Below you will find three of four ‘lessons’ about Japanese tea learned during our five week visit this April/May 2017. It is less academic than it sounds! The quantity of photos should give some idea of the prevalence of tea in Japan, as it is truly everywhere (Darjeeling marshmallows anyone?).
Your standard, everyday selection of tea in a Tokyo grocery store
My experience with Japanese tea goes back to my first visit when I was the eager age of six: we visited a temple and were given a cup of ceremony-grade matcha. I do not remember being impressed. The matcha ice cream afterwards was met with greater approbation however. Our last visit was our honeymoon and saw us buy several envelopes of Sencha and a suitcase worth of teaware. I am not exaggerating: we bought three tea sets and eight individual tea cups and a square wooden tea tray. At that point though our knowledge of tea was limited to that of casual sipping rather than devoted slurps.
This visit was different. This visit saw the focus shift: we spent five weeks dividing our time equally between relaxing with family; eating gyoza dumplings; and learning about, drinking and preparing tea. We discovered a great deal more about Japanese teas, such as the types, how to prepare them and that we actually aren’t that impressed by the famous umami flavour of Japanese green tea. (We are aware this is no small revelation.) Our technical knowledge soared as our conversation grew duller by the day. I knew I had finally crossed to the dark side when the white-tea-making tutorial I gave my nephew lasted 17 minutes.
What this all means is that I need to not put you to sleep while also indulging in tea talk…so let’s go:
Lesson 1: The Japanese have a contradictory approach to tea. Japan treats tea as the heart of all things pure and aesthetic, and it is also used constantly in fast food and silly advertising.
Exhibit A: The Japanese tea ceremony (a litany of rules and guidelines for serving the perfect cup of matcha) vs matcha-flavoured Kit Kat bars and hamburger buns.
Exhibit B: Everything is matcha all the time but the preferred drink is coffee, although a restaurant will give glasses of roasted tea where an American establishment would give ice water.
Exhibit C: The Japanese do not like the Chinese (understatement), but there is a lot of Chinese tea served and sold.
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Lesson 2: Know your tea. Know the rules. There is no standard approaching for making a cuppa; instead, you have to choose your variety and then see where that leads you. These rules are strictly adhered to across the spectrum of cafes, restaurants and tea houses. Here are your options:
Matcha: a shade-grown green tea known as tencha which is then ground up into a powder; it comes in varying grades, from cooking grade to tea ceremony to premium ceremony quality. You actually drink the tea, not an infusion, which can sometimes make it mouth-dryingly bitter if it is a lower grade. It is rapidly gaining world-wide fame as a super-food, with enormous quantities of anti-oxidants that make goji berries look like nutritional cardboard by comparison. Because it is grown in the shade, the leaves overproduce chlorophyll and therefore it is a hue of green rarely seen in any natural food. You can have thick or thin matcha, iced matcha, matcha lattes, matcha donuts, matcha you-name-it. To prepare it, the powder needs to be sieved into a ceramic bowl and then whisked with warm water (70C or cooler) until it is foaming. Then drink. The Japanese tea ceremony takes this process and transforms it into a much, much longer and more detailed affair.
Sencha: the standard Japanese green tea you have probably encountered, and is common in both loose leaf and bagged options. It is picked in the spring during the first harvest and tastes sweet and grassy and sometimes like seaweed. A full video about Sencha preparation can be found here for the truly dedicated. The steps are too numerous to list here, but the core of it is carefully cooling the water, wetting the leaves, then pouring in tiny, genteel amounts.
Bancha: a lower grade of Sencha, harvested in the second, third and fourth harvests later in the year and ‘robust’ in flavour, i.e. can be brutally strong and astringent. Still a green tea, and most commonly encountered in a Japanese version of a samovar, ready for endless cups of tea in the cafeteria.
Hojicha: roasted bancha, which makes it taste much better. Very common in busy restaurants, poured into water glasses. Sometimes served hot in a thermos, sometimes cold. Always thirst-quenching.
Genmaicha: bancha + toasted brown rice or, as we think of it, popcorn tea because that’s what it sort of tastes like in a wet way. Again, generally a café or restaurant tea.
Gyokuro: the fanciest type you can imagine – the tea is shaded for ~20 days prior to its spring harvest supposedly giving it a sweet and mellow flavour; also like seaweed when the tide is out and everything has started to smell funny. This has high chlorophyll levels like matcha, with a strong punch of umami. The preparation is delicate, with only a tablespoon worth of tea being brewed at a time. The leaves can be steeped over twenty times, as that’s only twenty tablespoons. The liquor is a brilliant clear green, and if you like matcha but don’t want to drink the actual tea leaves, then gyokuro is your tea. Very healthy.
Royal Milk Tea: This tea is never, ever on a list of Japanese teas, and yet it is far more common than any other type of tea. It is a mix of Assam and Darjeeling black teas, brewed in boiling milk until no more flavour is hiding in the leaves, and then served with not enough sugar. It was introduced by our old nemesis Lipton in Kyoto in 1965 and hasn’t left the Japanese alone since. You generally find it sold in the bottle or cans in vending machines, and the container is heated up for you after you push the button. A nice touch!
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Lesson 3: Pouring is an essential skill. This is due to the first law of tea thermodynamics that every time you transfer it from one container to another it drops about 10 degrees C. The higher the quality of tea, the lower the temperature necessary. A fancy gyokuro will be best when brewed at only 40 C (!). All this means that, depending on your grade of tea, you may need to call upon the skills last honed in Montessori preschool and just POUR, with multiple transfers from kettle to thermos to cup to large teapot to small teapot and then, at last, to your cup. (Top tip: if you failed preschool as it seems I did, make your tea on a wipeable surface.)
Lastly, these pouring steps are not just for the dedicated teamaker at home. These are followed rigorously by every tea house we visited, and skipping a step or making enough tea in one go for multiple cups is met with confused dismay.
The Tokyo Hands Department Store offers an enormous range of teaware that made us want larger suitcases
The next segment will delve into Lesson 4, which is all about tea houses. Brace yourself.