Teas of Japan have become popular all around the world for their unique flavor profile. After tasting teas from Japan for the first time many years ago, we were hooked. We set out to explore Japan and find the best teas from all around the country. We met with dozens of farmers and sampled hundreds of different types to find the very best teas of japan to share will all of you. We also learned so much about these teas along the way, and we are happy to teach you all about what makes teas from Japan so special with this complete guide.
Why are teas of Japan so special?
One of the things that sets teas from Japan apart from other green teas is that the leaves are steamed after harvesting, in order to lock in these natural vegetable flavors of the tea. The steaming process can also create these vibrant green colors, particularly with the longer steamed Fukamushi teas.
Another thing that makes teas of Japan unique is that a lot of the tea plants are grown under shade right before the harvest. By cutting these tea plants off from sunlight, they retain more caffeine, theanine and chlorophyll. The tea also takes on a smoother and sweeter flavor, which many tea drinkers enjoy. In this article, we’re going to cover the basic types of teas from Japan and what each of them taste like.
List of the 14 types of Teas from Japan
First, let’s start with the most basic type of teas of Japan - sencha. Sencha is the most common type of tea from Japan, making up about 70% of the total tea consumption in the country. In addition to being the most popular category, it’s also the most diverse category. Long shaded sencha teas can produce an incredibly sweet flavor, while unshaded senchas can be a bit drier and more astringent.
Another variable is how long the leaves are steamed. Longer steamed teas like Fukamushi senchas can take on a smoother and more fruity flavor and short steamed asamushi senchas can be on the fresher or more citrusy side. Sencha teas are typically made from the youngest sprouts of the tea plant, as these are the highest in nutrients and considered to be the most flavorful. Like all Japanese green teas, Sencha is best prepared in the clay Kyusu teapot. This teapot allows the leaves enough space to open up and fully release their flavor into the water, and then keeps the leaves out of your cup with the built-in filter.
Gyokuro is similar to sencha, but it is even more labor intensive to produce. Of the teas from Japan, Gyokuro is considered to be the most sought after. To be considered Gyokuro, the tea plant needs to be shaded for 3 weeks prior to the harvest, in order to develop this characteristic sweet and savory flavor. The name means “jade dew”, which is a reference to the fine green residue it produces during the production process.
The intensive shading process boosts not only the flavor of the tea, but also the caffeine and theanine as well. One cup of Gyokuro tea can have between 120-140mg of caffeine, making it one of the highest caffeine teas of Japan.
Unlike with coffee, Gyokuro contains l-theanine, and amino acid that can buffer some of the negative effects of caffeine. Gyokuro drinkers report having a long lasting energy throughout the day, without the crash or jitters. This tea is quite expensive because it is so difficult to produce. It is challenging for the farmers to keep the tea plant alive for 3 weeks without much sunlight.
The legendary Gyokruo farmer: Mr. Sakamoto
Mr. Sakamoto, a talented Gyokuro farmer in Southern Japan has created his own method of organic fertilization to keep the tea plant strong without the use of chemicals. This innovative new fertilizer allows the plant to absorb lots of nutrients from the soil to produce a powerful sweet and savory flavor.
While Gyokuro is shaded for 3 weeks before the harvest, Kabusecha is shaded for between 10-20 days. A lot of tea drinkers consider this to be the sweet spot. Kabusecha has the sweetness of a gyokuro, but without the powerful savory flavor.
This powerful savory or “umami” flavor of Gyokuro is a bit of an acquired taste so if you are new to teas from Japan you may want to start with something like kabusecha or kabuse sencha. These teas are lighter, sweeter and they have a nice smooth finish.
Tencha is almost never consumed in its loose leaf form, because it is turned into matcha. When a tea is ground into powder, the flavor becomes intensified, so the leaves have to be carefully produced so that they will show no bitterness, even when they are powdered.
Once the leaves have been shaded and picked, they need to have their stems removed. Once the leaves have been destemmed, they can be considered Tencha. It is hard to find this tea in loose leaf form, and it is better to just enjoy the leaves as a powder!
Matcha is perhaps the most famous teas of Japan, but it is not quite as common as teas like sencha. Matcha is a special type of powdered green tea made by grinding tea leaves in a large stone mill. To make matcha, the plant needs to be shaded for 21 days prior to the harvest and then the youngest sprouts are selected from the top of the tea plant.
The leaves have their stems removed to improve the flavor even further before they are ground into a fine green powder. This tea powder can then be whisked into a bowl of warm water with a bamboo tea whisk or Chasen. High quality matcha has a natural smooth and creamy flavor to it and the foam on top aerates the tea to make it taste almost like a latte.
This was the original way to consume green tea in Japan, originally brought over from China from the monks who used tea to improve their concentration during long periods of meditation. It later became popularized because of its use in the Japanese tea ceremony and now overseas they are the most popular teas from Japan.
