Hachijū-hachi-ya, the 88th day after risshun, the first day of spring, falls on May 2 in most years. It’s the day that marks the beginning of the new tea harvest season, according to tradition.
The nation’s actual tea-harvesting season begins a little earlier, starting with the southern tea fields of Kyushu and ending in June in northern regions. In any case, May and June are the time when shincha (new harvest green tea) is available and at its peak. Shincha is also called ichibancha, which means “first tea”; subsequent harvests are called nibancha (second tea), sanbancha (third tea) and so on.
Shincha is eagerly anticipated by tea lovers since it is the mildest, most flavorful tea of the year. (Another reason it may be so highly prized is because Japanese people love the “new harvest” or “first catch” of so many things, from rice to wine to fish.)
Since it’s made only with tender new tea leaves that have not been exposed to sunshine for long periods, shincha is low in catechins and caffeine, which means it has less bitter and tannic qualities. Shincha is also higher in an amino acid called theanine than later-harvest teas, so it has more umami and a subtle sweetness.
There are small differences between shincha from different regions, too. I find that the shincha grown in Kagoshima in Kyushu, for example, tends to bit a little sweeter than the shincha from Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a clean, fresh green flavor. Some people swear that the shincha from Uji in the Kyoto area is the best, but there are great tea producers in many parts of the country. It’s a lot of fun to compare and contrast shincha from various areas from year to year.
To maximize the subtle flavors inherent in shincha, it’s worthwhile taking some extra care when brewing it. The most important element is the water, which must be combined with the tea at the right temperature — it should be around 70 to 80 degrees Celsius. This brings out the umami and sweetness of the tea, not to mention that very hot water causes more catechins to be released from the tea leaves, which produces a bitter flavor.
Boil the water, then cool it down by pouring it into the tea cups first. Put two teaspoons of tea leaves per serving into the kyūsu (teapot), then add the slightly cooled (but still hot) water from the tea cups. Swirl the pot a couple of times to bring out the full flavor of the tea, then pour. A little tea leaf sediment in each cup is fine.
You can of course enjoy some refined store-bought wagashi (traditional sweets) with your tea, but one of my favorite tea accompaniments is karintō, an old-fashioned, down-to-earth sweet, popular since the Edo Period (1603-1868), that my grandmother used to make for us whenever we visited her.
You can buy karintō ready-made almost anywhere, but it’s easy to make at home. The key is to fry the dough slowly at a low temperature until each piece is crispy all the way through. I like to mix dark brown and white sugar for the coating syrup, but you can try it with just dark brown sugar if you want a more assertive flavor.