make Matcha) are included in the Shaded teas.
Gyokuro is one of the teas which we can enjoy umami to the maximum. For its richest umami, it is often considered as the most expensive tea. About three weeks before the spring harvest, the tea plants are shaded by reed screens or shelves with straw on top. Gyokuro is best steeped in low temperatures. It also makes an excellent cold brew.
“Kabuse” means “cover” in Japanese. About 4-10 days before harvest, a synthetic black cloth directly covers the tea plants. Kabuse-cha is often described as the tea in between Gyokuro and Sencha. It is stronger in sweetness and weaker in astringency than Sencha. Different from Gyokuro, Kabuse-cha can also be tasted by steeping in relatively high temperature.
Tencha is also shaded for more than three weeks just like Gyokuro. After steaming, it is dried fast in high temperature to separate hard parts (stems and veins) from leaves and the finished tea leaves shape like fish scale. Ten-cha itself is difficult to find in the market. It is usually stored in a special pot and ground in a stone mill to turn it into powdered green tea called Matcha.
Matcha is a powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony. Hot water is poured and then whisked quickly but gently to cover the tea with fine frothy bubbles. Match is notable for its vivid green color, strong umami, well-balanced sweetness and astringency. Recently, it is well known as an ingredient in confections such as iced cream and becoming popular not only in Japan but also overseas.
B: Ordinarily Steamed / Deep-steamed
Non-shaded tea is divided in many types. From the duration of steaming, it can be divided into two: i) ordinarily steamed, ii) deep-steamed. i) Ordinarily steamed is called “Sencha” and ii) non-steamed is called “Fuka-mushi Sencha ”. Among the Green tea consumed in Japan, almost 70% is these Sencha.
Its steaming time is usually 30 seconds. The original processing method was invented by Nagatani Soen in 1738 and has been improved until nowadays. Sencha, which can be defined a “flexible” tea, is steeped and enjoyed in various ways to find different flavor. The natural sweetness is accentuated when steeped in cold water and astringency together with bitter aroma are dissolved in water of high temperature. There is no correct answer in making Sencha. Your favorite can change depending on the weather, climate, your conditions and moods.
Its steaming time is usually 1-2 minutes. By steaming for a longer time, a compound in the leaves that enhances sweetness (pectin) dissolves more easily and the tea becomes milder. Tea leaves have broken appearance and the brewed tea is sought for its thick and rich taste rather than aroma. Tea plants grown in flat areas with long day light hours tend to become bitter. To change its bitterness into sweetness, this method was invented in the 1960’s in the central Shizuoka prefecture and now it is the most consumed tea in Japan.
C: Reprocessed teas
Hoji-cha is made by roasting steamed green tea, usually low- grade green tea. Hoji-cha made from stems is especially popular for its sweet fragrance and aroma. It tends to be light-bodied. If you have Sencha which has already gone old, let change it into Hoji-cha by roasting it in skillet. You can also enjoy the roasted aroma filled in your kitchen.
Kuki-cha is made from stems and stalks that are removed during the process of producing and refining “raw tea” called Ara-cha (荒茶) in Japanese. Especially Kuki-cha made from the stems of Gyokuro and called “Kari-ga-ne(雁が音)” or “Sira-oré (白折)” is considered as the expensive type and very popular. Rich in theanine and weak in astringency, it can be steeped at high temperature and good to warm yourself in cold winter.
Kona-cha is made from green tea dust sifted or fanned during the process of producing and refining “raw tea”. Kona-cha is often served at Sushi restaurant to clear the palate and lower the risk of food poisoning by the behavior of catechins.
Powdered tea is made by grinding Sencha in machine. It can be directly dissolved into water or oil without making waste. Each particle is generally a bit bigger than that of Matcha and does not become so lumpy.
Genmai-cha is made by adding roasted rice in 1:1 ratio. Although “genmai” means brown rice in Japanese, refined rice is usually used to make the finished tea more aromatic. This tea has its origin in the custom to add the roasted rice cake on New year day among tea sellers in Kyoto.
