Shincha for the New Year: new tea for old rituals

 While springtime shincha is a highly prized first flush tea in Japan, there’s a good reason to wait until New Year to drink it.

One of the first things an emerging tea lover learns about green tea is that it is better consumed fresh and that, of all the seasons, the first green tea of spring is highly prized.

There’s a good reason for this: in growing regions where there are significant seasonal differences in climate, winter gives the tea plants time to re-energise so that when new buds and leaves burst forth in spring they are full of nutrients that have been charging up for a whole season.

In Japan, that tea is called shincha (‘new tea’) and it is indeed enjoyed fresh. However, in the 17th century, the best tea was already being consumed long after harvest.

Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651) commissioned a group of tea masters to travel to Uji to select the finest tea and bring it to him in Tokyo. That journey, called chatsubo-dōchu (‘tea pot procession’), detoured via the cooler Yamanashi Prefecture for three months to avoid the heat of summer and the tea ended up reaching the shogun about six months after harvest. It was a ritual that lasted 250 years.

Chatsubo-dōchu tea pot procession

Chatsubo-dōchu, the tea pot procession || Image credit: Parliamentary Library, Tokyo

Coincidentally, matcha practitioners perform a ritual called kuchikiri-no-chaji around this time. This tea ceremony celebrates the northern hemisphere winter with the uncovering of the sunken hearth where water is boiled for winter tea practices. This ceremony features the opening of a new jar of tea which has been stored in the hearth, unused in the hotter months.

There was therefore precedence for drinking older green tea when scholar Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714) wrote of letting shincha age ‘to take the edge off it’ in his book Instructions on Nourishing Life. He suggested those with a good constitution wait at least until the ninth or tenth month of the lunar year (November/December) to drink; those with a weak constitution were urged to wait until the following year.

January is therefore a fantastic time to break out your green tea. You can do it kagami biraki style on 11 January, the way the Japanese open sake barrels to signify a new beginning, or simply open your favourite jar and make a cup to sip and savour the cooling effect green tea has, perfect for an Australian summer.