Though Starbucks has indeed invaded the Japanese archipelago, this country has traditionally run on tea. Since its importation from China sometime in the 9th century, tea has become the drink of choice, the gatorade of the samurai class and the Miller Lite of the masses.
Certain prefectures in Japan are known for their tea production, among them Shizuoka, the Uji region in Kyoto prefecture and Kagoshima. Shizuoka accounts for over 40% of the tea produced on the archipelago but in truth, you can find tea bushes as far north as Niigata.
Only green tea is grown in Japan, but there are various types. The most popular is sencha, a “high-grade” tea where the leaves are first steamed to reduce the bitterness and then crushed and dried. Gyokura is nearly the same as sencha, but is comprised of the tips of tea leaves from bushes that were sheltered by bamboo screens. These teas are usually harvested in the spring, around Golden Week time (April 29-May 5). A lower-grade of tea, called bancha, is harvested later in the summer when the leaves are considered to be a bit tougher. Shincha is the year’s first harvest of green tea (the youngest leaves) and usually comes on the market around Golden Week. (See, Golden Week is HUGE in Japan! :))
If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably also come across matcha, a powdered form of high-grade green tea. This is the tea that is whisked together for participants in a tea ceremony or added to certain wagashi sweets or traditional desserts. You might have also stumbled across oolong tea, a semi-fermented tea often grown in Taiwan and mugicha, a tea made from barley kernels that is one of the first drinks given to Japanese babies.
Probably one of the most iconic images of Japan is a field of tea bushes in Shizuoka with a snow-capped Mt Fuji in the background. In the next few entries, I’ll tell you how you can get a great close up view of these, or other tea plantations, and even how to harvest tea yourself. Stay tuned!