There’s no doubt about it: if you’re headed to Japan, you’re going to see matcha no matter where you go, all the way from Sapporo to Nagasaki. The Japanese and visitors alike chug the stuff by the kyusu full, which means there’s plenty of matcha opportunity for tourists. The obsession with matcha has led to a major spike in Japanese tea exports, with the country shipping out nearly 2,000 tons of green tea—a 4 percent increase—last year. But if you’re a major fan of this healthy and delicious green tea powder, you’re going to want to head to a few of the biggest matcha hotspots throughout the archipelago.
What Is Matcha?
Matcha is a finely ground powder made from green tea leaves (tencha). It’s traditionally consumed as hot tea, where it’s served suspended in water. Because it contains a high chlorophyll content, the green powder offers a full-bodied, vegetal taste with a bit of astringency and a creamy texture. It’s made from the leaves of the shade-grown Camellia sinesis plant. The absence of direct sunlight helps keep some of the natural health benefits of this plant potent as it grows.
Because matcha uses the whole leaf, it’s got more caffeine and a higher concentration of antioxidants, amino acids, and other nutrients than other types of teas. Indeed, this unassuming, green powder is jam-packed with nutrients, including high levels of antioxidants to help fight cancer, protect the liver, and even boost weight loss. Studies show that consuming matcha regularly can even boost brain function and protect against heart disease and stroke.
Matcha is a major part of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and has been consumed in the country since the 12th century, yet it’s still a popular flavor additive throughout the world. And, in fact, it’s had a major spike in popularity in the West in the past decade or two, with matcha used in all sorts of Japanese and Japanese-inspired foodstuffs. Anyone who considers themselves an adventurous eater should try it in ice cream, candy, cookies, and even potato chips—in addition to a steaming cup!
Best Places to Find Matcha in Japan
Matcha obsessives, if you’ve got a big trip to the Land of the Rising Sun on your calendar, you don’t want to miss the following matcha hotspots. Not only will these locations afford you some of the very best in matcha-themed shopping and snacking—say “konnichiwa” to some of the coolest Japanese treats ever—but also the finest in Japanese tea ceremonies and even visits to family-run tea farms to help you see exactly how it’s made.
Like fine wine or cheese, matcha varies greatly by region, with certain corners of the country boasting finer versions than others. The soil, elevation, climate, and history of a certain area informs a lot about how its matcha will be. In Uji, where some of the country’s finest matcha grows, you can expect to find a sweeter, creamier matcha. In Nishio, the matcha is known for its umami and low astringency. In other words, it’s worth your while to follow the matcha trail and taste-test around the country until you find your favorite.
1. Uji, Kyoto: The ‘Town of Matcha’
Uji, located just south of Kyoto, is the uncontested matcha capital, and is well-known for producing some of the country’s finest-quality powder. Matcha from Uji got its reputation as being a cut above the rest because, due to its close proximity to Kyoto, it was often employed in aristocratic traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Therefore, the growers in the region had to impart the highest standards of growing and production, and the reputation for excellence stuck.
This type of matcha is produced a bit differently than other kinds, with the leaves fired at low temperatures rather than roasted in a hot oven. Because of this, matcha aficionados say ceremonial-grade Uji matcha is the most superior in terms of flavor, offering a bit of a sweeter, stronger taste. The brilliant, green color, smooth, creamy finish, and perfect frothability give Uji matcha an ideal texture. It’s definitely among the best options for drinking a hot cup of matcha tea, but it’s also preferred for flavoring matcha snacks.
Because of its reputation for producing grade-A green tea, Uji is a huge hotspot for tourists, and those who have come in search of matcha will find plenty to do. Obviously, you’ll want to hit the many markets and boutiques to bring home fine-quality Uji tea as souvenirs, but the No. 1 thing for a matcha-lover to do in Uji is to sit down for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, with locally grown, locally ground matcha as the showcase. Visit the public tea house at the Byodoin Temple to participate in an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
2. Nishio, Aichi: The Leading Producer of Matcha
The historic tea-cultivating region of Nishio, located in the Aichi Prefecture, is the country’s leading producer, cultivating some 60 percent of the matcha grown in Japan. The city became a major tea-growing center, thanks in part to its extremely fertile soil and elevation, which together create the ideal conditions for shade-growing Camellia sinesis. The relative remoteness, pristine rivers, and lack of development have helped safeguard Nishio’s place as a matcha mainstay.
