So Much Matcha: Exploring Matcha and The Top Matcha Regions in Japan

Beyond beverages, matcha is also used in many other aspects of Japanese food, including Japanese wagashi and even in staples such as buckwheat noodles and mochi.
Matcha, Japan’s most iconic green tea that has attained global popularity. | ©PhotoAC

When you think of Japan, matcha (抹茶) or maccha inevitably comes to mind as one of the nation’s most iconic products, but have you ever where matcha comes from? A stone-ground green tea crafted from shade-grown tea leaves celebrated for its vivid green hue, distinct flavour and myriad of health benefits, matcha is an esteemed green tea in powdered form, loved and cherished by the Japanese for centuries. 

 

The History of Matcha 

Japanese tea ceremonyThe art of preparing powdered green tea was first brought into Japan during the 12th century. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

Beyond being merely a trendy beverage, matcha boasts a long and rich history tracing back to the 12th century when it was initially introduced to Japan by Eisai, a Japanese Buddhist monk, who not only brought the tea seeds but also introduced Zen (禅) Buddhist techniques for preparing powdered green tea. 

Following their arrival, these seeds found their home in the temple grounds of Kyoto Prefecture (京都府), which served as the residence of the Kamakura Shogun (鎌倉将軍) at the time. During this period, matcha production remained highly restricted, rendering it a symbol of luxury esteemed for its medicinal attributes, particularly by Zen monks and samurai (侍) in their meditative rituals. 

Subsequently, as the practice of tea ceremony became more widespread, the integral role of matcha in Japanese culture and its embodiment of Japanese hospitality was established. 

 

The Cultivation of Matcha and Health Benefits

Matcha is made of tencha tea leavesMatcha powder is made from a type of shade-grown tea leaves, also known as tencha. | ©PhotoAC

The production of matcha green tea powder involves shading shade-grown tea leaves known as tencha (碾茶), typically for a minimum of 20 days, to enhance chlorophyll content and l-theanine production. This imparts matcha with its vibrant green colour and rich umami flavour, believed to have calming and invigorating effects, enhancing concentration and sleep quality. 

After the shading period, the leaves are harvested, steamed, and dried before being finely ground into powder. This process retains nutrients and antioxidants, providing numerous health benefits, including anti-aging properties and aiding in preventing arteriosclerosis, making matcha immensely popular globally, especially among women.

 

The Different Grades of Matcha

Japanese Matcha Green Tea powderMatcha is generally being classified into three different grades based on a variety of factors. | ©Adobe Stock

Matcha powder is graded based on several criteria, including its texture, aroma, flavour, and colour. Distinctions in origin also play a significant role in its classification due to varying regional grading systems and factors like climate, soil composition, and other variables that influence tea quality. 

Generally, the highest grades of matcha come from the youngest tea leaves or the earliest harvests, prized for their tenderness, vibrant colours, and robust flavour. Conversely, lower grades present a gentler flavour profile while still maintaining their delightful taste. 

 


Overall, matcha is categorised into three main grades:

 

1. Ceremonial Grade Matcha

Ceremonial grade matcha is the highest grade of Japanese matcha tea powderThe ceremonial grade matcha utilizes the youngest leaves of the first harvests, granting its velvety and delicate texture fitting for a Japanese tea ceremony. | ©PhotoAC

Matcha of the highest grade originates from meticulously nurtured buds and leaves of ichibancha (一番茶) or the first harvests. This grade undergoes meticulous processing to ensure the freshest, most delicate, and smoothest ground matcha. Recognisable by its vibrant green hue and silky smooth texture, ceremonial grade matcha is intended to be savoured on its own, without any additional sweeteners or additives, allowing its pure flavour to be fully appreciated.

 

2. Culinary Grade Matcha

Culinary grade matcha is used for matcha desserts and matcha latteNibancha is usually used for the culinary grade matcha, which is perfect for creating beverages such as matcha lattes. | ©Adobe Stock

Possessing a bolder, more assertive flavour allowing it to complement other ingredients it is combined with, culinary grade matcha typically originates from nibancha (二番茶) or second harvest tea leaves. This grade may incorporate ground leaves with remaining stems and veins, resulting in a duller shade of green compared to ceremonial grade matcha. It might also encompass a blend of matcha powders sourced from multiple origins. Despite this, it maintains its characteristic colour as well as its rich and distinctive flavour, making it ideal for blended creations like lattes or cocktails. 

