What Are The Harvest Seasons Of Japanese Teas And How Do They Affect Quality?

Japanese Culture, Travel Guides, Tea Guides

Japanese teas can be classified according to their harvesting times, with some teas being valued more because of when they were harvested. Learn more about the harvest seasons of Japanese tea in this post.

Guide Contents:

  1. How Many Harvest Seasons Are There for Japanese Tea?
  2. Which Teas Are Produced During Each Season?
  3. Which Season Produces the Best Quality of Tea?
  4. What is Pruning and How Is It Different From Harvesting?
  5. How Does Harvest Season Affect the Quality of a Japanese Tea?
  6. Do Teas Harvested During the Same Season Taste the Same?
  7. Are There Differences in Tea Production Based on the Season?
  8. How Will You Know Which Season a Tea Was Harvested From?
  9. Are There Events I Can Attend During Tea Harvest Seasons?

A Guide to the Harvest Seasons of Japanese Teas

How Many Harvest Seasons Are There for Japanese Tea?

Depending on the region, there are typically three or four harvest seasons of Japanese teas throughout the year.

  • Ichibancha (一番茶) happens from early April to early June, depending on the location and climate of the tea field. Some areas, like Saitama and Ibaraki, have only one or two harvest seasons.
  • Nibancha (二番茶) typically starts in June or July depending on several factors.
  • Sanbancha (三番茶) is only for Southern areas. This is done in the late summer, from the middle of August to the middle of September. In other areas, tea farmers choose not to harvest during this period.
  • Shuutoubancha(秋冬番茶) or Harubancha (春番茶) This is the final trimmings. Shuutoubancha takes place from the middle of October to the middle of November while Harubancha happens all throughout March. Farmers choose from either of these periods for their final trimmings in preparation for the spring harvest.

Growing Region and Harvest Season Timing

The start and end of these seasons also vary depending on elevation and the location of the tea fields since weather and temperature changes vary across the country, with southern areas having warmer weather than the rest of the country. To give you an example, here’s a comparison of three growing regions across Japan —Kagoshima, Shizuoka, and Saitama.

Kagoshima, being the southernmost prefecture in this example, will start their harvest first since it has the warmest weather. This typically occurs in early April. In the middle is Shizuoka, which will typically start harvest in late April. Finally, in the northernmost prefecture, Saitama, harvest season typically starts in May.

Which Teas Are Produced During Each Season?

  • Ichibancha yields Gyokuro, as well as the prized Shincha, and the highest-grades of Sencha and Matcha. This makes the first harvest the most important season for Japanese tea production. For some farmers of premium Gyokuro, they only partake in Ichibancha. After Ichibancha, tea plants rest and start preparing for next year’s harvest.
  • During Nibancha and Sanbancha, lower grades of sencha and matcha (such as Culinary Matcha) are harvested.
  • Teas harvested during Shuutoubancha or Harubancha including Hirabancha and Kyobancha have thicker, more fibrous leaves that are more suited for roasting.

Which Season Produces the Best Quality of Tea?

Ichibancha, which is the spring harvest season, produces the most prized teas in Japanese tea production, including Gyokuro and the higher grades of Sencha and Matcha.

Ichibancha is also when shincha is harvested. Shincha comes from the beginning of the first harvest of the year. It has a limited production window, which is one of the reasons why it’s one of the more expensive Japanese teas on the market.

If you’re interested in trying shincha, we offer three varieties every year. :

  • Hachiju Hachiya Shincha (“88 Nights Shincha”) — Hachiju Hachiya refers to the eighty-eighth day after the first day of spring on the traditional Japanese calendar. According to tradition, this is the best time to pick tea, and to this day, Hachiju Hachiya Shincha is prized as high-quality green tea.
  • Hashiri Shincha (“The Earliest Shincha”) — Hashiri Shincha comes from the new-growth leaves harvested at the end of April. They’re very soft and have a unique sweetness.
  • Temomi Shincha (“Hand-rolled tea”) — In today’s high-tech world, there’s a certain luxury and exclusivity that comes with anything handmade. Among our Shincha, that means the Temomi Shincha, which comes from handpicked and hand-rolled shincha leaves now reserved for aficionados and the Emperor.

What is Pruning and How Is It Different From Harvesting?

Tea pruning is the process of trimming and shaping the tea plant to allow new shoots to emerge and make the tea plant easier to harvest in the future. This is done by cutting off leaves and branches. Farmers do a routine pruning of tea plants between harvest seasons and a deeper pruning every three years or so. A deeper pruning (Fukagari) involves cutting the tea plant to just around 30 cm off the ground.

While the purpose of pruning is for maintenance and not to produce tea, some leaves that are trimmed during the pruning process can be turned into tea. Some examples include:

  • The trimmings from prunings after the harvest of high-grade sencha during Ichibancha can also be turned into premium-grade hojicha called “karibancha” or “kariban,” for short. These prunings are done to prepare for the Nibancha harvest.
  • Kyobancha, which is a type of tea produced in Kyoto, is made from leaves pruned during Harubancha in preparation for the spring harvest.

