Her hands quickly unfold a colorful fabric that she uses to clean the chansen. She quickly folds the fabric and slips it into the top of her kimono. Then she grabs a few grams of matcha and delicately deposits the green powder on the bottom of the bowl. With one hand, she takes the heavy kettle and pours the hot water into the bowl. She then grabs the chansen and with a firm gesture begins to beat the mixture.
We wait that the preparation becomes foamy. Our back is straight; We are kneeling on a tatami, both hands on our thighs. Finally, by bowing she shows us the matcha bowl and put it down near the pastry. We thank her by bowing back, the whole thing happening in silence. We taste the pastry with a peak of bamboo and then we take the bowl of matcha with 2 hands. We approach it to our forehead, then we turn it three times with the right hand so that the delicate pattern engraved on the bowl does not touch our lips.
With the left hand under the bowl, right hand on the right side, we take 3 large sips of the unctuous beverage and noisily aspirate the last bit. Gently our right thumb cleans the edge of the bowl before erasing the green trace on the top of the bowl. We turn the bowl with our right hand to put back the drawing in front of us.
We have just attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the Taiho-An tea house in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. Parenthesis of calm and serenity in a Japan full of frenzy and modernity. This allows us to reconnect with an ancestral tradition of the country. This codified ceremonial magnifies the matcha and introduces it as the queen beverage of meditation and serenity.
We leave the tea house with the powerful taste of matcha still in our mouth and we walk along the river. Uji is the capital of tea in Japan and you can feel it on every street corner!
Did you know ?
The ceremony of Japanese tea was codified in the sixteenth century by Sen No Rikyu, a tea master and a monk from the Zen tradition. The ceremony is based on four main principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. It takes place in a tea house composed of 2 rooms: the preparation room and the tasting room. Bare, the tasting room is only decorated by an alcove with a calligraphic roll and a simple floral decoration. The room is covered with tatamis where it is necessary to kneel. The ceremony master leads the tasting via a very precise protocol. Beyond a simple Matcha tasting, the art of the tea ceremony invites you to meditation and serenity.
We arrived a few days ago Japan, THE country of green tea. We noticed immediately that drinking tea seems slightly less anchored in the Japanese daily routine than in China, but the huge amount of tea houses and tea shops proves the keen interest of Japanese for this beverage. Japan produces almost exclusively green tea but also consumes black tea from Darjeeling and oolong from China or Taiwan.
The Kyoto prefecture is very famous and a must-see when it comes to tea as it is here that tea was first grown in Japan. Let’s go back in time, and more precisely in the XIIth century when a Japanese monk named Eisai brought back from his trip to China tea seeds. With the help of a monk from the Keniji temple, he planted his seeds in a mountainous area, north of Kyoto. The success was quick! At that time, the Chinese were consuming tea powder and following monk Eisai teaching it is thus this method of consumption that the Japanese adopted. The tea leaves are ground and then beaten in hot water. While tea consumption in China evolved towards infusion and spread the process all over the world, the Japanese retained and perfected this ancestral method … This is matcha!
Did you know ?
Japan produces 4 main types of green tea:
– The matcha: the leaves are harvested in shady plantations and then reduced to fine powder. This is a premium tea produced with the best quality leaves, harvested once in the year.
– The gyokuro: the leaves are also derived from shady plantations but its process is closer to a classic green tea. It is drunk in infusion. Its flavor ‘umami’ is surprising
– The sencha: This is the most popular Japanese daily drink. The sencha comes from quality leaves, small size and spring harvest (the most famous) or sometimes summer.
– The bancha: Another “day-to-day”drink is obtained with lower quality leaves (bigger leaves and/or later harvests). Japan produces several kinds of it. We were able to test the Hojicha where the leaves are roasted after being steamed and the Genmaicha where the tea leaves are mixed with puffed rice.