 

3. Ingredient Grade Matcha

Ingredient grade matcha is a budget friendly optionMixed with older tea leaves, the ingredient grade matcha’s thick consistency and strong flavour is perfect for making recipes that contain dairy products such as ice cream. | ©Adobe Stock

Lastly, typically crafted from tea leaves harvested later in the season, this grade of matcha exhibits a more yellowish hue and a distinctively bitter green tea flavour. Positioned as the most budget-friendly option amongst matcha powders, it finds optimal use as an ingredient in food manufacturing or supplements.

While all three grades of matcha boast comparable nutritional profiles, ceremonial grade matcha notably contains elevated levels of l-theanine and caffeine, aiding in energy and focus. Conversely, alternative grades tend to feature higher antioxidant and catechin content. To truly appreciate the nuances, indulge in a personal sensory exploration and discover your favourite matcha grade!

 

Top 3 Matcha Producing Regions in Japan

As the foremost producer of matcha globally, Japan is renowned for producing high-quality matcha powder throughout the nation, excluding only the northern areas of the country. Delight in exceptional varieties offered by the different regions not only to satiate your palate but also to delve into the rich historical and cultural significance embodied in their unique flavours and aromas.

Let’s take a look at some of the top matcha regions in Japan!

 

1. Uji, Kyoto Prefecture

Byodoin Temple in Uji, KyotoKnown as the birthplace of matcha, Uji is also famous for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Byodoin Temple, which was built during the late Heian Period. | ©PhotoAC

Recognised as the birthplace of matcha, Uji City (宇治市), situated in the southern region of Kyoto, stands as one of the foremost areas for matcha cultivation. Renowned as the pinnacle grade of matcha in Japan, Uji matcha is celebrated for its lush aroma and sweet, creamy flavour, accompanied by a subtle bitter undertone. This distinctive profile is attributed to the geographical conditions of its cultivation, benefitting from scorching summers and frosty winters, which create an optimal climate for harvesting the highest quality green tea leaves.

With a tea cultivation legacy tracing back to the 12th century, when Eisai brought tea seeds and the technique for crafting powdered green tea to Kyoto, it is only natural for Uji to emerge as the birthplace of Japanese tea ceremonies. By the mid-14th century, the ritual of daily tea consumption was firmly entrenched, and Uji matcha had attained prestige, and was considered a premium gift served at tea ceremonies hosted by the royal family. Even today, Uji matcha remains highly sought after by tea connoisseurs worldwide.

 

2. Nishio, Aichi Prefecture

Nishio City in Aichi PrefectureKnown for being the only city in Japan specialising in matcha production, Nishio City also boasts its rich history in its magnificently well preserved castle ruins dating back to the Kamakura Period. | ©PhotoAC

Renowned as the second-largest matcha producing hub, Nishio City (西尾市) in Aichi Prefecture (愛知県) contributes to 30% of Japan's matcha production. It boasts a reputation for delivering some of the finest matcha, celebrated for its full-bodied, umami-filled, and velvety flavour profile. As opposed to other matcha-producing regions, Nishio sets itself apart by dedicating over 97% of its tea leaves exclusively to the production of pure matcha or premium matcha-based Japanese confections.

With an illustrious matcha cultivation history spanning nearly 800 years, Nishio matcha flourishes under the warm climate and fertile soil along the banks of the Yahagi River. Similar to Uji, it is said that the seeds of tea were introduced to Nishio in the 13th century by Seiichikokushi, a Buddhist monk, who planted them within the grounds of Jisso-ji Temple (実相寺). It wasn't until the Meiji Period that matcha production in Nishio surged, following the importation of tea seeds and production techniques from Uji in Kyoto. 

