In the 9th century, Buddhist monks who had traveled to China to study were exposed to the meditative and restorative powers of tea. Not only did they bring back the desire for this elixir, they also brought back teacakes as well as seeds to plant within the monastery. Thus, tea became a drink of the religious classes as an aid to meditation and as a medicinal herb. Later, green tea became a staple among cultured people in Japan - a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes. Eventually, green tea became available to the masses, making it the nation’s most popular beverage. Production grew also and today Japan is a land of tea gardens producing 98,000 tons of tea every year.
Tea production in Japan is unique. Tea is grown in rows that are side by side in long strips giving the appearance of green waves across the little island. Also, Japanese teas are steamed instead of fired which distinguishes their taste. In general, Japanese teas are somewhat delicate, very green and have a bright vegetal taste. Finally, Japanese tea leaves are smaller and not completely intact due to modern mechanized technology which has also contributed to improved quality control and reduced labor. Today, Japan produces almost exclusively green tea with the primary factor between grades determined by the season in which it is harvested.
The Japanese grade their teas as Gyokuro, Sencha and Bancha. Gyokuro is the highest grade of tea and is harvested annually in the spring. With a deep emerald green coloring and a sweet, mild cup, it is the most expensive tea produced due to intensive hand labor. Sencha is one of Japan’s mainstay teas. It was developed in the 18th century and has many of the same processes as Gyokuro but less hand work. It is available in a variety of grades and accounts for three-fourths of the islands tea production. In addition, a type of Sencha with the leaf veins removed before processing is ground into a powder to produce Matcha, the tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Finally, Bancha is the common, daily Japanese tea made from a later plucking and involving little hand work in the processing.
TEA TIME TRIVIA
Japanese legend has a Buddhist saint, so overwhelmed
by sleep during meditation that he tore off his eyelids,
threw them down and they took root and a tea plant grew,
explaining the invigorating effects of tea
plus the eyelid shape of the leaf!!
“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.”