Updated: Sep 2
Would you like to read this post in Spanish? Click here! Have you ever wondered about the similitudes & differences between Chinese & Japanese teas? Yes, me too. It is an interesting topic since both tea cultures are intertwined with one another yet we can encounter a number of distinct attributes. Where was the tea plant discovered? The tea plant was presumably discovered in Yunnan, China, during the reign of the Shang Dynasty. At the time, tea was widely used as a medicinal drink. There is even a very early record from the 3rd century written by Hua Tuo, that mentions tea being used for improving health.
How did the tea arrive in Japan? Japanese priests visited China in a series of missions between the years 607 & 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 the 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 Kūkai & Saichō are believed to have brought 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 begun 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 & how to brew tea.
The history of tea in China & Japan is way more complex than what it has been summarized in the above paragraphs. They are just a mere brief introduction to the shared history before explaining the differences between Japanese & Chinese teas. What are the differences between Japanese & Chinese teas?
The variety typically used to grow Japanese & Chinese teas is the same, Camellia Sinensis Sinensis. An evergreen shrub whose leaves are typically used to produce tea. However, the terroir, the water, the climate, the way the tea is harvested & processed, all of these factors have a direct impact on the final product. The Camellia Sinensis Sinensis leaves are smaller than the Assamica variety ones.
The Japanese teas are green teas for the most part. However, there are also some black teas produced in Japan using the Camellia Sinensis Sinensis variety of the tea plant. Traditionally, black teas have been produced using Assamica instead. As of today, the Japanese are expanding their horizons & producing different tea types far from traditional types of Japanese tea & closer to those types of tea closer that can be found in many other tea producing countries, such as Oolong or White tea but always with a Japanese twist.
Growing: some Japanese teas are covered with a porous material & left in the shadows for up to three weeks before being harvested in order to boost the production of theanine & other amino acids which improve the flavour of the tea. This technique is used to produce high-quality teas such as gyokuro, kabusecha or matcha, & almost exclusively during the springtime using the leaves from the first flush. Chinese teas, on the other hand, are grown without being shaded. Nowadays, the Chinese are also manufacturing matcha & gyokuro teas in their own way. However, many of the matcha teas coming from China aren't shaded & they wouldn't be considered as such by Japanese production standards.
Processing: in the Japanese tea production, the tea leaves are processed immediately after the harvest. The farmers use different techniques to process the leaves depending on the type of tea they want to make. Even though there are some post-fermented teas in Japan, similar to pu erh (such as goisicha) & some of the teas are pan-fried in Chinese style (such as kamairicha), the vast majority of Japanese teas are steamed. They can be steamed once or twice. They can be steamed for a short or long period of time depending on the type of tea to be made. Chinese teas are also processed after having been harvested yet they are pan-fried instead of being steamed. This is a major difference between Japanese & Chinese teas. But there are others like fermentation. It is not usual to come across Japanese teas that have been fermented for very long periods of time, like pu erh.
Brewing: some of the Japanese teas can be brewed more than once using the right amount of water, at the right temperature. It varies, depending on the quality of the tea. In order to be able to enjoy more than one brew, the steeping time & process has to be very precise. In addition, something really important to be taken into account is the quality of the tea. The highest the quality, the more times the tea can be brewed. Many Chinese teas can be brewed multiple times, some can be brewed up to fifteen times, their flavour varies 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 for rinsing the tea leaves. In fact, rinsing Japanese teas before hot brewing them is discouraged since once the leaves are wet, they release the tannins & catechins way faster. Also, Japanese tea leaves are slightly more delicate so the temperature of water used to brew Japanese teas is usually lower than of the water used to brew their Chinese counterparts. Chinese teas need to be rinsed out with warm water before they are ready to be used for brewing, the first brew is typically thrown away. However, I have read in some forums that some Chinese tea drinkers also drink the first brew. It depends on the type of tea to be brewed yet Chinese teas are usually brewed at a higher temperature than Japanese teas.
Producing: while both countries produce a number of high-quality tea types, Japanese teas are lesser-known than Chinese teas in the Western world. One of the main reasons I could think of 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 producing countries list we check, yet Japan is always found far away from the top three tea-producing countries 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 exist in 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 & far in order to source the rarest teas of all. Japan, on the other hand, is a much smaller country. The surface dedicated to tea production is really small compared to China. Less than 13% of Japanese land is dedicated to farming & only a portion of this land is devoted to tea cultivation, about 43 hectares. This might vary from year to year depending on how many tea farmers are still active & also the weather conditions among other things. This is just a brief comparison between the teas from the two countries dedicated to those of you who are about or have just started drinking Japanese teas. Thousands of books could be written talking wide and long about the differences between Japanese & Chinese teas. With this article, I do not mean to imply that the Japanese teas are better than Chinese ones. They are different & can be enjoyed by everyone alike. At the end of the day, it is a matter of preference.
For me, the Japanese teas are the hidden gem among teas, precious jewels waiting to be discovered by passionate tea lovers like you & me, all around the world. Would you like me to add more information to this article? Share your thoughts below! PLEASE READ! The aim of this blog is to help you to improve your Japanese tea knowledge one article at a time. If you enjoyed this post don't forget to hit like (the little heart bottom right) & consider to subscribe to the blog so you don't miss any of the future posts. You can also find me on Instagram (daily Japanese tea-based pairings plus occasional giveaways) & Tik Tok (Japanese tea-based drinks.) The Spanish version of this article should be released at some point on the Spanish blog. And if you haven't done so, subscribe to the newsletter and get 10% OFF from your first order. Shipping within the EU currently.
Keep sipping on great organic whole leaf Japanese teas! Until next Monday!