 

3. Kagoshima Prefecture

Tea fields in Kagoshima, KyushuThe climate and soils of Kagoshima Prefecture ensures the absolute best quality of its organic tencha, adapting to shifting global demands and creating a new age for matcha. | ©PhotoAC

Situated on the southern island of Kyushu (九州), Kagoshima Prefecture (鹿児島県) ranks second only to Shizuoka Prefecture as Japan's largest green tea producing region. What sets it apart is its innovative approach to producing single-origin matcha, essentially organic matcha. The region's active volcanic terrain, nutrient-rich soils, warm climate, and ample rainfall create optimal conditions for the thriving cultivation of tencha, the tea leaves from which matcha is derived.

Breaking from tradition, Kagoshima's farmers employ innovative techniques and concepts to meet the surging global demand for healthfoods, resulting in the production of robust, bold matcha with a full-bodied yet subtly astringent taste, indicative of the region's fertile soils and favourable geography. Leveraging on its expansive flat terrains, Kagoshima Prefecture stands at the forefront of single-origin matcha production, a rarity in Kyoto Prefecture due to the latter's climatic constraints.

 

Discover the World of Matcha with JAPAN RAIL CLUB

Matcha powder is made from green tea leavesThe possibilities with matcha are endless! | ©PhotoAC

Standing as a cherished symbol of Japanese tea culture, matcha has captivated the palates of a worldwide audience. Whether enjoying ceremonial grade matcha in Uji City or savouring matcha desserts made with Nishio matcha, Japanese matcha tells a story of tradition, innovation, and the artistry of tea cultivation.

 

Enjoy a box full of matcha and green tea snacks this May 2024 with JAPAN RAIL CLUB!

Craving for matcha? Delve into the magnificent world of matcha with a tea-themed snack box from Japan! JAPAN RAIL CLUB is delighted to introduce the May 2024 edition of our monthly Omiyage Snack Box, “So Much Matcha”, featuring an enticing selection of snacks made with matcha from Uji and Nishio, along with gyokuro (a premium grade of green tea) from Kyotanabe! 

Plus, subscribe by 31 May 2024 and use promo code MAYCHA15 at checkout to enjoy a 15% discount and save up to $80 when you opt for the 12-month plan. Before embarking on your matcha pilgrimage to Japan, unwind and savour our matcha-licious snacks in the comfort of your home!

Meet the author

Dawn Sim

An avid lover of nature, photography, and Japanese literature, you will find Dawn (@oyakodawn) either lost in the midst of a historical pilgrimage route or in any local book cafes from the north all the way to the south of Japan. Dawn has lived in Kyoto for a year and still can’t get enough of its cultural and historical richness - not to mention the hipster cafes that serve to satisfy their coffee addiction!

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More Than Just Disneyland! Exploring Hidden Gems in Every Corner of Chiba
Sue Lynn

More Than Just Disneyland! Exploring Hidden Gem...

Looking for a short getaway from the bustling crowds of Tokyo? Look no further than the prefecture of Chiba (千葉県). Contrary to the popular belief that “There is nothing much...

Dawn Sim Travel

More Than Just Disneyland! Exploring Hidden Gem...

Looking for a short getaway from the bustling crowds of Tokyo? Look no further than...

Happy Strawberry Day: 5 Must-Try Varieties of Strawberries in Japan
Sue Lynn

Happy Strawberry Day: 5 Must-Try Varieties of S...

Did you know that 15 January is Strawberry Day (イチゴの日 Ichigo-no-hi) in Japan? It comes from a word play on the date (“ichi” = one and “go” = five) and...

Carissa Loh Food

Happy Strawberry Day: 5 Must-Try Varieties of S...

Did you know that 15 January is Strawberry Day (イチゴの日 Ichigo-no-hi) in Japan? It comes...

Ichigo Ichie: Starting the New Year by Embracing Moments in Life
Sue Lynn

Ichigo Ichie: Starting the New Year by Embracin...

As the New Year’s celebrations and confetti settles, we enter the new year with new hopes and wishes. The start of the new year marks a good checkpoint in our...

Wendy Ng Culture

Ichigo Ichie: Starting the New Year by Embracin...

As the New Year’s celebrations and confetti settles, we enter the new year with new...