Ban-cha is a tea hard to be defined. In the past, Ban-cha indicated the teas among commoners other than Matcha or Sencha which were affordable only for those in higher social ranks. Those Ban-cha were made in quite different manners depending on the region or family such as boiling, cooking, roasting etc. Nowadays it generally refers to the tea made in the same method as Sencha but using hard or old leaves.
Japanese tea cultivars
The tea plant is not self-pollinating. So the tea plants which are propagated by seed propagation are naturally cross pollinated and as a consequence, the color and taste of each plant are totally different. By selecting good quality plants and cloning them, a cultivar called Yabukita was established in 1908. This Yabukita has the best balance of the four taste elements which compose Japanese tea: umami, sweetness, bitterness and astringency. Propagated by cutting, they grow almost evenly to form beautiful hedges. Thanks to Yabukita, the quantity of tea harvest as well as its quality has dramatically grown. Sencha became affordable even for commoners. The number of Yabukita plants has rapidly increased and now it occupies more than 75% of the tea plantation. But this uniformity has brought some problems: the lack of variation in taste and aroma, the lack of workforces during the harvest time (overlapping of peak harvest time). Nowadays, the movements to invent new cultivars (including single estate Japanese tea) are gradually activating.
Compounds and efficacy
Catechin, a polyphenol which is behind bitterness and astringency of the Green tea brings some merits to our body.
– increase fat metabolism in hepatic cell
– anti-bacterial effect
– anti-oxidant effect (slow down aging process and prevent the formation of cancer cells)
– anti-allergic effect
L-theanine, a main compound behind the umami sensation, promote alpha wave activity in the brain and make us relax.
Tea ceremony to open the seal of the special tea jar (口切りの茶事)
In Cha-no-yu, which is also called Sa-dou (the way of tea), the New Year starts at the beginning of November (generally 7th or 8th). On this New Year day, the ceremony to open the pot which has kept the special Ten-cha made from the tea leaves newly harvested in spring time. For this ceremony, the exterior and interior of the tea ceremony house is newly arranged.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of the Edo Shogunate) conducted this seal opening ceremony at his castle called Sunpu (駿府）. Based on this historical event, a festival is held every year in Shizuoka prefecture.
Sen no Rikyu
Rikyu was born in 1522 in Sakai city which used to be a free city governed by a council of 36 wealthy merchants and boasted the culture of the highest level in those days. Rikyu became known as a pre-eminent tea master from around the age of fifty. Firstly he was a tea master for Oda Nobunaga and after his death in 1582, he served Toyotomi Hideyoshi. But Rikyu was not just a master of tea; he was intimately involved in politics of Toyotomi’s regime. When a feudal lord visited Hideyoshi’s brother named Hidenaga, Hidenaga told him, “Consult your private matters to Rikyu, and public ones to me”.
After the death of Hidenaga, the situation surrounding Rikyu had abruptly changed. Rumors blaming Rikyu for treachery against Hideyoshi grew increasingly persistent and finally Rikyu was ordered to commit ritual suicide (Hara-kiri) on the unreasonable ground that he had installed a wooden image of himself at the main gate of Daitokuji temple. On febrary in 1591, Rukyu followed this outrageous order from Hideyoshi without making any explanation.
Zen is a sect of Buddhism that was introduced from China in the late 12th century. It became soon favored among the dominant military class called Samurai who valued silence, self-control and simplicity. While believers in other sects of Buddhism stressed sutra recitation or invocations, Zen believers seek to achieve enlightenment through Zazen. Zazen is a spiritual formation born in India. In the Zazen, the practitioner sits cross-legged with perfectly straight back and slightly opened eyes and he breathes regularly. Breathing is very important in Zazen. This meditation consists of an internal communication with oneself. Zen doctrine could be defined as “communication without words” or “expression without languages”. This is one of the reasons why Zen is often considered as a philosophy rather than a religion.
In the 14th century, cultural activities such as tea ceremony, gardening art or painting were developed among the monks of Zen. Since then, Zen has had a huge influence on Japanese thought and culture.