23 Sep Tea journey to Japan
Spring and autumn are the two best seasons to visit Japan. I have yet to return for the autumn colouring of the leaves, but I managed to catch the spring cherry blossom or sakura earlier this year.
I was not only wowed by the cherry blossom, & the cherry blossom sweets, but also by Japan’s tea culture.
Like Tokyo, the world’s largest city, with over 2,300 subway and train stations, the world of tea in Japan is meticulously ordered; from the ceremonial rituals to the right temperature to boil the water for different leaf types.
It takes 10 years to become a ‘Master’ at one of Japan’s 3 main schools of matcha, the country’s famed powdered green tea & the ‘king’ of teas. Things are done with passion & commitment in Japan.
“Tea is like water for us,” summed up my dapper, elderly Japanese neighbour at the Michelin-starred Ishikawa restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. I had asked him why Tokyo was so full of coffee shops.
Tea is a brew drunk within the home; whereas coffee is something special, something different, drunk in the many coffee stores across Japan’s main cities.
Path to enlightenment
My enlightenment to life & all things tea came during the morning meditation session at the Shunko-In Temple & Guesthouse in the outskirts of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan.
Sitting in the half-lotus position, breathing in for 5 and out for 10, overlooking the temple garden, it struck me, as my thoughts wandered, that tea was part of a holistic Japanese culture.
This was a culture that encouraged the emptying of the mind to achieve enlightenment, whether through following Zen Buddhism, gazing in wonder at the world-famous temple gardens… or being served a cup of matcha tea.
Types of tea
In my travels, the four main teas that I was offered, at different times and different places, were matcha, gyokuro, sencha & houjicha.
- Matcha comes as a green powder & is whisked with water to produce a tea that looks like a pea soup; it tends to be served on special occasions and at tea ceremonies… & for tourists.
- Gyokura, a leaf tea, has the same umami taste as matcha and, like matcha, the young leaves are shaded by the tea growers from sunlight.
- Sencha is the everyday tea in Japan, and has a fresher, more stringent taste. Often it is mixed with gyokura.
- Houjicha is roasted & has distinct toasted notes.
At Ishikawa, houjicha was served with a course of steamed rice with Japanese duck and green peas, together with miso soup and pickled vegetables – and a glass of sake, of course.
I was also served houjicha with my gohei-moichi, a local speciality of grilled rice balls coated with a walnut and miso paste in a café in the village of Magome.
Magome, with its beautiful wooden houses, is in the Kiso Valley, north-east of Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city. I was in Magome to walk part of the Nakasendo Trail, an old route through the mountains linking Kyoto with Tokyo and which dates back to the Edo period of the 17th-19th centuries.
Kyoto versus Tokyo
Kyoto has more than 1,600 temples and 400 shrines, and it was here rather than in Tokyo that I found most steeped in tea culture, given its ancient history & proximity to the famous Uji tea-growing district.
Up in the city’s outlaying Arashiyama district, I came across homes with tea leaves being ‘steamed’ before being massaged, ready for drinking. Tea blends were personal and special.
It was in Kyoto that I attended my first & only tea ceremony, at the Fukujuen tea store in the centre of the modern, downtown district. Yes, it was for tourists, but it was as authentic as I was going to find… unless I got myself invited to a wedding, which was unlikely. And the price: 2,700 Yen, or £15.
Tea tips for Japan
- Be open-minded. The Japanese drink all sorts of tea: from sakuracha during the cherry blossom season to kuromame (black soybean tea) for casual tea-drinking and genmaicha (with roasted brown rice).
- Tea is served with food: either to accompany a meal or with wagashi, Japanese sweetmeats, often made with red, azuki bean paste – red being the colour to dispel evil.
- What the tea is served in is as important as the tea itself. The on-trend pottery – teaware and tableware – comes from Koishiwara, on the island of Kyushu, home to potters since the Edo Period (1603-1868). You can find it at Rose Bakery, Dover Street Market, Tokyo.
- Traditional tea houses overlook a lake in a garden or temple grounds. Rikuji-en Gardens in Tokyo is a special hidden corner, but arrive early to beat the local crowds.
- Hama-rikyu Gardens, where Prince William took part in a tea ceremony during his visit in 2015, is a good stop-over after visiting the nearby Tsukiji fish market for sushi.
- To get an idea of Japan’s food culture, visit the food halls of Isetan or Mitsukoshi despartment in Tokyo. However, the best food market, for me, was Kousomo in Osaka, with the best wagashi & savoury finger food ever.
- Catching the Shinkansen bullet train – an experience in itself – from Tokyo to Kyoto, look out for the tea bushes as you pass through the Shizuoka tea-growing area.
- Tea is part of the camellia family of plants. And you will also see plenty of the ornamental camellias, or ‘snow’ camellias as they are called in Japan, which grow wild in the southern area of the country.
Where I stayed
TOKYO: Shibuya Granbell Hotel is not too large, not too expensive & is well located in the district of Shibuya. Claska Hotel, a boutique design hotel in the ‘design’ neighbourhood of Meguro-ku. My room had a beautiful view across the cityscape & I had a fun dinner in a tiny neighbouring restaurant. A bit of a commute to the city centre, but you get used to it & it’s totally safe to walk back late at night.
KYOTO: Shunko-In Temple, where I rolled out my tatami mat every evening & rolled it up every morning. The optional morning meditation, followed by tea, is definitely worth it.
OSAKA : Cross Hotel, a fun, stylish hotel in this port city’s luxury street. Across the bridge from Dotonbori, a street FULL of restaurants & life.
NAKSENDO TRAIL: I stayed in a variety of inns or ryokans along the way. This part of my journey I arranged through Oku Japan.