Picking up where we left off from the last installment on tea in Japan, here is the fourth and final lesson we learned during our five week adventure in the land of tea. You can read the first installment here.
Also note that the list of tea house experiences below is a mere scratching of the surface – Japan has so much more to offer when it comes to correctly pouring hot water over dry leaves.
Fresh, fresh sencha in the Tukimasa Simokita tea house in Tokyo
Now, the final chapter:
Lesson 4: Going out for tea at a tea house is the relaxation equivalent of a spa day, although cheaper and with fewer cucumbers. We had tea out on multiple occasions and always felt serene and beatific by the end of each experience.
The below tea houses were highlights and are good examples of tea drinking opportunities in Japan:
A Japanese Tea House: For high-end Japanese teas, we headed to a tea house in Shimo-kitazawa, a trendy area with almost too many vintage clothing shops. The small café was calm with bean-paste-based desserts arrayed in the display cabinet, and we ordered Sencha (pictured above) and gyokuro, the finest of the fine. For gyokuro, it is meant to be consumed in drops (literally).
The proprietor taught us to place just-washed (and therefore wet) leaves in our cup, then pour over a tablespoon of 40 degree C water. Placing a lid over the cup in the gaiwan method, we drank the bright green liquid, using the lid to hold back the leaves. Unfortunately, drinking it was deeply, deeply unpleasant what with the salt, seaweed and rotting ocean flavours. However, the reward of trying to like it several dozen times was that we could eat the tea (!?!?!) with soy sauce and a tiny bamboo trident. That was delicious. We better understand now why Poseidon carries one.
Tiny tridents are fun to use and soy sauce was a good idea for consuming this gyokuro
(click images to view full descriptions)
A Temple Tea House: We had our first bowl of matcha in the Chuson-ji temple café in northern Japan, as the April sun was setting and the evening air became uncomfortably chill. The café was about to close, but the ladies running it saw how cold and tired the four of us were (sister, brother-in-law, Vientiene and myself) and welcomed us inside. As a 'welcome to Japan' trip, my family had taken us far north to see the cherry blossoms and one of the most beautiful, glittering temples in Japan, as it had been cared for for centuries by a family who owned the local gold mines.
We huddled around their space heater and quickly ordered our tea. Using a bamboo whisk, the temple employee beat the powdered matcha tea in 70 degree water until it foamed. She then served it in an enormous ceramic mug (known as a chawan) that a child might struggle to lift. (Guidance on how to make matcha here.)
We drank the frothy and only slightly bitter tea while nibbling on gummy rice balls and staring at the ‘Gods of Happiness’ tea towel that was for sale. One god had red horns, a tail and a trident (although not necessarily a 5cm bamboo one); you can make of that what you will. As we drank and thawed, we watched the two kimono-clad employees closing up the shop, shutting off the lights, sliding the wooden panel doors closed and waiting patiently for us to finish.
We drained the dregs of our matcha and pushed ourselves out into the cold fading light. Our climb down from the temple mountain was lovely and bracing, as we watched the setting sun polish the cherry blossoms and snowy peaks and we felt the warm matcha slosh inside of us.
Although there are no photos of the matcha we consumed, here are some pictures of the temple itself as a participation award... (click images to view full descriptions)
A Chinese Tea House: We stumbled upon a Chinese tea house in the Tokyo Hands department store near Shibuya. The restaurant was muted and gentle with very kind and knowledgeable staff, and the entrance was a towering corridor of tea and teaware for sale. We chose a white tea called White Peony (Fujian province), to reflect its lightly flowered scent, and a rare yellow tea from China called Junshan Yinzhen (Hunan province). We were then trained by the staff in how to pour, pour, pour, thankfully over a deep tea tray with a lid full of wide slots for spillages. We re-steeped our leaves until the thermos ran empty and our bladders ran full, and until we had finished our matcha mochi (pounded rice) dessert with a molasses-like soy syrup and powdered matcha on the side. When East meets Further East.
Yes, we visited twice. First visit for field research, second to share with family. Both times superb with plenty of pouring (click images to view full descriptions).
A Taiwanese Tea House: When it’s time for oolong/wulong, it is time to visit the first Taiwanese tea house in Tokyo (and all of Japan?). My wonderful brother-in-law had done extensive research and came up with this marvel for Sunday brunch, and it was one of the highlights of our entire trip. We ascended four flights of dark and narrow wooden stairs, passing endless glass cupboards stocked with porcelain tea paraphernalia. Once we reached the top, we settled in at our table and giddily realised that each table had a built-in electric kettle that was big, black and boiled every three minutes, whether or not customers were at table. Oh, to have that at home!
Thanks to my family’s flawless ordering, our table rapidly filled with steamed buns, shumai, rice in a leaf, a range of sweets and what may have been panna cotta. Meanwhile, a woman (the Tea Master, pictured below) sat down to work at the dedicated Tea Table behind us. The table was large with a slotted lid, and she warmed all the pots, wetted the leaves, measured and poured and cooled and steeped five different types of tea (all with their own rules and regulations) with unerring accuracy. She was the King Kong to our Curious George, the Bugatti to our Reliant Robin, the Secretariat to our Shetland pony.
Our Yoda the Tea Master at work (pouring, pouring, pouring)
She then served us our teas, providing the oolong drinkers of the group with a series of pouring devices and a narrow cylinder meant for ‘nosing’ the tea, called an aroma cup. You pour the tea into the aroma cup, sniff it, pour it out, then sniff the aroma cup again. The smell changes dramatically, and feels almost like actual magic. It was at this breakfast that we realised our core truth: for us, the best oolongs are only lightly roasted (if at all), and have a delicate, sweet and long-lasting flavour that intoxicates.
We finished by perusing their enormous selection of Taiwanese teas and spending the most per gram than ever before. We bought our first natural milky oolong, a tea grown in Taiwan in the Ali Shan mountains where the tea leaves of the Jin Xuan cultivar develop many lactones, which mimic the flavour of milk. This is not the milky-oolong tea you will find elsewhere which has had condensed milk steam through the oolong to make it very milky, but the origin of this type and so far subtler (although we like both!). The resulting tea (£5 for a microscopic 15g) was smooth, creamy, delicate, and permanently altered our perspective on what tea can be.
The tea house of our dreams. So. Much. Teaware. OMG.
(Click images to view full descriptions)
Okay, I am growing nostalgic and thirsty just writing this – time to go make some matcha. Or maybe wulong? I can't decide...