Most Popular Teas in Japan

One of the first things that caught my attention when I arrived for the first time to Japan was that many people drank bottled green tea:

Ocha
Suntory and Coca-Cola are two of the largest bottled green tea producers in Japan.

Soon, my curiosity lead me to a drinks vending machine in Shibuya, and instead of buying the usual Coca-Cola or Aquarius I pressed one of the buttons that gave me one of the green teas offered. I was expecting a flavor similar to Nestea, but my surprise was that my first gulp tasted bitter, very bitter, it had no sugar at all…. “Yuck!!”

After a while, after having drunk a lot of green tea and having “learned” how to appreciate its flavor, I was on a trip to San Francisco and I decided to order some Nestea. I tried it and… “Yuck!! This is water with sugar!”. And that’s how I became a fan of unsweetened green tea.

Japanese green tea plantation with Mount Fuji
Photo by Ippei Janine

Green Tea, Ocha お茶

In Chinese as well as in Japanese the character 茶 means “tea”. In Japanese it is pronounced “cha” and in Chinese I think it’s something similar. The word ocha お茶 is used to refer to green tea. The kind of green tea depends on the season the tea is harvested, how the leaves are dried and the time they are exposed to the sun:

  • Sencha (煎茶): it is the most drunk kind of green tea in Japan. If the leaves are from the first harvest (April-May) it is shincha (a lighter kind of green), if the leaves are from the Summer harvest it is bancha. A very popular kind of bancha is hōjicha (ほうじ茶); which is differentiated from normal bancha by its roasting process, it’s one of the softest green teas and it is usually served at midday along meals. It is the tea usually served for free in Japanese restaurants, it has a light brownish color.
  • Gyokuro (玉露): it is considered a kind of green tea of great quality and considerably more expensive than sencha. During the weeks before the harvest, tea plants are covered so that they are not exposed to sunlight, in this way the amount of theine and caffeine in the leaves increases. It has a darker color than sencha.

    ocha

  • Matcha: green tea in powder form that is soluble in hot water. It is the one used in the tea ceremony. It has a much stronger taste than sencha and gyokuro. Some people can’t stand such a strong flavor but I love it.

    green tea

  • Ulongcha

    It is a kind of tea originally from China which has much less caffeine than green tea. It is usually drunk as a refreshing drink in summer. Due to its low caffeine content it is one of the drinks chosen during nights for those that want to go to sleep soon.


    The darkest bottle is ulongcha.

    Cereal Teas

    Mugicha (barley tea) is exclusively made out of barley, so it doesn’t contain caffeine. Genmaicha is made mixing roasted rice and green tea leaves. Both have a yellowish color.

    Black Tea, Kocha (紅茶)

    It is the kind of tea that we drink in Europe and it is the only one in Japan in which it is allowed to put sugar or sugar substitutes.

    Other kinds of Tea

    In coffee shops many different kinds of international teas are offered. Lately an African tea, ruibos, is becoming really popular. Chai, jasmine tea and camomile tea are also widely known; being chai one of the favorite teas of Japanese girls.

    tea in japan

2 Comments
  • YTSL

    December 3, 2011 at 5:33 am

    Hi there —

    From what I know, all the words in the world for tea are actually derivatives of the word for tea in two Chinese languages/dialects: Cantonese and Hokkien (aka Fukienese or Fujianese) — because the drinking of tea was invented in China and tea was first traded internationally in the Chinese ports where Cantonese or Hokkien were the dominant languages/dialects.

    FYI, “cha” is the Cantonese word for tea as well as the Japanese one. And from cha comes the Indian “chai”, the identical in Kiswahili “chai”, etc.

    The Hokkien word for tea is pronounced as “teh”. That’s where the English word for tea comes from, the Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia “teh”, etc.

    Oh, and what you spelt as ulongcha is oolong cha/tea to Chinese and English speakers respectively — and the best tea leaves of this variety are supposed to come from Fujian province and/or Taiwan (where a variant of Hokkien is spoken). 🙂

  • suzywuzy

    December 4, 2011 at 8:21 am

    How do vegetarians cope in Japan?