Japanese vs Chinese Green Tea: What’s the Difference?

by Flora Baker

The idea of Japanese vs Chinese green tea – ie that there’s a competition between the two versions – is an understandable one. 

There are over 1500 varieties of green tea grown and brewed around the world and, surprisingly enough, they all stem from the same plant! The camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea plant, is actually used for all types of tea: we’re talking black, white, and oolong, alongside the  green version. 

But as you no doubt know, Japan and China both favor green tea in particular, and both countries grow and produce their own versions of green tea. From the tea leaf’s shape, color, and taste to the way it’s grown, picked, brewed and even drunk, there are a surprising amount of similarities and differences between the two. Let’s find out what they are! 

The History of Green Tea: Where Did It First Come From? 

Japanese and Chinese green tea

Your first question might well be: is green tea Chinese or Japanese? 

It’s common knowledge that green tea originated in China. Though the exact period is lost to the mists of time, we do know that green tea has been around for over five thousand years, because the first documented use of green tea appears in a tea-focused book written by Lu Yu in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). 

When green tea eventually came to Japan in around 800 AD, it was via Japanese Buddhist monks who had been studying overseas in China. After regularly drinking tea to stay awake during meditation sessions, it was a no-brainer to bring the flavorful leaves home with them. 

To begin with, green tea was enjoyed only by the high classes in both Japan and China. But as time went by, the drink became more accessible: By the 16th century the Japanese tea ceremony had been established, and a tea-drinking culture duly sprung up, in ritualistic, ceremonial, social and personal forms. 

The Culture of Green Tea: How Is The Beverage Viewed Today? 

So why has green tea remained so popular in both China and Japan for so many centuries? Perhaps it’s because of the tranquil atmosphere that the brewing and drinking process creates. Taking time to enjoy a cup of green tea facilitates a moment of peace and calm – and it’s also hard to escape a nationwide habit! 
 In Japan, most people will drink a cup of green tea multiple times a day, and enjoy green tea flavors in much of their cuisine (matcha is a nationwide obsession, flavoring everything from Matcha cake and ice cream to matcha daifuku mochi).

Green tea in China is also consumed regularly by the majority of the population. It also has a firm place in traditional medicine, and is widely touted for its health benefits. 

Many people wonder whether Japanese green tea is better than Chinese, as aside from its cultural importance, there are a multitude of health benefits that come from drinking green tea. The antioxidants found in the leaves are wonderful for managing weight, helping with digestion and headaches, aiding gut health and improving mood and mental acuity.  

Both countries produce exceptional quality tea, although the way it’s prepared and served differs between the countries too. We’ve divided up this information so as to make it perfectly clear to grasp the differences. 

How is Green Tea Grown and Harvested in China versus Japan? 

Growing and harvesting green tea hasn’t changed much over the centuries. In both China and Japan the tea leaves are still hand-picked in many regions, usually just the delicate ‘terminal bud’ and a few leaves beneath it.

This harvest usually takes place during spring and early summer, though it depends on weather and changing temperatures. The pruning of tea plants is also an important part of the process, allowing new shoots to emerge. 

How is Green Tea Processed in China versus Japan? 

Before green tea reaches the teacup, it needs to be processed. 
Processing green tea happens extremely quickly, within the first 24 hours after harvesting – and it basically involves being cooked. That infamous green color is due to the chlorophyll in the leaves, so heat is applied to the unrolled tea leaves before they have a chance to oxidize and fade from green to brown. 

Dry heat is the more globally used method, which is what occurs in China. This method involves a wok or pan, which creates a lightly roasted, sweet and floral aroma and taste. It’s generally a hotter heat too. 

However, Japanese green tea is steamed – i.e. a wet heat – which duly affects the flavor profile of the resulting tea. It’s astringent, somewhat savory, a little grassy and vegetal. It can taste bitter if it’s over-brewed. 

In fact, the most significant difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea is in this part of the process. 

After they’ve been heated, the green tea leaves are further processed into the form they’ll be brewed in. In China, this is an artful aspect: the leaves are manipulated into all kinds of shapes, like flattened feathers (Long jing tea), pearl-sized balls (jasmine tea) or tiny spirals (bi luo chun tea). 

However, Japanese green tea is usually reduced to powder form (matcha tea) or rolled into straight needles (sencha tea), which is less aesthetically varied. 

How is Green Tea Served in China versus Japan? 

When serving green tea in both China and Japan, there are specific rules that must be adhered to – though these will differ depending on the specific strain or type of tea being brewed. 

The practice of brewing Japanese tea is a ceremonial activity, known as the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu, or sado, in Japanese). The ritual is conducted by a tea master for willing participants, and involves a multi-step process which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 4-5 hours. 

Chinese green tea

After the guests have been welcomed into the space, the tea master will clean their tools, scoop the loose tea, prepare the cups and assist the guest in pouring then drinking the tea. With almost religious overtones, a Japanese tea ceremony is about celebrating the nuances of the tea, and properly appreciating the smell, taste and overall quality. 

The predominant role a guest plays in the tea ceremony is one of appreciation and gratitude. Every aspect of the event has been carefully planned and artfully arranged, so there are plenty of etiquette rules to bear in mind when partaking in a Japanese tea ceremony too: 

  • Wear modest clothing 
  • Remove your shoes 
  • Avoid stepping on the center of the mats
  • Let your host indicate where you should sit, and when 
  • Don’t drink from the same part of the cup that’s touched the last guest’s lips (you can turn the cup slightly to ensure this) 

Though a Chinese tea ceremony does exist in today’s culture, it has a special significance for weddings. Traditionally conducted on the morning of a wedding day, the bride and groom serve tea to their parents and new in-laws in a show of gratitude. The teacup is held with both hands to show respect, and inside the teacups or the pot you’ll see lotus seeds and red dates; these are placed to encourage children early in the marriage. 

Bokksu Boutique has a wonderful array of Japanese snacks that pair perfectly with Japanese tea. Why not try out a subscription box and treat yourself to some deliciously authentic tea? 

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Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.