When I think of Japanese tea culture it immediately conjures up images of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. An elaborate and refined ritual of preparing and serving green tea. In all honesty, these images discouraged me from learning more about Japanese tea for a long time as I felt ill-equipped to understand and comprehend "The Way of Tea". Fortunately, my tea studies have opened up the world of Japanese tea just enough for it not to feel so overwhelming. Peeling back the edges, I love what I see, a wonderfully accepting, diverse and rich tea culture.
Having shared the fun-side of our tea experience in Japan (see Tea Travels: Japan part 1 ) we also wanted to share some of our favourite 'more traditional' tea experiences.
We start with the everyday tea. There is nothing more satisfying then receiving a cup of tea and a refresher towel at the commencement of a meal. This was our experience in many restaurants during our travels in Japan. These hot cups of hojicha hit our table at the same time as the menu, perfect timing.
We also found ourselves eating a lot of dried tea leaves. Whilst I am familiar with eating spent tea leaves and cooking with tea I hadn't really considered the tasting experience of eating the dried tea leaves. In visiting tea stores and tea houses we were regularly offered a tasting of the dry tea leaves prior to sampling a brew. Eating the tea leaves seemed to awaken your palate prior to a tasting, allowing you to identify familiar flavours and aromas in the tea liquor. The dry tea leaves were quite delicious and often nutty with vegetable and marine notes.
I made a quick visit to Ippodo Tokyo Marunouchi for a takeaway tea. It was exciting to have a wonderful choice of Japanese teas that could be served hot or cold. I chose a cold brewed Sho-ikeno-o sencha. It was well-balanced, thirst-quenching and very easy to drink. It was rich and aromatic with both sweet and bitter properties. I found that most sencha tea that I tried in Japan was rich and savoury compared to many I have tried in Australia. This was influenced by a host of processing techniques that I haven't previously experienced in the cup such as deep steaming techniques and varying levels of roasting in finishing the tea.
My absolute highlight was a visit to Cha Chanoma located halfway between Harajuku and Omotesando. My husband and I were fortunate to be in the neighbourhood when my son took a nap in his stroller. This wonderful little teahouse is a respite of warmth and offers an excellent selection of teas and desserts. During our impromptu visit I wasn't able to speak to the Tea Sommelier (who speaks English) as he was presenting a workshop exploring a number of green teas and brewing methods. In that moment I had both tea and language skill envy! We still had an excellent experience, ordering a dessert and tea set. My dessert was a brown sugar ice cream together with azuki (red bean) paste, kanten (agar), shiratama (rice-flour dumplings), and warabi mochi (bracken-starch dumplings). It was so beautifully presented and tasted amazing.
I will return to the tea tasting shortly. I cannot finish this blog without mentioning my visit to Kyoto and Uji. I was fortunate to be able to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. I intentionally have no photos of this experience, as I wanted to be present and participate in the tea ceremony as an active guest. On reflection, I would have really loved to capture the curved / uneven path through the garden to the teahouse, the intentionally imperfect ceilings, the low hung entry way and the seasonal floral decoration but alas, images wouldn't convey all of these special considerations a host (tea master) must make when performing a tea ceremony. It was wonderful to see how the principles of The Way of Tea are applied.
Whilst we did not make it out to see any tea gardens, we did take a day trip to Uji. Uji is famous for its production of excellent green teas and is located between the two historic capitals of Kyoto and Nara. There are a number of tea retailers that operate here and we sampled some excellent Gyokoro, Sencha and Karigane. I was fortunate to taste some of the sweetest Japanese green teas that had just been harvested in Spring. I discovered the sweetness in some of the teas I was tasting occurred due to the shading technique used in the production process. Teas shaded with straw materials block out more sunlight but allow a natural flowing of air under the straw producing delicate and beautifully sweet green teas. Teas are more typically shaded by man-made materials and, whilst sweet, have a different flavour profile.
So to finish we will go back to Cha Chanoma. My husband had the Japanese-style parfait with azuki beans, warabi mochi, matcha ice cream and a smattering of crunchy tea leaves. Doesn't it look too good to eat!
In terms of the tea tasting at Cha Chanoma, I selected the Yozora. Once you have tasted the dry tea leaves, the first infusion is brewed for strength using hotter water and a longer steeping time. The intention is for you to experience a rich and concentrated brew where the main flavours are enhanced. The staff then brew the remainder of the infusions from the tea and leave in a pitcher for you to enjoy at your leisure. These are milder than the first and I have to say that the sweetness of the dessert and the bitterness of the tea combine in perfect harmony!
Japan is a little bit magical when it comes to tea culture and we look forward to continuing our journey learning and experimenting with Japanese tea.