Spilling the Tea – About Japanese Tea!

Imagine you are enjoying a warm cup of matcha tea. As you take that first soothing sip, you are reminded of just how important tea is for many people and cultures. And, nowhere is this more evident than in Japan!

Sip. Ever since tea showed up on Japan’s shores hundreds of years ago, you muse, Japan has created tea houses, tea rituals, and specific tea tools. All of these aspects point to tea’s significance in Japanese culture – especially since they are still used today!

Up until now, Japanese tea culture is still highly promoted in society. | Photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO on Unsplash

Sip. But, surely there’s more to Japanese tea than that, right? After all, as someone interested in Japan, you already know about the amazing matcha and the famous tea ceremony. Surely, you hope, there’s something else to learn about Japanese tea.

Sip. Oh? What’s this? The taste has suddenly changed! It turns out that there is more depth to this flavor – and topic – than you may have thought! Settle into your seat, and get ready to see what wonders the world of Japanese tea has in store for you!

Jump To:

History of Japanese Tea

Current Japanese Tea Culture

Types of Japanese Tea

Green Tea

  1. Sencha
  2. Genmaicha
  3. Hojicha
  4. Matcha

Non-Tea Tea

  1. Konbucha
  2. Mugicha
  3. Sakura-cha

Take a Sip: Trying Japanese Tea for Yourself

Brewing Japanese Tea at Home

Getting the Real Experience


History of Japanese Tea

         Before we get into the current culture of tea, different types of tea, and tips for enjoying Japanese tea at home, we first need to explore how tea came to Japan in the first place!

The Seeds are Planted

Who would have guessed, a diplomatic mission became the start of Japanese tea culture. | Photo by Timothy Newman on Unsplash

         The very beginnings of Japanese tea actually start in China! During the Nara Period (710-794 AD) and onward, Japan started sending diplomatic missions to China in order to find out more about Chinese art, government, and culture1. And, part of these findings would include tea! For, in 805 and 805, two Buddhist monks called Kuukai and Saichou came back from their missions to China with more than just information1.

         Either Kuukai, Saichou, or both of them are thought to have been the first ones to bring tea seeds back to Japan. Kuukai, who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism, and Saichou, who founded the Tendai sect, both incorporated tea into their religious practices1. Tea then grew in importance and practice among the Buddhist monks. Around 815, a Buddhist abbot actually served the-Emperor Saga a cup of green tea; the emperor, who loved all things Chinese, enjoyed the drink so much that he ordered five tea plantations to be started near the then-capital of Kyoto2. (That must have been one good cup of tea!)

         From then on, tea was routinely enjoyed by the Buddhist monks, members of the royal family, and some members of nobility1. But, this would soon change…

Sprouting into Popularity

Back in the days, tea was believed to give a lot of benefits for the body. | Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

         The rise of tea’s popularity for everyone in Japan is generally attributed to one person: the Zen Buddhist monk Eisai1. In 1211, Eisai wrote Japan’s first treatise on tea, called 喫茶養生記 (Kissa Youjouki) or Drink Tea and Prolong Life1. This work described the numerous health benefits that tea was said to have, such as curing heart issues, lupus, fatigue, and more3. In 1214, Eisai presented a copy of his book to the shogun Minamoto no Sanetomo, as well as served him a cup of tea during a terrible hangover!4 He also introduced tea to many in the new warrior class of Samurai1. These actions boosted tea consumption among the upper class, but Eisai wasn’t done yet.

         As mentioned before, Eisai was a member of the Zen Buddhist sect. He, along with others such as the monk Dougen, popularized this sect and prompted many (especially Samurai) to begin practicing it3. Tea is central to the Zen belief, and, with more and more people practicing Zen, the demand for green tea skyrocketed. As a result, more tea fields were planted, prices went lower, and more people of all classes were able to enjoy tea! (You could say that this was a beau-TEA-ful time in Japanese tea history!)

         By this point, tea was definitely here to stay, but it wasn’t going to stay the same…

Full-Grown Obsession

         As tea was enjoyed by more diverse groups of people, the way that tea was shared changed as well. For one thing, in the 1300s 鬥茶 (toucha) or tea competitions were started; competitions consisted of attempting to identify where a particular tea was grown5. These tea competitions usually included lots of betting, food, and lavish decorations – very different from the tea usage in Zen6!

         In the 1400s, the first formal tea room was constructed by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa; this room was the first to incorporate the tatami flooring, simple décor, and plain utensils that were later used in the famous tea ceremony in the 1500s4. (You can learn more about the tea ceremony here. The tea ceremony, known for its rigid rules and rituals, held a firm grip on how tea was consumed until the 1600s.

The culture have it’s own arts and sets of rules. | Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

         In the 1600s during the Tokugawa era, tea underwent even more changes. Up until this point, Japan usually made tea in the form of  団茶 (dancha), or brick tea, since that was what was common in China7. Brick tea consisted of steamed, roasted, then compressed tea leaves that were shaped into a dense brick form; this brick was then grinded into a powder and whisked into a foam before being served8. (This brick form is what inspired the powdered matcha that we all know and love today!) However, Japan then heard about something new China was doing – steeping loose leaf tea in hot water9! This new way of consuming tea quickly gained popularity, as some (such as the monk Baisao) were tired of the strict rituals of the tea ceremony and wanted to promote a more care-free method4.

