Japanese Sencha: Crash-Course in Tea from Japan

A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese sencha

Like its name suggests, Japanese sencha (or 煎茶 ) is a Japanese green tea thoroughly enjoyed and consumed all throughout Japan.  It’s by far the most popular beverage of the nation.  The majority of tea cultivated in Japan ends up as sencha tea.

So what exactly is sencha?  In this article, we’ll explore the topic of Japanese sencha.  We’ll examine where it comes from, how it’s processed/prepared, as well as the different types and classes of the drink.

Where does Japanese sencha come from?

Japanese sencha is grown in (you guessed it) Japan.  Tea is grown throughout the nation.  However, southern regions begin the harvest earlier in the year thanks to milder winters.  The “tea picking area” slowly expands northward as the year progresses and temperatures rise during spring.

Tea leaves are picked several times during the growing season. The first couple of harvests are regarded as having the best leaves.  This is because the tea plant stores nutrients within itself during the cold winter months.  In early spring, the new leaves which grow contain a higher concentration of these nutrients. This is supposed to be beneficial to one’s health.

When purchasing Japanese sencha, the region (or prefecture) that the leaves originate from will often be disclosed.  All types of Japanese sencha are derived from the same plant (the Camellia sinensis tea plant).  Different regions have slightly different harvest times or processing methods, which result in slight taste variations.


How is Japanese sencha processed & prepared?

By definition, Japanese sencha is grown in direct sunlight.  The leaves then undergo a steaming procedure unique to Japanese tea.  Chinese teas, meanwhile, are usually pan-fired.  The amount of time the leaves are steamed allow for variations in final product.  Likewise, teas grown in partial or full shade are named differently.

One important criteria which has a significant effect on the taste and overall quality of Japanese sencha is the harvest time of the leaves.  Earlier harvest are better quality leaves. Harvests from later in the year generally provide a more robust and less delicate flavour than earlier harvests.

When prepared for consumption, the tea liquid should be a bright green/golden yellow colour.  The flavour of Japanese sencha is vegetal and somewhat bitter.  This differs considerably from other green teas (such as Chinese).  Japanese sencha tends to have moderate to high levels of caffeine. It’s a great way to wake up and feel alert in the morning!

Classifying Sencha tea types

Different types of Japanese sencha have different naming conventions and grades.  This is mostly a reflection of when the leaves were picked.

Leaves picked during the first harvest are called shincha 新茶 or ichibancha 一番茶.  This tea has the most nutrients and the leaves are very thin, like pine needles.  This sencha is very fresh and grassy in taste.  Shincha is generally available beginning in April through to May.  Harvests begin first in the South and move farther north as temperatures allow.

A special type of tea known as hachijuhachiya sencha (八十八夜) is picked 88 days after the start of Spring.  In Japan, this occurs in early February.  This falls under shincha/ichibancha but specifically references 88 days after spring starts.

Superior grade sencha is called Jô Sencha (上煎茶), while extra superior grade is known as toku jô sencha (特上煎茶).

There are also different naming conventions based on the method of processing.  This relates to the degree of steaming the leaves undergo:

  • Asamushi 浅蒸し is lightly steamed sencha (less than 30 seconds)
  • Chumushi 中蒸し is middle steamed sencha (30 to 90 seconds)
  • Fukamushi 深蒸し is deep steamed sencha (around 1 to 2 minutes of steaming)

These different classes also contribute to the flavour of the tea.  Heavier steaming results in a more “in your face” and sharper flavour.  Lighter steams usually equate to lighter and more delicate tea flavours.

Japanese sencha can be enjoyed with or without food -- seen here paired with sushi!

Japanese sencha can be enjoyed with or without food — seen here paired with sushi!


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