What’cha drinking today? Green Tea, the icon of Japanese drinks
If one were to pick a drink synonymous with Japan, green tea would likely be the top choice. Not only are there dedicated ceremonies for the right way to prepare and drink green tea, there are also multiple flavours of green tea KitKat, and entire dessert shops themed around green tea.
Yet, how much do you actually know about the Japanese green tea? If you’ve ever walked into a green tea specialty shop for souvenirs, you’ve probably wondered:
“What’s the difference between matcha (抹茶), sencha (煎茶), ocha (お茶), and all the other different types of green tea?”
“Where did it come from, how did it become a part of Japanese culture?”
And most importantly, “Can I lose weight from drinking green tea?”
How did Uji tea get so famous?
Shizuoka (静岡) and Uji (宇治) are some of the most popular tourist destinations for tea, where you can wander through rows and rows of green tea plants. (Image credit: Unsplash / Andreas Dress)
Of all the places in Japan famed for its green tea, none stand out as much as Uji (宇治市 Uji-shi) for its Uji tea (宇治茶 Uji-cha). A small city just to the south of Kyoto (京都 Kyōto), Uji was one of the first places where tea was planted in Japan. A Zen Buddhist monk, Myoan Eisai (明菴栄西), is largely credited for bringing tea seeds from China to Japan in 1191. He planted the first seeds in Kyushu (九州 Kyūshū), before giving some seeds to the abbot of Kozan-ji Temple (高山寺 Kōzan-ji) in Kyoto, who planted them in Toganō (栂尾) and Uji. Toganō tea was originally the most popular variant, so much so that it was named hon-cha (本茶 real tea) and non-Toganō tea was named hi-cha (非茶 non-tea).
However, by the 15th century, Uji tea became more popular than Toganō tea and took over the moniker of hon-cha for Uji tea and hi-cha for non-Uji tea. One of the key factors was that the shoguns at that time period preferred Uji tea over Toganō tea. In particular, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政), an influential shogun of that era, propelled Uji tea into claiming the top spot.
Matcha, the original green tea. Ōbuku (大福) is said to be the first place where green tea plants were planted in Uji. (Image credit: Unsplash / Matcha & CO)
At that time, there was only one form of green tea, which is what we know as matcha (抹茶 powdered tea) today. Matcha involves crushing tea leaves into a powder-like form, and then brewing it in boiling water. Everything was done manually and because it was so precious, only the shogun and nobility could drink matcha.
Subsequently, Nagatani Sōen (永谷宗円) cemented Uji’s place in tea production by inventing the “Ujicha Method” of processing Uji tea in the 18th century. To make green tea more accessible to the common people, he invented a method where tea leaves would be dried and kneaded using heat, which can then be easily brewed using hot water. Tea made in this method would be called sencha (煎茶 simmered tea), and came in a loose-leaf form as opposed to matcha’s powdered form.
How did tea ceremonies become a central part of Japanese culture?
An ukiyo-e (浮世絵 woodblock print) made in the 18th century depicting a small tea gathering underneath sakura blossoms. (Image credit: Unsplash / Library of Congress)
Tea ceremonies (茶道 sadō) got its start as tea gatherings when Zen Buddhist monks used to drink tea to keep awake. Samurai then began holding tea gatherings as a form of socialisation and political tool to have meetings with different clans. It was so common that the Ashikaga Shogunate (足利幕府 Ashikaga Bakufu) banned tea gatherings to prevent clans from forming political alliances to overthrow the government.
A tea ceremony master teaching a student in Suzaka, Nagano. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
The forefather of tea ceremonies is largely considered to be Sen no Rikyū (千利休), the head tea master of regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), who organised tea ceremonies as political gatherings for Toyotomi. His descendants formed the three main schools of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony today. At its height during the Edo Period (1603–1868), the shogun would send horsemen to carry the freshest baskets of tea each year from Uji to Kyoto in a procession called Ocha Tsubo Dōchū (御茶壷道中 Journey of Bestowing Tea).
During the Meiji Period (1868–1912), the abolishment of the samurai system led to tea ceremonies being held by ordinary citizens as well. Geisha (芸者) needed to learn it as part of their training, and young women needed to be well versed in tea ceremonies and ikebana (生け花) to prepare for marriage.
Singaporean students partaking in a tea ceremony demonstration. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Fast forward to modern times, most Japanese students experience a tea ceremony in elementary or high school to impart the idea of taking turns and having consideration of others. Its complicated decorum and rich history have also made it a strong cultural attraction for tourists in Japan.
So… does green tea help you to lose weight?
If you head on to Google and search, “best weight loss drinks”, you’ll probably find green tea high on that list. You might even wonder how something as pedestrian as green tea could possibly lead to weight loss and simply laugh at the notion. Yet, all the way back in 1211, Myoan Eisai actually wrote a book called Kissa Yōjōki (喫茶養生記 Drink Tea and Prolong Life), that claimed drinking tea was good for your health and could prolong your life. At that time, many of the concepts within the book were based on Traditional Chinese medicine, but many modern studies have also found plenty of benefits to drinking green tea.
Is green tea the secret to the low obesity rate of Japan? (Image credit: Unsplash / Motoki Tonn)
This is the part where I rattle off the health benefits of drinking green tea, and you read the list with doubt and suspicion, going “pfft” in your mind. Actually, many of these benefits have been scientifically proven—in particular, let’s look at catechin, a chemical compound present in green tea.
Catechin can inhibit enzyme activity from breaking down starch into glucose, reducing blood glucose levels. Reduced blood glucose is not just good for diabetics, but also for weight loss. Increased blood glucose, increased insulin production, suppressing the breakdown of fats, leading to higher accumulation of fats in the body.
Similarly, catechin actually inhibits your digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol from the food you consume. Cholesterol absorbed by your body eventually gets stored in fatty tissues, so the inhibition of it results in your body metabolising and burning more fats.
Two separate studies conducted on rats examining the effects of green tea found reduced blood glucose levels and body weight independently. So, green tea and weight loss, fact or fiction? It’s up to you to decide—but remember, moderation is key to having a balanced and healthy diet.
Green tea from past to present
The humble drink of green tea has had a long and storied history evolving through the times. From China to Japan, from monks to samurai, from shoguns to civilians, it’s been a long evolution to arrive at the green tea we know and love today. Hopefully, the next time you see an Uji matcha latte in a cafe, you have a greater appreciation of it. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you lose a bit of weight so that you can dig into yet another satisfying matcha parfait.
Bonus: Ocha in JAPAN RAIL CAFE
(Image credit: Unsplash / 蔡 嘉宇)
Something’s brewing this weekend at JAPAN RAIL CAFE! Together with Japan Tea Export Council, join us for an Ocha Weekend Special (6–7 Feb 2021) at JAPAN RAIL CAFE to taste the wonders of Japanese green tea! With every order of the cafe’s JAPAN RAIL CAFE PLATE or Monthly Menu, customers will get to try the Cold Brew Tea on 6 Feb, and the Hot Green Tea on 7 Feb. Plus, you’ll also receive a FREE sample kit of Assorted Green Tea Bags if you visit the Platform 2 counter between 2–4pm on both dates!
This article is written in collaboration with Japan Tea Export Council. For more information on Japanese Tea, please visit o-cha.net.
Header image credit: Unsplash / Bruce Tang