Aside from producing teas, a more common way of using the trimmings from prunings is to return them to the earth. In some cases, it’s not worth producing teas out of these trimmings since they’re of lower quality and will fetch an equally low price.

How Does Harvest Season Affect the Quality of a Japanese Tea?

While other factors, like cultivation and manufacturing methods, growing region, and cultivars affect the quality of tea, harvest season also plays a role in shaping the final product.

As mentioned previously, teas from Ichibancha are of a higher quality than teas harvested during later seasons. Prior to harvest, the tea plants lie dormant during the winter, providing them with time to produce and store nutrients. At the start of spring, these nutrients are all sent to the leaves and buds. This is why teas harvested during the Spring season have the highest concentration of nutrients among all teas.

Teas harvested during Ichibancha also have a sweeter, milder taste compared to teas harvested in later seasons because they have a significantly higher L-theanine content.

Do Teas Harvested During the Same Season Taste the Same?

No, teas harvested during the same season can vary widely in appearance, aroma, and taste. While harvest season has an impact on the overall quality of the final product, the production method and skill of the farmer also has an impact on flavor. Additionally, the terroir of the growing region, or the environmental factors in that region, also has an effect.

Some of these factors are:

  • Temperature differences between night and day
  • Climate conditions
  • Soil composition
  • Rainfall
  • Mist

Tea fields located in mountains near rivers are considered best. Mountain slopes make large temperature fluctuations between day and night. And, rivers create mist every morning resulting in sweeter teas.

These tea fields are difficult to manage because farmers cannot use large machines for harvesting. In the same region, a flat tea field is much easier to manage, but the tea quality will be different.

Likewise, teas grown in the same region will also taste different depending on farmers’ skill and the harvest season. Tea quality varies every day because even a skilled farmer has to make many adjustments to their processing. Tea plants are growing every second. Therefore, tea farmers need to have a very sensitive ability to assess and make adjustments to their production methods - especially for the steaming process, every day.

Are There Differences in Tea Production Based on the Season?

Yes, there are some differences in production depending on the season. Different seasons bring different issues that can pose risks to the plant. To address these, farmers must take the necessary steps to address the issue. These are steps they wouldn’t normally take during other seasons.

For example, the Empoasca onukii, or tea green leafhopper, is a type of insect pest that can cause serious damage to the tea plant and may even result in the loss of tea production. These insects can cause the most damage in June and September.

Another seasonal risk to tea plants is diseases. For example, anthracnose is a fungal disease common to tea plants in Japan. Anthracnose outbreaks can occur from May to September, with the shoots of the second and third flush receiving the most serious damage.

Likewise, weather changes also pose a risk to tea plants. In the winter, farmers must ensure that the tea plant is kept warm, which helps prevent freeze damage to the plant. To do this, the farmers scatter dry grass and leaves on the tea fields to cover the ground and operate fans over the fields to prevent mist from turning into frost at night .

How Will You Know Which Season a Tea Was Harvested From?

  • Shincha will always be harvested during Ichibancha.
  • Sencha will only be harvested during Ichibancha and Nibancha. Higher grades of sencha will always come from the first harvest (Ichibancha) or a blend of the two harvests.
  • High-quality matcha and gyokuro are always Ichibancha harvests.
  • Culinary matcha mostly consists of leaves harvested after the first harvest.
  • Bancha can be produced from harvests from different seasons and varies based on the part of the plant it comes from. Our Bancha comes from a mix of two types of bancha:
    • Kariban is a type of bancha that comes from the pruning trim after early harvests.
    • Shuutobancha is bancha that comes from the lower shoots of the third and fourth harvests.

Are There Events I Can Attend During Tea Harvest Seasons?

For those who’d like to experience tea picking for themselves, various venues around Japan offer public tours and events around harvest season. Some of these include:

  • Tea Museum Shizuoka, Tea Picking Event - The Prefectural tea museum located near the Sugimoto headquarters offers a tea-picking experience in August. 
  • Nihondaira Ocha-Kaikan Tea Picking Event, Shizuoka — From the middle of April to the end of October, Shizuoka-based tea store Nihondaira Ocha Kaikan organizes tea picking events. Visitors can take home the leaves they’ve picked, which, according to the host, will make a good tempura tea leaf dish.
  • Ujitawara Town Tea Picking Experience, Kyoto — Dubbed the “birthplace of Japanese green tea,” Ujitawara Town is the hometown of Nagatani Soen, a tea farmer who developed the Aosei Sencha Processing Method. In May, the town offers a tea picking experience at Soen’s birthplace.

Here at Sugimoto Tea Company, we offer a wide variety of teas harvested throughout the year. The different harvest seasons of Japanese tea bring out unique qualities and we strive to deliver the best that each season offers.

Not sure which tea to get just yet? Check out our samples, which offer a taster of our teas to help you decide on the perfect tea.

READ NEXT: What Is Shincha?

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