The farmers of Uji, a village near Kyoto, decided to also try and planted some tea bushes. Nevertheless, the plains of Uji did not allow the tea plants to benefit from the natural shade of the mountains just before the harvest and this greatly affected the quality of the leaves. To remedy this, the farmers in the Uji region began to cover their plantations with a structure made of bamboo and rice straw 20 days before the harvest (mid-April). The result was so conclusive that this method is still used today for the production of the best Japanese green teas, gyokuro and matcha.
In Uji, we go to Okunoyama Chaen, a tea garden of more than 650 years old. Openwork plastic covers have replaced the bamboo roofs but the same shading technique is used. This will allow the tea plants to develop powerful aromas.
The Uji area represents only 3% of the Japanese production, but its green teas, matcha and gyokuro, are the best vintage of Japan. Here quality takes precedence over quantity. There is only one harvest per year.
To find out more about matcha, king of the Japanese teas, we have an appointment with Marukyu Koyama-En, one of the market leaders. The head office and the matcha production fields are located in Uji. They also produce sencha and gyokuro but their specialty remains the matcha (70% of the production).
Someone from the sales team welcomes us with a guide who speaks English. The factory that we are going to visit is only the last part of the production process of the matcha. The preliminary steps are explained through pictures.
Plucking is done once a year, 100% by hand. The fresh leaves are steamed to stop the oxidation and then dried in an oven. At that time, only 20% of the weight of the crop remains. The leaves are then placed in the refrigerator while waiting for the last part of the process which is carried out according to the customers’ needs. In fact, the matcha powder can only be stored for a limited time, so it is important to minilize the time between the factory process and the consumption. Matcha production is done on demand and will be unusable after 6 months. The tea is then transported to the factory where we are. We follow the guide with enthusiasm for the visit. Security and confidentiality are really strict. It is forbidden to take pictures and we can only observe behind windows the ultra modern machines which seem all new to us. Factory visits in Indonesia and Kenya seem far away!
The leaves are aspirated by large pipes that lead to a kind of giant chopper where the leaves are cut into pieces. A passage in another machine is needed to remove the broken pieces, the veins and the stalks so that we only keep the leaves themselves (which will then be called tencha). A sieve allows to sort out the leaves according to their size before being dried in huge ovens. The leaves pass under an electrostatic roller to remove the last fragments. At the end, only 1/10 of its original weight remains!
We have the chance to visit his working room where the tasting takes place. The walls are fully painted in black so the color of the leaves and liquor are not altered. It is hermetically sealed to block any nuisance (olfactory, sound) that could disturb the senses of the master.
The north-facing windows help to obtain a light that is soft enough to examine the colors of the leaves. The different tenchas are in front of him and thanks to his ultra sensitive palate and to his experiences, he will find the perfect balance to meet customers’ expectations.
Once he has given his instructions on his “recipe”, it is time for the last stage of the production: the grindstone. A dozen stones are working in front of us, protected by a window. 2 large cylinders in granite rotate against each other in the opposite direction. The tencha is introduced by a funnel and the 2 wheels grind the leaves. A fine green powder comes out of these grindstones and preciously collected. This is the final product: the matcha as it is found in the shops. The powder will be carefully controlled in a specific room to ensure that there are no bacteria, perfect moisture content and proper powder calibration. Hermetically closed, the matcha will then be sent all over Japan and around the world. The expiration date is key because the matcha will lose some of its benefits after 6 months.
We then got a quick introduction of the company’s history. Kyujiro Koyama was the first of the Koyama lineage to cultivate tea at the end of the 17th century. The company has grown over the years and has always got as a credo the quality. Today it is one of the best teas in Japan. The company produces 300 tons of matcha a year and has no difficulty selling them, as the demand is growing. It exports a little of its production in France in particular through the Palais des Thés shops.