         Today, tea (in both its powdered and steeped forms) continues to be a popular drink in Japan and is consumed in a variety of ways. But, how does it factor into today’s culture?

Current Japanese Tea Culture

You can still find these tea houses around Tokyo. | Photo by Filiz Elaerts on Unsplash

         As you might expect, tea still plays an important part in Japanese culture. It’s often served as an after-meal refreshment, and has recently become popular as an ingredient in lattes, sweets, baked goods, and more. Instead of brewing tea at home, many young people tend to drink bottled teas or go out to new, trendy teahouses16. Going to teahouses is often a fun way to experience a cozy atmosphere while also trying out new teas!16

         Of course, the older rituals (such as the tea ceremony) are still practiced; in fact, the tea ceremony has started to be promoted as an integral part of traditional Japanese culture and is performed for tourists and diplomats alike. Tea is also still a typical omiyage gift, especially if you went to an area famous for its tea such as Kyoto.

Now that we know tea’s history and current status, let’s see some of the diverse tea types that Japan has cultivated over the years!

Types of Japanese Tea

Green Tea

         Green tea is the most popular type of tea in Japan. Not only is this because it has a long history in the area, but also because there are so many different types of green tea! Below are just a few of the most popular ones; it’s hard to list them all!


If you see a product labeled as “Japanese Green Tea”, it’s probably Sencha! | Photo by Laårk Boshoff on Unsplash

Sencha is the most popular type of green tea in Japan10. Sencha was the first type of tea to be made from loose-leaf teas; in fact, the name sencha even comes from the combination of 煎 (sen), which means “infusion”11 and 茶 (cha), which means “tea”12! This tea, which has a good “balance of sweetness, bitterness, and astringency,” is steamed, rolled up into a line, then dried10. You can steam the leaves for different amounts of time as well, resulting in different flavors!10


A bit more uncommon, genmaicha is one kind of Japanese tea you have to try! | Photo by Tamara Schipchinskaya on Unsplash

This tea is also a staple in many Japanese households; by adding green tea and toasted white rice, you get a flavor that is both light and nutty.10 The roasting process can sometimes pop the rice, resulting in it looking like popcorn!10 It also usually has a strong rice scent10, so be careful drinking this if you’re hungry! 


Other than matcha, you can easily find hojicha in Japan | Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

Hojicha is a bit different from other green teas. Hojicha is actually green tea that has been roasted again after it has been dried; this gives the tea a rustic brown color and a strong toasted smell10. It also means that instead of tasting like a typical green tea, it has a “bold, earthy flavor” with a hint of natural sweetness10. And, similar to sencha, hojicha can be roasted for different amounts of time to give you plenty of different flavors!10


You’ve most probably tried this kind of Japanese Tea! | Photo by Matcha & CO on Unsplash

Of course, we have to mention the most famous kind of Japanese green tea! Matcha is the oldest type of green tea in Japan10; it’s a direct result of the brick tea that was initially brought over to Japan from China! The dried leaves are ground into a fine green powder that has a sweet, yet umami taste10. Matcha can be used in a variety of ways, from being drunk in the tea ceremony to baked into sweets to being pounded into mochi!

Non-Tea Teas

         Despite also being called “tea,” these other popular drinks aren’t made from tea leaves at all! However, these beverages are enjoyed and loved just as much as the green teas listed above.


Have you ever thought trying tea with Kelp? | Photo by Kier in Sight Archives on Unsplash

While it’s also known as kombucha, this isn’t that fermented drink that was popular a while ago. Konbucha is actually dried and powdered kombu seaweed that is mixed into hot water just like matcha!13 Instead of the earthy flavors you normally associate with tea, this variety has a strong umami taste similar to a hearty chicken broth. Ume plums are sometimes added to the kombu to give the tea a “salty/sour quality.”13


With a unique flavor note, mugicha could easily be recognized by many. | Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Mugicha consists of roasted ground barley, and is popular not just in Japan, but also Korea and China!13 The roasted barley gives the drink a hearty, earthy flavor that is hard to replicate. Mugicha is most popular in the summer, when it’s enjoyed as an iced tea, but you can also enjoy it warm as well13. It’s also caffeine-free!


If you’re in Japan during spring time, be sure to try this one! | Photo by Oksana Zub on Unsplash

You might have already guessed by the name, but sakura-cha is made from cherry blossom petals! Because of this, it’s usually only enjoyed during the spring when you can fully appreciate the delicate, floral tones. In fact, school children often make sakura-cha as gifts to give to others around this time. But beware – lots of salt is added to keep the blossoms fresh, so make sure to wash the petals thoroughly before adding any to your hot water!

Take a Sip: Trying Japanese Tea for Yourself

Brewing Japanese Tea at Home

         The simplest way to enjoy Japanese tea for yourself is to make some at home! While generally you can make Japanese tea the same way as any other tea, there are some key aspects that can help you both get the most out of your beverage and to experience more of the Japanese culture.