Seijin no Hi: Exploring Japan’s Coming-of-Age Day
Sue Lynn

Seijin no Hi: Exploring Japan’s Coming-of-Age Day

Seijin-no-Hi (成人の日) or Coming-of-Age Day is an important Japanese National Holiday, observed on the second Monday of January each year. The day serves as a rite of passage, celebrating and...

Carissa Loh Culture

Seijin no Hi: Exploring Japan’s Coming-of-Age Day

Seijin-no-Hi (成人の日) or Coming-of-Age Day is an important Japanese National Holiday, observed on the second...

January Maker’s Story: Chocolates with a Japanese Twist from Edogoshiya
Sue Lynn

January Maker’s Story: Chocolates with a Japane...

"What is a snack that would pair well with Japanese tea and is well-loved by all in Japan?", the makers of Edogoshiya wondered and found themselves in the world of...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

January Maker’s Story: Chocolates with a Japane...

"What is a snack that would pair well with Japanese tea and is well-loved by...

The Wonders of Citrus: 5 Varieties of Citruses Found in Japan
Sue Lynn

The Wonders of Citrus: 5 Varieties of Citruses ...

If you have been to Japan during the colder months between December to February, you will notice the sudden abundance in citruses such as yuzu (柚子・ゆず) and mikan (蜜柑・みかん mandarin...

Sue Lynn Food

The Wonders of Citrus: 5 Varieties of Citruses ...

If you have been to Japan during the colder months between December to February, you...

Ake Ome! Exploring the New Year Celebrations in Japan
Sue Lynn

Ake Ome! Exploring the New Year Celebrations in...

How is the New Year celebrated in Japan?  Let’s take a look at some of the traditions that have been influenced by Shinto, Buddhism, and modern beliefs!

Carissa Loh Culture

Ake Ome! Exploring the New Year Celebrations in...

How is the New Year celebrated in Japan?  Let’s take a look at some of...

Merikuri! Christmas in Japan: Exploring Traditions Old and New
Sue Lynn

Merikuri! Christmas in Japan: Exploring Traditi...

Said to be the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas is a holiday celebrated around the world, known as a time to get together with family and friends, and a...

Carissa Loh Festival

Merikuri! Christmas in Japan: Exploring Traditi...

Said to be the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas is a holiday celebrated around...

5 Must-Visit Ski Resorts To Visit Outside of Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Best Slopes
Sue Lynn

5 Must-Visit Ski Resorts To Visit Outside of Ho...

Have you ever gone skiing or snowboarding in Japan? In Japan, although skiing as a means of transportation had been around for centuries in communities living in high snowfall areas,...

Carissa Loh Winter

5 Must-Visit Ski Resorts To Visit Outside of Ho...

Have you ever gone skiing or snowboarding in Japan? In Japan, although skiing as a...

December Maker's Story: Arida Mikan from Sowa Kajuen
Sue Lynn

December Maker's Story: Arida Mikan from Sowa K...

December is the month of citrus, including mikan or mandarin oranges from Arida! We caught up with Mr. Ueyama (上山) from Sowa Kajuen from Arida City, Wakayama Prefecture to find...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

December Maker's Story: Arida Mikan from Sowa K...

December is the month of citrus, including mikan or mandarin oranges from Arida! We caught...

December Maker’s Story: Yuzu from Umaji Village in Kochi
Sue Lynn

December Maker’s Story: Yuzu from Umaji Village...

Umaji Village is known as the Village of Yuzu! We had a chat with Mr. Iwasada (岩貞) of Umaji Village Agricultural Co-operative, to find out more about the village of...

Sue Lynn Maker's Story

December Maker’s Story: Yuzu from Umaji Village...

Umaji Village is known as the Village of Yuzu! We had a chat with Mr....

The Star of Japanese Vineyards: Understanding the Appeal of Kyoho Grapes
Sue Lynn

The Star of Japanese Vineyards: Understanding t...

Where do Kyoho Grapes originate from? Japan's love for perfection and uniqueness has led to some incredible creations, and their grapes are no exception. Enter Kyoho grapes (巨峰), star-studded grapes...

Snack Lover Autumn

The Star of Japanese Vineyards: Understanding t...

Where do Kyoho Grapes originate from? Japan's love for perfection and uniqueness has led to...