I’m a tea drinker, I love most kinds of tea I’ve tried over the years but traditional Japanese teas are among my favourites. They are unashamedly bold and sometimes bitter but always layered with flavour and complexity.
On our travels in Japan, we’ve actively searched out the opportunity to try the local teas, especially in the regions such as Kyoto known for its deep history with the tea ceremony and for producing the highest quality traditional Japanese teas.
Traditional Japanese teas
This bright green, frothy, whisked tea is perhaps the most commonly associated with Japan but isn’t the most commonly drunk. It’s the tea of the tea ceremony and when we first tasted it we were fortunate to have it prepared in front of us by a Geiko (Geisha) and served by a Maiko at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre in Kyoto.
I had been warned it would be bitter and not particularly pleasant to the Western palette but I really enjoyed it. It was served with the sweet Manju accompaniment, a traditional Japanese sweet that is delicate and flavoursome but not sickly sweet, it was a perfect balance.
Matcha is made from the highest quality leaves of the tea plant that are ground to a fine powder and then whisked with a small bamboo whisk and hot water to make the tea.
We’ve had it elsewhere on our Japan travels since and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s a tea whose preparation I had initially been prepared to leave to the tea-making professionals and enjoy only rarely but I found I could not resist. The tin I bought home with me didn’t last nearly long enough, especially when I found the delightful subtle flavour and colour it brings to baking and ice cream.
Sencha is the most popular of the traditional teas drunk in Japan. It’s a green tea and most likely what you’ll be offered as a visitor in someone’s home. Sencha means roasted tea and is an older method of preparing the tea leaf based on Chinese traditions. It has a delicate, sweet flavour and is mildly astringent.
The tea plant in a temperate climate like Japan is dormant throughout the winter and when the fresh growth is first picked in April and May it’s considered the best quality leaf of the productive season. A good quality sencha makes a refreshing and enjoyable cup of tea.
Like any tea, it’s best prepared in a pot with loose laves and should be made with water that is around 80ºc. There are kettles available now that allow you to select your temperature but it works equally well to allow it to boil then rest for 5-10 minutes before pouring it over the tea leaves.
Bancha is an everyday Japanese tea, whiles it’s basically a lower grade of Sencha it should not be overlooked with selecting your preferred Japanese tea style. It’s picked later in the season than Sencha, not from those first leaves but that is not necessarily considered a negative. Many would say that its bold robust flavour is preferable for a tea that will be served with a meal or after food.
Genmaicha is one of my personal favourites both in Japan and at home. Our local Asian Supermarket sells a good brand and it is becoming more popularly available in tea shops outside Japan. It’s a tea blended from Bancha and well-toasted rice giving a mild, slightly nutty aroma and taste. It has low caffeine and again makes a good tea choice with food and in the evening.
Sakuraya is a specialty brew but I couldn’t overlook it as a traditional tea. It’s made by the infusion of cherry blossom in the hot water and is particularly popular during the Sakura (cherry blossom viewing) season. The flowers are harvested in spring when the cherry trees are in full bloom. The petals are preserved in a mixture of plum vinegar and salt then dehydrated and stored. When the tea is prepared the flowers to rehydrate in the hot water unfurling to resemble fresh sakura blooms and creating a slightly salty tea, the longer it infuses the saltier the taste will be.
We had this tea served at the tearoom in Hirano Shrine in Kyoto. It was an interesting experience to try it there among the flowering Sakura trees. The look and aroma of the cup were delicious, presentation and surroundings were lovely but I wasn’t a fan of the saltiness, to me it was a very dominant flavour.
Do you enjoy a good cuppa? Have you found a blend you love or had an interesting experience with traditional Japanese teas? I have to admit love loving all the many styles from those steeped in ritual like matcha to the current international craze of bubble tea.