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Popularity of Traditional Japanese Green Tea Undergoing Revival - 2003-02-17

A new tea was introduced to the world Feb. 14. at the World Green Tea Association's exhibition in Japan. The new variety is known as Benifuuki. Green tea is undergoing a revival that has Japanese producers brewing up profits and praising the properties of one of the world's most popular beverages.

A procession of singing men, clad in the garb of medieval Japanese foot soldiers, slowly marches through the streets of Shizuoka. They are escorting a small carriage, which two of the mock warriors, one in front, one in the rear, hold aloft on their shoulders. Inside the carriage is a prized cargo, a jar containing the first tea leaves of the season, which were placed inside the container months ago.

In a centuries-old ceremony, known as Kuchikiri no Gi, the jar is brought into a civic center on the grounds of the old Shizuoka Castle. There it is opened by a silent tea master, who slowly grinds the leaves into powder, symbolizing the start of a new tea season.

For hundreds of years in Japan, green tea, known as o-cha, has been associated with ritual bordering on the religious. No surprise, really, given that tea was introduced to Japan from China in the 10th century by a Zen Buddhist master.

Not many Japanese these days have the time for a formal tea ceremony, which can take hours, nor a taste for the bitter powdered green tea, known as macha. But Japanese tea, overall, is enjoying a comeback. According to the Japan Soft Drink Industry Association, one and a half million kiloliters of it a year flow down the gullets of eager Japanese tea drinkers.

Sales have tripled since 1997 and it is not just from increased consumption in sushi bars, where o-cha is served free. The boom, in large part, results from putting green tea into bottles and cans, emulating carbonated soft drinks and coffee.

A new sales pitch touts tea's health benefits. For instance, admirers of Benifuuki say those who drink it will suffer less from pollen allergies.

For the weight conscious, there are no calories in tea. But scientists have discovered added benefits. Dr. Yukihiko Hara is one of those researchers, and wrote the leading book on tea, a scientific tome published in English, titled simply "Green Tea."

It outlines the research done on o-cha, which finds evidence of its ability to fight a variety of ailments. Dr. Hara, a vice president of Tokyo Food Techno, says the health benefits primarily come from chemical compounds such as catechins that are found in the tea plant and have a demonstrable effect on many diseases.

"Those lifestyle-related aging diseases mostly and mainly caused by oxidation of the body, tissues, cells, and if we take in catechins, because of, due to their anti-oxidity, those age-related diseases are delayed. It has a very other potent actions against microbials, bacteria, virus, et cetera. Those two are very much remarkable features of tea catechins," he said.

Perhaps that is one reason the Japanese are among the people with the longest life spans.

A less desirable statistic for Japan is that Japanese men are among the heaviest cigarette smokers in the world. Surprisingly, they do not have the high lung cancer rate scientists expect to see among smokers. Dr. Hara thinks drinking green tea may lower incidence of cancer.

"Whereas Japanese take a lot of smokes, but their rate of lung cancer incidence is very low. And many epidemiologists ascribe this to the habit of drinking green tea," he said.

Dr. Hara has been among the researchers taking catechins out of the green tea and putting them in other products.

His company has helped developed an array of goods now on the Japanese market that use catechins, including condoms, candies and even air filters for automobiles.

Green and black tea come from the same plant, known as camelia senensis. But black tea is processed in a way that allows it to quickly oxidize, meaning that it usually has much lower levels of those precious catechins that Dr. Hara and other researchers rave about.

The highest quality green tea, a mild variety known as gyokuro that is grown under the shade of straw mats, has the highest level of catechins. It costs about $30 for a 100-gram package.

Premium green teas are beginning to carry labels declaring their levels of various organic compounds and certifying them free from pesticides. They compete for medals and ribbons, akin to those given to wines.

Professor Nobuo Tsuihiji specializes in scientific tea certification. At the Shizuoka Tea Festival, he explained that it is the ordinary drinker's subjective opinion that makes a certain region's tea a hit.

The professor says the tea grown in the mountains of Shizuoka during the summer is consistently among the award-winners. He says what the drinkers notice most is its mild taste and subtle aromas.

All of the positive scientific findings about green tea, which are publicized in magazine articles and on television talk shows, have younger Japanese wanting to learn more about the nation's traditional drink. They are turning to a new breed of experts such as Takau Masamitsu, a third-generation teashop proprietor.

Mr. Masamitsu, who also has written a book devoted to o-cha, grumbles about the new-fangled bottled green tea. He says much of it tastes like soap not tea. He prefers to stick to serving tea the old fashioned way, brewed hot from leaves that have been steamed, rolled and dried.

The tea master tells his young students not to be concerned with the highly ritualized tea ceremonies. Instead, he says, make o-cha in a way that can be quickly enjoyed in a modern society where green tea competes with many other beverages to quench thirsts.

"I heard from them that, yeh, 'you like Japanese tea?', 'uh so-so [they say] and I like Japanese tea and coffee and herb tea, too.' The Japanese tea is one of many teas for them, but the older generation, the Japanese tea is the only one drink, every time, every day, they drink Japanese tea without coffee or any other tea," he said.

Many Japanese, young and old, say they prefer green tea to coffee because it calms their mind while keeping them alert without the nervous feeling the caffeine in coffee can produce. Green tea does contain a liberal dose of caffeine, but researchers say it appears that o-cha's most abundant amino acid, theanine, reduces the negative effect of caffeine.

Tea master Masamitsu says despite all the feel-good effects, few non-Japanese have learned to appreciate green tea. He has visited tea outlets in the United States and Europe, and he contends that most shops selling green tea outside Japan have an inferior product, because it quickly loses its quality if not properly stored.

"They sell the Japanese tea with a can and measuring directly from can to packet. Every Japanese tea is quality bad. But they don't notice that the quality is bad," he said.

He says that is because they probably have never tasted quality green tea, which he insists should be vacuum packed if it is being transported a long distance. Mr. Masamitsu also says foreigners do not know how to make a good cup, which is to serve it not too strong nor too hot.

He says it should be brewed for only a minute or so in water that is a bit under 90 degrees Celsius. Use only a small amount of o-cha, he says, about five grams for a serving that should be poured into three small Japanese tea cups.

But Mr. Masamitsu really has only one cardinal rule about drinking green tea, which he says he constantly repeats to unenlightened Americans and Europeans during his seminars overseas.

"Please don't put into the tea, the sugar or milk in the Japanese green tea," he said.

That is probably good advice beyond just etiquette as one of the other documented health benefits of green tea is preventing tooth decay.