Of all the teas of Japan, shincha is the first to be harvested. The shincha harvest occurs in the early springtime, and some eager tea drinkers wait all year to be among the first to drink this special green tea.
During the winter time, the tea plant has a resting period where it is able to build up nutrients from the soil. These nutrients are released into the fresh sprouts in the spring time, and these are then picked to produce the finest shincha. Because the younger leaves are used and the nutrient profile is higher, these teas tend to be smoother, sweeter and more complex than teas harvested later on in the year.
Mecha means “bud tea” and it is essentially the same thing as shincha. This tea is made out of the freshest buds of the tea plant, harvested in the early spring time. When you harvest the leaves in the early spring time, just as you would with a shincha, you will end up picking buds as well as leaves. This means that shincha and mecha are basically the same tea!
While most teas from Japan are green in color and unroasted, hojicha is quite different. Hojicha is a roasted green tea. During the roasting process the leaves change from green to brown, and these fresh vegetable notes are translated into warmer notes of coffee and chocolate. The color of the tea becomes a reddish brown and the caffeine content is reduced slightly. Hojicha is a common tea to enjoy in the colder months, and you may even find people roasting tea leaves at street markets in Japan.
When looking at all the teas from Japan, you may also find a lot of stem teas like Kukicha and Karigane. These teas are made with not only the leaves of the tea plant, but the stems as well. Because most of the caffeine is concentrated in the leaves, the addition of the stems really brings down the caffeine content. With around 40mg of caffeine per cup, this tea has about half the caffeine as a small cup of coffee. The stems also add a nice milder flavor to the tea, with notes of summer grass or straw. This balances out the sweeter and more savory flavors of the tea leaves.
While premium teas from Japan Gyokuro and Sencha are made from the youngest sprouts of the tea plant, Bancha is actually made from the more mature leaves. This tea is actually lower in caffeine and higher in minerals. The tea plant produces caffeine as a defense mechanism to deter insects, and because the older leaves are tougher and less vulnerable, they don’t need to produce as much. These older leaves produce a completely different flavor profile, with softer notes of wet wood and popcorn. This tea is often consumed after a meal because it is less acidic and can even help with digestion. After sencha, Bancha is the most common type of green tea in Japan!
Another one of the low caffeine teas from Japan is Genmaicha. Genmaicha is made by combining tea leaves with toasted rice. This originally began as a way to conserve tea leaves and make them last longer, but now it is the most common “blended tea” in Japan. In addition to bringing down the caffeine content, the toasted rice imparts a nice warm cereal flavor into the tea. This sweet cereal note pairs beautifully with the fresher, more grassy flavors of the tea to create an entirely unique tasting experience. This tea is lower in caffeine so it is suitable for the late afternoon or evening time.
Not all of the teas from Japan are meant to be premium. Konacha is made from the leftover leaves during the tea production process. These smaller, broken up tea leaves produce a more bitter flavor, so they are used as a palate cleanser at seafood restaurants. This is not one of the teas we have selected during our travels around Japan because it does not live up to the standards of premium Japanese green tea.
In addition to changing the flavor by steaming the tea leaves, a farmer can also change the flavor by roasting the tea leaves. These roasted Japanese green teas are called Hojicha and Kamairicha. While most teas from Japan are put into a steam bath rather than a hot pan, Kamairicha is pan-roasted making it more similar to a Chinese green tea.
Kamairicha is somewhere in between a sencha and a fully roasted Hojicha. To make Kamairicha a farmer will turn the leaves in a hot pan to partially roast the tea. This makes the tea more similar to a Chinese green tea, with notes of cashew nuts, and even a hint of caramel. This pan-fired green tea is quite rare in Japan but in the mountains of Takachiho, we were able to meet with a farmer that produces a very good Kamairicha.
Tamaryokucha is one of the more rare teas from Japan and it has a unique shape. The name essentially means “curled tea” and rather than being rolled into tight needles like a gyokuro or sencha, Tamaryokucha takes on these more “comma” shaped leaves. The flavor of this tea is tart and fresh, with a nice citrusy finish. The tea can also be shaded to produce less of this citrusy flavor and more of a savory or umami flavor.
Where can you shop teas from japan?
If you are interested in trying premium green teas from Japan, we have got you covered! With our selection, you will find dozens of different types of green teas, all grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals, by farmers that we have personally met with. We like to take the time to visit the producers and there families to learn about the tea growing process, and make sure that a high level of care is devoted to the teas. We would love to share these teas with you today!
Which teas from Japan are your favorites? Luckily, you don’t have to choose just yet! You can try 30 different types of Japanese green teas from all over Japan and see which ones you like most. The Mega sampler includes all the best green teas we’ve found during our travels throughout Japan. All these teas are grown without pesticides, so you can enjoy them guilt free!
Thanks so much for all the wonderful information and the opportunity to sample all the different types and flavors!!