Be sure to wisely choose your tea time to compliment your Japanese tea! | Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Times and Temperatures: Just like other teas, Japanese teas all have different water temperatures and steeping times that, when used together correctly, will make the flavors pop! These differences can be drastic, even among similar tea types; you can learn more about this and get step-by-step instructions here

Tea Time Snacks: No cup of tea is complete without something sweet to go with it! In Japan, green tea is usually accompanied by a type of sweet called a wagashi. If you’ve never heard of that before, no worries: we already have a whole article about it! But, if you don’t have access to wagashi, your favorite sweet will also do the trick!

Not only it should be pleasing to the taste, it should also be pleasing for the eyes. | Photo by Desi Dermz. on Unsplash

TEA-rific Teaware: Sometimes, tea is only as good as what you use to make it. Traditionally, Japanese tea (except for matcha) is made in a kyusu, a small teapot usually found with a handle on the side, or a dobin, where the handle is made of a different material from the rest of the pot14. You’ll pour the tea into a chawan (or tea cup), and store loose-leaf tea in a chazutsu (an air-tight container)15. Matcha, on the other hand, is usually whisked using a chasen (or bamboo whisk) directly in the matcha-chawan (a wider tea cup) after gathering just the right amount with a chashaku (matcha scoop)15. Using any of these items is sure to enhance both the taste and your experience!

Getting the Real Experience

Alternatively, you could also go somewhere known for its Japanese tea, such as the charming Nakashima No Ochaya,café in Chuo, or Suzukien, Asakusa, where you can also try the world’s strongest matcha ice cream!

With Coto, you can have the ultimate Japanese tea culture experience!

         But, the best option of all would be going somewhere that knows the ins and outs of Japanese tea! We here at Coto Academy have just begun offering Culture Courses, and one of these courses is the chance to experience a real tea ceremony with a tea master! Set on the premises of the Engaku-ji temple in Kamakura, you can discover even more about the spiritual, artistic, and historical context of Japanese tea. Join other tea-lovers like yourself, sit on the calming tatami mats, and see the world of Japanese tea come to life!

Afterwards, if you find yourself wanting to experience even more of Japanese culture, no worries: our other Culture Courses have you covered! Immerse yourself in the world of Noh theater, drum it up with a Taiko class, burn away stress with traditional incense, and do lots more when you join our courses!


Hope you liked the spilled tea! | Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

         Now your tea is all gone; only the faint scent of matcha remains. But, what hasn’t left is your love and curiosity of Japanese tea. Through seeing how tea came from China and established itself in the religions and daily habits of Japanese people, you saw how rich tea’s history is in Japan. By realizing just how many varieties of tea are around now and how important tea is in Japanese culture, you’ve learned why tea has the status it does in society. And, through taking a glance at how to make tea at home or even go out to experience it, you are inspired to learn even more.

So, this may not be enough for you – you may find yourself pouring another cup, taking another sip, and continuing to explore all that Japanese tea has to offer; we hope that what you find on your journey satisfies both your curiosity and your taste buds!


Q: Is tea native to Japan?

A: No, tea was actually brought over from China in the early 800s.

Q: What are some of the popular teas in Japan?

A: Sencha is the most popular, followed by genmaicha, matcha, mugicha, and others!


1.      Heiss, Mary Lou, and Robert J. Heiss. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press, 2007.

2.      Chow, Kit Boey, and Ione Kramer. All the Tea in China. China Books, 1990.

3.      Anderson, Jennifer Lea. An Introduction to Japanese Tea Ritual. SUNY Press, 1991.

4.      Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh. The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson, 2009.

5.      Murai, Yasuhiko. “The Development of Chanoyu“. In Varley, H. Paul, and Kumakura Isao (eds.), Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

6.      Varley, H. Paul, et al. (eds.). Japan in the Muromachi Age. University of California Press, 1977.

7.      Saberi, Helen. Tea: A Global History. Reaktion Books, 2010.

8.      Benn, James A. Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History. Hong Kong University Press, 2015.

9.      Graham, Patricia Jane. Tea of the Sages: The Art of Sencha, University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

10.  Sugimoto Tea. “Learn About the Different Varieties of Japanese Tea.” www.sugimotousa.com/japanese-tea-varieties.

11.  “煎.” Jisho.org. 2023. jisho.org/word/%E7%85%8E.

12.  “茶.”Jisho.org. 2023. jisho.org/word/%E8%8C%B6.

13.  Japan Centre. “Japanese tea guide: what is Japanese tea?” www.japancentre.com/en/page/52-japanese-tea.

14.  TeaLife. “The Ultimate Guide to Kyusu & Dobin.” japanesetea.sg/japanese-tea-pedia/kyusu-and-dobin/.

15.  —. “The Traditional Japanese Tea Tools and Teaware.” japanesetea.sg/japanese-tea-pedia/tools/.

16.  Global Japanese Tea Association. “Japanese Tea Culture.” gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-culture/

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