Tea is the most popular beverage in Japan and an important part of Japanese food culture. Various types of tea are widely available and consumed at any point of the day. Green tea is the most common type of tea, and when someone mentions "tea" (お茶, ocha) without specifying the type, it is green tea to which is referred. Green tea is also the central element of the tea ceremony. Among the most famous places for tea cultivation are Shizuoka, Kagoshima and Uji.

The following is a list of the main varieties of tea that are popularly consumed in Japan:

Tea from tea plant

  • Ryokucha (green tea): gyokuro, sencha, bancha
  • Matcha (powdered green tea)
  • Konacha (residual green tea)
  • Hojicha (roasted green tea)
  • Genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice)
  • Oolongcha (a type of Chinese tea)
  • Kocha (black tea)
  • Jasmine-cha (tea with jasmine flowers)

Tea not from tea plant

  • Mugicha (barley tea)
  • Kombucha (kelp tea)

Where tea can be found

Tea of one kind or another, hot or cold, can be found practically at all restaurants, vending machines, kiosks, convenience stores and supermarkets.

At restaurants, green tea is often served with or at the end of a meal for free. At lower end restaurants, green tea or mugicha tend to be available free for self-service, while konacha is commonly provided at inexpensive sushi restaurants. Kocha (black tea) is usually available alongside coffee at cafes and Western restaurants.

At some temples and gardens, tea (usually ryokucha or matcha) is served to tourists. The tea is typically served in a tranquil tatami room with views onto beautiful scenery, often together with an accompanying Japanese sweet. While the tea is sometimes included in the temple's or garden's admission fee, it more often requires a separate fee of a few hundred yen.

Last but not least, many types of tea are sold in PET bottles and cans at stores and vending machines across Japan. They are available both hot or cold, although hot tea is less widely available during the summer months, especially at vending machines.

Japanese tea and a brief history

Tea was introduced to Japan from China in the 700s. During the Nara Period (710-794), tea was a luxury product only available in small amounts to priests and noblemen as a medicinal drink.

Around the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), Eisai, the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, brought back from China the custom of making tea from powdered leaves. Subsequently, the cultivation of tea spread across Japan, notably at Kozanji Temple in Takao and in Uji.

During the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), tea gained popularity among people of all social classes. People gathered in big tea drinking parties and played a guessing game, whereby participants, after drinking from cups of tea, guessed the names of tea and where they came from. Collecting and showing off prized tea utensils was also popular among the affluent.

At about the same time, a more refined version of tea parties developed with Zen-inspired simplicity and a greater emphasis on etiquette and spirituality. These gatherings were attended by only a few people in a small room where the host served the guests tea, allowing greater intimacy. It is from these gatherings that the tea ceremony has its origins.