Decoding Japanese Tea Types Names: What Do They Really Mean?

If you are an avid Japanese tea drinker like myself you might already know all the tea types by heart now. But do you know the reason why they are called the way they are?


Possibly you might speak Japanese & already know about this, speaking the language has indeed helped me to navigate the intricate Japanese tea world. If you don't, no worries at all, I have you covered.


How are Japanese tea types names written?


Almost all of them (with very few exceptions) use the kanji, character or Chinese ideogram of tea/chaat the end of their names.


Tencha

Matcha

Gyokuro Kukicha

Karigane

Kabusecha

Sencha Fukamushicha

Bancha

Sannenbancha

Genmaicha

Houjicha

Kamairicha

Tamaryokucha

Awabancha

Goishicha

Ishizuchi Kurocha

Konacha Wakoucha

Ok, but what do they mean?


Tencha 碾茶

Its first kanji means mortar or grind & it refers to the process the gently steamed & processed leaves will undergo when making matcha with them.


After the tea flakes are milled the name of the resulting powder is what we know as matcha. Other powdered green teas don't go through this process.


Rubbed green tea

Matcha 抹茶

Its first kanji means to rub or to smear, so the literal translation would be rubbed or smeared tea. It refers to the rubbing or smearing action when milling the tencha leaves.


Usually, it's translated as finely powdered Japanese green tea which isn't the same as just plain powdered green tea.


Gyokuro 玉露

The name of this type of tea isn't using the kanji of tea, which is interesting. Its first kanji has a number of meanings such as ball, drop, bead whereas its second kanji can mean dew or tears.


Gyokuro is often translated as a jade dew or jewel-like dewdrop since it embodies the highest quality of Japanese tea & due to its intense green colour.

Kabuse かぶせ茶 or kabuse sencha かぶせ煎茶

It refers to a type of shaded green tea & the first part of its name uses hiragana instead of kanji.


Kabuseru means covering & in the case of this tea refers to the act of covering the tea bushes during the shading process. Kukicha 茎茶

Its first kanji means stem or stalk since this is the part of the plant used to make this tea. It is also known as boucha 棒茶, whose first kanji means pole, stick, line which refers to its shape.


If it comes from gyokuro has other names, Karigane 雁ヶ音 / かりがね or Shiraore 白折 / しらおれ.


Karigane 雁が音 or Shiraore 白折

The name of this type of tea is actually quite poetic, it refers to the, cry of the wild goose & it is used as a name for a type of kukicha derivating from gyokuro manufacturing. In old Kyoto people used to say that the stems of karigane look similar to the driftwood the wild geese use to rest when they want to take a rest over a body of water. I would have to sit down in front of a wild goose doing that while I enjoy a freshly made cup of karigane in order to see the similitude.

Decocted green tea

Sencha 煎茶 Its first kanji can means to boil, to decoct or to infuse among other things. It is the most common type of tea in Japan.

Fukamushicha 深蒸し茶 Its first kanji means deep & its second kanji means steam so its name is very straight forward deep steamed green tea.

Its colour & flavour are really intense due to the amount of time the tea leaves have been steamed for. While other types of teas are steamed for shorter periods of time, less than a minute, fukamushicha is steamed for a minute or longer, it depends on the type of leaves. Bancha 番茶


Its first kanji means coarse since bancha is harvested after sencha, the leaves are more mature, older & tougher, therefore, the tea produced using these leaves is less refined hence its name.

Sannenbancha 三年 番 茶 The first kanji in the name of this type of tea means three whereas the second one means year, so third-year bancha. It isn't exactly quite like that since there are two different verions for this type of tea.

Firstly we have a tea that is made using the cuttings that haven't been trimmed for three years. Secondly, we have those very same cuttings but they have been processed & left to mature for three years before releasing them for sale.

Roasted rice tea

Genmaicha 玄米茶 Its first two kanji form a word together meaning unpolished, unmilled or brown rice. And while nowadays roasted white rice is used to make genmaicha for the most part, in the past the rice that was used was of the unrefined type.

Houjicha 焙じ茶 or ほうじ茶 The first kanji can mean a number of things such as to toast, to grill, to broil, to roast, to scorch. In this particular case, it means to roast & it refers to roasted green tea. While the majority of houjicha is made of bancha, any roasted green tea can be considered houjicha. Kamairicha 釜炒茶

Its first kanji means kettle, cauldron or iron pot & the second one can mean broil, parch, roast or fry. Kamairicha is a green tea processed using an iron kettle in a similar fashion than Chinese teas.

Tamaryokucha 玉緑茶 If you have been paying attention you will recognize the first kanji used in the name of this tea. It's the character used to write ball or jewel & it also appears in the name of gyokuro. The second kanji means green, so all together means ball green tea, due to its shape similar to a compressed ball. Tamaryokucha can be pan-fried or steamed, in both cases, its shape is the same, however, its colour is slightly different. Awabancha 阿波番茶 The first character refers to Awa, a former region in Japan where this type of tea is produced. Its current name is Tokushima, it is a type of post-fermented tea & it literally means bancha from Awa.

Goishicha 碁石茶 The first two characters refer to a piece of a popular game in Japan called go & it resembles this type of tea due to its shape. It is a type of post-fermented tea also from the Tokushima region. Ishizuchi Kurocha 石鎚黒茶

The first two kanji refer to the region this tea is made in Ishizuchi, the last two mean dark tea kurocha. In reality, black tea is called red tea in Asia countries including Japan, post-fermented teas (heicha in Chinese) are known as kurocha.

Konacha 粉茶

The first character means dust or fine powder, konacha comes from the very fine dust leftover from the manufacturing of other types of teas, hence its name.

Widely used in sushi restaurants as a complimentary tea since it is very affordable, its flavour is quite bold & its colour is very rich. It goes well with typical Japanese dishes like sushi, sashimi, tempura... Wakoucha 和紅茶


The first kanji in this name is used to refer to anything that is Japanese, washoku is a great example. The second kanji is the one used for red, as already mentioned in Asia black tea isn't called that but red tea instead. So Japanese black tea.

Did you know the names of any of the tea types listed above? Comment below!

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