Our spring trip to Japan presented us with wonderful new insights into Japanese tea culture, and many moments of blissful tea drinking. We experienced a world of Japanese tea culture that encompassed all five senses, and we are still savoring and pondering those fleeting moments.
In the weeks since we returned, we have taken the time to reflect on all that is quintessentially Japanese about tea and tea culture in Japan. This time has been well spent reflecting on what we saw, drank and participated in while in Japan, and remembering how these unique moments differed from the tea moments we had in China and Korea.
Our previous trip to Japan concentrated on the stuff and details of tea cultivation and tea production; this trip focused on aesthetic aspects of tea culture and unique styles of Japanese tea wares and accoutrements. Tea and clay, that’s what we were exploring: the finely crafted elements of each that is quintessentially Japanese.
For me, one of Japan’s most interesting teas is matcha tea. This form of tea is made from small chopped tea leaves ( that have had the stem end and veins stripped out ) that are ground to a superfine talc-like consistency between two large granite stones in a matcha grinding mill.
The tea is placed in a hopper atop the mill. The top stone disc slowly rotates while the tea is drawn down into the center of the mill. The pieces of tea give themselves up to the finely chisled grooves that have been hand-carved on the two inner facing surfaces of the stone discs. The top stone slowly rotates over the bottom stone, and renders the leaves into a fine powder.
In the grinding room, the dull, soft scraping sounds made by the stones as they slowly turn is hypnotic. The aroma is penetrating and extremely vegetal – nothing else smells quite like a room full of matcha, not even a tea factory. I instantly want to drink some; but that will have to come a bit later.
How is matcha used ? Primarily it is drunk as a simple bowl of tea. Matcha is whisked to a light froth in an over-sized teabowl ( chawan ) and drunk during the Japanese tea ceremony ( Chanoyu ). It is also drunk in an everyday style by many who just love the fresh, intense taste of powdered tea. Drinking matcha is, essentially, consuming whole tea leaves ( without having to chew the leaves ! )
The whisks ( chasens ) used to froth the matcha are hand-cut from sections of bamboo. The number of individual ‘tines’ that have been cut into the whisk determines the selling price – the more tines, the more skill was needed to achieve this and hence, a higher selling cost. Those made by famous bamboo artists and from special species of bamboo will add more to the cost as well. There are many shapes of whisks available, and some have ‘hooks’ on the ends of the tines while others do not.
As with everything that has to do with Japanese tea, all manner of small details are must be carefully considered for the occasion. Protocol is important and options must be in accord with usage or intent.
But, matcha also has a lighter side. Many in Japan drink matcha as a cup of everyday tea. Mixed with water and drunk without the ceremony, matcha is perhaps the most nutrient dense tea one can consume.
Matcha is also used to make various sweets including the stunning, vivid, emerald-green matcha ice cream. This vividly colored concoction is sold in many shops in Kyoto and Uji and just like differences in styles of ice cream in the West, both soft-serve and firm matcha ice cream is sold.
I prefer the hard, creamy style, and one of the most delicious matcha ice cream desserts I had in Kyoto was at Kanōshōju-an, a lovely old tea and sweets shop. The ice cream came with other goodies added, too, such as red beans; chewy, round balls of mochi or rice flour; and pieces of a firm nut-like fruit that resembled a chestnut. A beautiful presentation in a serene and peaceful setting – heavenly and refreshing.