We conclude the visit with a tasting of a mid-range matcha. Under the guidance of the guide, we try to prepare our first matcha. Measurements are important: 2 grams of powder for 70 ml of water at 85 °C. We stir with a bamboo whisk (chansen) gently making big “M”. Then the beat should become much more dynamic and fast from top to bottom of the bowl. The mixture becomes creamy and small bubbles appear. The beat movement must then slow down and remove the bubbles. Once the mixture is thick and creamy, the whisk should be gently removed from the center of the bowl. The theory is simple but in practice…. It’s more complicated! Our 2 bowls do not have the soft texture of our guide and still have too many bubbles. No sooner said than done, the guide takes grabbed our whip and made it up. Always coming together with a pastry, we taste our matcha which was delicious!
In the small shop of the factory, it is a good occasion for a matcha ice cream to keep the taste of the matcha with a slightly colder touch!
Did you know ?
The tea, which was only available in thin powder that had to be beat vigorously with hot water, was accessible for many decades to nobles and monks to help them in their meditation. The Zen priest Sen No Rikyu codified its consumption in the seventeenth century. From then on, tea consumption spread out in large cities such as Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka in the wolrd of wealthy merchants and samurai. It was not until the eighteenth century and the appearance of sencha, tea consumed via an infusion of leaves, that consumption reaches all level of the population. Today Japanese tea consumption has opened to new teas such as Darjeeling black tea or Taiwanese and Chinese oolongs. However the favorite tea remains the sencha.
But this day in Uji is far from being over…
It is already lunch time and we are heading towards the main street of the city. All the shops offer matcha products. Biscuits, candy, jams, jellies, ice creams … They have a matcha version of almost everything. Do you like matcha? You would get crazy in front of these matcha paradises! For us this afternoon, it will be matcha soba (cold pasta with whole flour).
They are prepared in front of us, the chef kneaded the dough (light green thanks to the matcha), trout in all directions then flattened it. Finally he cuts it into thin strips with a sharp knife. Our noodles arrive on a wooden tray … great isn’t it? To be honest, the matcha is more about the funny color of the pasta than the real taste but the homemade soba remain delicious!
After lunch, we head for the Shinto shrine of Ujigami.
The temple protects a holy spring, it is said that tea prepared with this water has an exquisite taste and brings many health benefits. An annual festival takes place in October in this temple and on this occasion, a tea, prepared with water from the spring, is offered to former tea masters.
Today, we are the only visitors apart from an old grandfather who is drawing water to put in cans that he will surely bring home. We do not dare to taste the water but appreciate the tranquility of the place.
Did you know ?
Shintoism is a spiritual as well as philosophical movement that is only found in Japan. Sinto means ‘the way of the divinities’ and has its roots in animism. In Shintoism, the divine is found in nature, animals and famous men. Shinto temples are located everywhere in Japan and each of them is dedicated to a specific divinity that can be rain, a great warrior or raccoon which protects from thieves.
Our day at Uji would not be complete without a visit to the very old Tsuen Chaya tea house. It is more than 850 years old and owned by the same family from its beginning, the Tsuen. We meet Shinbayashi, who represents the 24th generation. His shop is decorated with old tea jars now empty as he explains. He prepares his own teas after buying the leaves from the surrounding producers. His job is to select the best leaves and mix them to produce the best teas. This work requires a perfect knowledge of tea and an excellent use of the senses. He explains all this by offering us a cup of Hochicha, a roasted green tea. Shinbayashi perpetuates the family tradition and his children after him will take over. As in China, it seems to us that tea is often a family business!
After this last cup of tea, we take the train to Kyoto. Saved from the WWII bombing, Kyoto has kept a wide range of historical monuments, including numerous Buddhist and Shinto temples. The following days of our stay are therefore devoted to visiting this impressive historical, cultural and religious heritage but also to the hunt for the best tea houses.
Want to know more about our findings? Discover soon our article about tea houses in Kyoto. Meanwhile, we continue our journey to Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan’s largest tea producing region. See you soon !