Japan’s love for high-quality teas has influenced the culture since it was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century. The refreshing green beverage is not only a great morning alternative to coffee, but a source of joy, rejuvenation, and cultural integrity for Japanese people. It’s the go-to social drink, and elaborate ceremonies have been built around drinking tea.
In my previous article, I covered the numerous types of Japanese green tea. Today, I’ll discuss the immense impact of green tea on Japanese culture – why it’s so widely consumed, what the Japanese tea ceremony looks like, and the right way to prepare Japanese tea. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!
The Health Benefits of Japanese Green Tea
It’s well known that Japanese people have the highest life expectancy in the world. Scientists believe that the Japanese diet has a lot to do with that fact. Among factors like lower consumption of red meat and processed sugar, Japan’s love for fish and tea plays a big role.
Green tea comes with plenty of health benefits, helping regular drinkers stay healthy.
A daily cup of green tea will help your blood flow and lower cholesterol, ultimately improving the health of your heart and mind.
A cup of tea a day really will keep the doctor away – since green tea contains 5 times more vitamin C than a lemon.
It also has antimicrobial properties and powerful antioxidants (mainly catechin) that will help your body fight off disease. Gargled combined with a bit of salt, green tea is a well-known traditional remedy for a sore throat.
Along with these exceptional properties, the flavonoid-rich tea helps your body stave off cancers, inflammations, and many chronic health conditions.
Do Japanese people drink tea every day?
Green tea, both hot and cold, is the go-to drink in Japan.
In the west, we sometimes say “let’s grab a coffee” when we want to invite someone for a conversation, a gossip session, or simply to hang out. Well, the Japanese have a similar expression – お茶しませんか (ocha shimasenka?) – But instead of coffee, they invite the person for a cup of tea.
This common phrase speaks a lot of the importance of tea in Japanese culture.
While Japanese people do drink coffee, for most people, tea is the drink of choice in the morning.
And not only that – green tea is drunk during afternoon breaks too, and always served to welcome visitors. Green tea varieties with lower caffeine contents (like kukicha and genmaicha) are a popular evening drink.
However, the Japanese don’t only drink tea during tea breaks. Green tea often accompanies meals, as it combines wonderfully with many Japanese food recipes.
For everything in between, and especially during hot summer days, Japanese people love their iced green tea. It’s unsweetened, bottled, and sold in all stores and vending machines.
Tea in Japanese Restaurants
Green tea is an important element of hospitality in Japan.
Just like tap water is served in the west, it’s customary for Japanese restaurants to provide free green tea when customers are seated. When customers are greeted with free tea and refills, it’s clear that the restaurant values its customer experience.
The type of tea served differs between regions and businesses.
Sushi restaurants serve konacha (powder tea). This type of tea is ideal as it acts as a palate cleaner between bites of sushi. Similar to gari (ガリ, pickled ginger), green tea refreshes your taste buds, giving you full appreciation of the taste of each bite.
Many restaurants across Japan serve genmaicha (tea combined with roasted rice) as its nutty flavor goes especially well with fattier fish dishes. High-end restaurants often serve sencha and gyokuro, which are higher quality and more expensive.
The type of tea served in restaurants differs depending on the region too. For example, businesses in Kyoto and Kansai region often serve the roasted green tea – hojicha, while the majority of the island drinks konacha and sencha. The sunny southern island Okinawa serves sanpincha, a type of Jasmine tea not found in other parts of Japan. The northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, is revered for Sapporo beer and a drink called royal milk tea – a delicacy based on black tea and the exceptional quality of local dairy products.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony – Chado (茶道)
Centuries ago, green tea was considered a medicament only available to monks and the upper class. It only became widely available and drunk by everybody during the Muromachi period of Japanese history (1336 – 1573).
It seems that ceremonies that venerate Japanese tea became widespread long ago, as early as the 8th century. Later in history, tea ceremonies were often prepared for influential people by women named geisha, trained entertainment specialists.
The tea ceremony that we know and perform today, chado, involves matcha tea. However, less popular versions with sencha tea also exist.
In essence, the tea ceremony encompasses a wide string of traditions, mainly tasks related to preparing and serving tea. It’s a formal occasion so people act according to custom.
The ceremony starts with building a fire in the hearth and continues with boiling the water, whisking the matcha, and serving it with sweets. Every part of the ceremony is completed with an artistic attention to detail and grace.
While the ceremony started as a simple act of serving tea to guests, over time it became a highly venerated art form influenced by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism.
Japanese Tea Brewing and Serving Tips
Preparing Japanese tea may be a form of art – but it’s not necessarily hard to do. You can brew amazing Japanese tea at home if you’re just mindful of a few guidelines.
- Unless you’re using tea bags or infusers designed for brewing tea in a cup, brew your tea in a teapot. The larger teapot will allow tea leaves the room to unfurl for a super tasty cup.
- Use 2-3 grams (or one teaspoon) of green tea leaves per cup of water.
- Only fill your infuser halfway to the top – green tea expands rapidly when soaked, so give it space to do so.
- You can use green tea for two steeps – the first time you soak the tea, brewing will take a longer time, and the second steep is shorter.
- Pour water over the tea, don’t dip tea in water.
Japanese Tea Steeping Time and Water Temperature
Many people claim they dislike green tea because of its bitterness. However, green tea typically has a refreshing, light flavor that shouldn’t taste unpleasantly bitter. In most cases, green tea that tastes bitter is, in fact, not prepared properly.
Using scorching hot water or soaking your tea for too long can alter the taste of your tea. This typically happens due to over or under extraction of tannins. The astringent taste people dislike comes with the over-extraction of tannins, which happens if you leave your tea infuser in for too long or use scorching hot water.
That’s why it’s important to know the correct temperature and steeping time for each type of Japanese tea.
Black tea and herbal teas are robust – they can withstand sitting in boiling water for 5 minutes without adverse effects. However, that’s not true for the more sensitive green tea.
Most Japanese green teas require cooler water anywhere between 49° and 85°C (120° – 185°F) and steeping times between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.
- Tea grown in full sun need higher temperatures and shorter steep times. Teas like sencha, bancha, genmaicha, konacha, and kukicha are best brewed at temperatures around 80°C (175°F). Steeping time should be short, between 30 seconds and 2 minutes depending on the taste you prefer.
- Shade-grown teas like gyokuro and kabusecha require lower temperatures, 50° – 60°C or 120° – 140°F. Due to the lower water temperatures, these teas take time to properly brew, so the ideal steeping time is between 3 and 4 minutes.
- Hojicha is the exception among Japanese teas – the roasted green tea isn’t as delicate as other types. Hojicha can be brewed for a minute or two in water as hot as 93°C (200°F).
Find Your Zen With Japanese Green Tea
The Japanese don’t consider tea just a caffeinated refreshment to push them through the day. Instead, tea plays a huge role in Japan’s culture. It’s both a go-to drink for hydration, almost as popular as water, and a profound philosophical and social symbol.
No matter how you look at it, Japanese tea is a readily available remedy for the body and the soul.
Best of all, green tea goes wonderfully with almost any Japanese dish – so go brew yourself a cup!