The region became a hotspot after a Zen Buddhist monk founded the Jissoji Temple and began using its land to grow green tea in the year 1271. Like the matcha in Uji, Nishio tea is considered “ceremonial-grade,” which means that it’s often used as the focal point of a Japanese tea ceremony. Quality-wise, Nishio matcha is of a similar grade as the tea from Uji, thanks to the region’s deep connection to matcha cultivation and the generations of farmers who have worked hard to perfect their craft there.
When you taste Nishio matcha, you’ll notice that it has a lower astringency than other types of matcha, as well as a stronger umami flavor. Between the specialty teahouses, restaurants, and shops in and around Nishio, tourists will have plenty of opportunities to taste authentic Nishio matcha. The city is home to the headquarters of Aiya, the largest maker of green tea powder in Japan. We recommend stopping by the matcha museum within the Aiya factory to learn more about the history and ceremony of this important plant.
3. Yame, Fukuoka: The Region for Gyokuro
World-renowned for its production of gyokuro green tea, Fukuoka, located on the north shore of Kyushu, is another green tea capital that will delight sightseeing sippers. Gyokuro is a shade-grown tea similar to matcha, which offers a rich flavor profile with minimal bitterness or astringency. Though different than matcha, gyokuro tea is definitely a must-try for green tea fanatics traveling to Fukuoka.
With several noteworthy tea plantations located in the basins of the Hoshino and Yabe rivers, Fukuoka offers lots of unique opportunities for those looking to taste authentic Japanese matcha. Within this region is the city of Yame, which is where some of the highest quality green tea in Japan is grown. In fact, it’s the area where some of the first tea was grown within the country. Scholars believe the first tea plant was imported to Yame from China by a Zen priest about 600 years ago.
Like the gyokuro tea from this region, Yame’s matcha is less bitter and less astringent than other varieties of green tea, making it beloved for sipping. Visitors will also want to try the region’s yamecha tea if you’re embarking on a tea-focused tour of the country.
4. Kagoshima: Southern Japan’s Matcha Center
As one of the Southernmost inhabited points in Japan, it may surprise you to know that Kagoshima is actually a hub center of tea culture, with matcha at the center. It boasts a warm, tropical climate and unique soil, which allows it to produce some of the finest ceremonial-grade matcha tea in the South. The southern gateway is covered in a layer of volcanic ash (shirasu), which makes the soil extremely rich in minerals and excellent for growing green tea and various other crops.
In Kagoshima, the wide, flat land lends itself to mechanical harvesting. Unlike the green tea leaves from Uji or Nishio, which are often hand-picked, Kagoshima’s are typically cultivated at a mass scale for export. In fact, Kagoshima produces about a quarter of the total national output of all finished tea from Japan. And, interestingly, it’s the second largest tea-producing region in the country, only behind Shizuoka.
The green tea from Kagoshima is some of the best in the country, but many of the higher-end growers still send their raw product to Uji to be ground. It’s important to note that Kagoshima has two annual tencha harvests, with the first harvest producing much higher-quality green tea leaves than the second one. If you’re buying matcha from this region, try to get some from the first harvest and look for varieties ground in Uji.
5. Tokyo: A Tea-Taster’s Haven
While Tokyo may not be a hotspot for matcha production, it’s definitely where you go if you want to experience the less traditional side of modern matcha. Think: the world-famous matcha latte, matcha ice cream, and matcha snacks for days. The fact of the matter is that Tokyo is the center of all things Japanese, especially when it comes to eating and drinking, and you can almost always find the very best of everything there. So if your trip to Japan centers mainly around the Tokyo Metropolis, fear not—there’s still ample matcha for you!
In Tokyo, you can certainly sit down for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and learn a thing or two about how this transformative drink has impacted the country’s culture at large, and we recommend it. But the real fun is in tasting some of the matcha-infused foodstuffs that represent the modern creativity of Japanese gastronomy. Whether sweet or savory, baked, or chilled, the matcha treats in Tokyo are a fun nod to the ceremony and tradition of this green powder throughout Japan.
So, what’s the best matcha experience in Tokyo? Start with matcha ice cream. There are thousands of outposts, with the popular Suzukien Asakusa and Mihashi shops topping the list of the best. There’s matcha tiramisu, waffles, fondue, gelato, pancakes, and so much more peppered throughout the city. And don’t overlook the delicious matcha candies and convenience store snacks (you’re going to need to grab a matcha Kit Kat, of course), many of which you can bring home to share with friends.
Go on a Matcha Tour
If you’re like the many of us who prefer to be taken on a guided tour rather than build one of your own from the ground up, be sure to check with the regional tourist office to see if there are any matcha-specific tours in the area where you’re headed. In Uji, Nishio, and other areas, you can simply hop on a bus and be taken to farms, shops, and teahouses to get the full matcha experience, sip by sip and bite by bite.