The tea plant was presumably discovered in Yunnan, China, during the reign of the Shang Dinasty. It was widely used as a medicinal drink. There is a very early record from the 3rd century written by Hua Tuo, that mentions tea being used for improving health.
Japanese priests visited China in a series of missions between the years 607 and 839, in order to learn about the Chinese culture. It is believed that these monks introduced tea into Japan on their way back to the country. It is highly likely that first tea tasted in Japan was from a tea a brick since this is how tea was manufactured in China at the time. Buddhist monks Kukai and Saicho are believed to have bring tea seeds to Japan for the first time. At first, tea was enjoyed only by the religious classes in Japan. The emperor Saga encouraged the growth of tea plants, this is how the nobility in Japan started to consume tea. Within the 12th century, tea became widely popular after the publication of Kissa Yojoki written by the monk Eisai. A narration about the tea usage in China during his visit along with its health benefits and how to brew tea.
The history of tea in China and Japan is way more complex than what it has been summarized in the above paragraphs. They are a brief introduction into the matter before explaining the differences between Japanese and Chinese teas.
The variety typically used to grow Japanese and Chinese teas is the same, Camellia Sinensis Sinensis. An evergreen shrub whose leaves are used to produce tea. However, the terroir, the water, the climate, the way the tea is harvested and processed, all have a direct impact in the final product. Camellia Sinensis Sinensis leaves are smaller than the Assamica variety ones.
Japanese teas are mainly green teas, there are however some black teas produced in Japan using the Camellia Sinensis Sinensis variety, usually black teas are produced using Assamica instead. Currently, the Japanese are expanding their horizons and producing different tea types similar to those that can be found in other countries, such as Oolong or White tea but with a Japanese twist.
Growing: Some Japanese teas are covered with a porous material and left in the shadows for up to three weeks before being harvested in order to boost the production of theanine and other amino acids which improve tea flavour. This technique is used to produce high quality teas such as gyokuro, kabusecha and matcha and almost exclusively for their first flush during the spring time. Chinese teas on the other hand, are grown without being shaded.
Processing: After the Japanese tea leaves have been harvested, they are processed using different techniques depending of the type of tea to be produced. Even though there are some fermented teas in Japan similar to pu erh (goisicha) and some of the teas are pan fried in Chinese style (kamairicha), the vast majority of Japanese teas are steamed. They can be steamed once or twice and they can be steamed for a short or long period of time depending of the type of tea. Chinese teas are also processed after having been harvested yet they are pan fried instead being steamed. This is a major difference between Japanese and Chinese teas.
Brewing: Some Japanese teas can be brewed more than once using the right amount of water, at the right temperature. In order to be able to enjoy more than one brew, the steeping time and process has to be very precise. Also something worth to be taken into account is the quality of the tea. The highest the quality, the more times the tea can be brewed. Chinese teas can be brewed multiple times, some can be brewed up to fifteen times, their flavour vary greatly from one brew to the next.
Rinsing: Japanese teas do not need to be rinsed out. They can be brewed straight away without the need of rinsing the tea leaves. Also Japanese tea leaves are more delicate so the temperature of water used to brew Japanese tea is usually lower than the one used to brew their Chinese counterparts. Chinese teas need to be rinsed out with warm water before they are ready to be drunk, the first brew is thrown away. It usually depends on the type of tea to be brewed yet Chinese teas are brewed at a higher temperature than Japanese teas.
Producing: While both countries produce high quality tea types, Japanese teas have been lesser known than Chinese teas in the Western world. One of the main reasons is the amount of tea produced by each country. China is the number one tea producer in the world, followed by India in the second place. It depends on the tea producers list we have a look at, usually Japan is found far away from the top three countries that produce tea worldwide.
China is a large country, the amount of tea types cultivated in China is so vast that even the Chinese government does not know for certain how many types of tea are produced within the country. Some teas are produced locally, well hidden from the known path, only consumed by people from around the region or adventurous tea heads willing to travel deep and far in order to source the rarest of all tea types. Japan on the other hand is a way smaller country. The surface dedicated to tea production is really small compared to China. Less than 13% of Japanese land is dedicated to farming and only a portion of this land is devoted to tea about 43 hectares. This might vary from year to year depending on how many tea farmers are active and weather conditions among other things. This is by no means a brief comparison for those who are about or have just started drinking Japanese teas. Thousands of books could be written talking about wide and long the differences between Japanese and Chinese teas. With it I do not mean to imply that Japanese are better than Chinese ones. They are different and can be enjoyed by everyone alike. At the end of the day, it is a matter of preference.
Japanese teas are a hidden gem among teas, jewels awaiting to be discovered by passionate tea lovers like me, like you, all around the world. Would you like to add more information to this article? Share your thoughts below!