Re-discovering Japanese tea

This spring I had the amazing chance to visit Japan for two weeks. While I certainly love Japanese tea (we had a Cha-no-yu ceremony at our wedding), I’ve always treated it as a little… less interesting than the wide breadth of Chinese and Taiwanese tea. This is not totally surprising since I’ve traveled in China and Taiwan and spent a lot of time learning and tasting tea from those regions. My experience with Japanese tea has been mostly limited to one example from each of what I think of as their main categories: Sencha, Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Genmaicha, Hojicha, Kukicha, and the inimitable Matcha. I’ve had a few other niche experiences such as Shincha, Kamairicha, Tamaryokucha, Tencha, Aracha, and Fukamushi Sencha, but for the most part I wasn’t drawn to Japanese tea as a realm to explore. It was basically all green tea, and it all tasted – forgive the obvious bias – “the same”. Guess what? I was missing out.

It turns out that, as I should have inferred, Japanese tea has just as much variety and complexity as Chinese tea. There’s a massive range of Sencha, a spectrum of hand-processing and machine-processing techniques, no end of Matcha characteristics, Japanese red tea (aka black tea), aged tea, and even tea that defies categorization. I also discovered teas I had never before heard of like Kawayanagi and Karigane. Even in the relatively small subcategory of roasted tea (Hojicha) there’s quite a difference in leaf material, roasting percentage, and cultivar.

That last bit was perhaps the most surprising; I learned a long time ago that brewing Japanese green tea required quite a lot more care than, say, a Zhejiang Long Jing. While I can get away with a one-and-a-half minute infusion at 80°C for the latter, that kind of brewing can quickly produce a bitter cloudy soup when applied to Sencha. My routine for most Japanese tea was 70°C for 1 minute exactly, and then an instant infusion after that. And while a good Pinglin Baozhong can make five infusions with little trouble, two tasty infusions of Sencha was a mark of high skill.

Imagine my shock when I sat down for a cup with the proprietor of a tea stall in Kyoto (whose business, Horaido, has been there for 200 years) and proceeded to drink at least five delicious infusions of rich and savory Gyokuro brewed without any particular focus on time other than a vague sense of “a couple minutes”. As we talked, Mr. Nagahiro Yasumori explained that, to the Japanese connoisseur, water too hot to bathe in is too hot for tea. He used water that was roughly 40°C! To pull out the rich concentration of flavors, he only poured in enough water to just cover the pile of jade leaves in the pot. This creates a very small amount of liquor, and so the pot and the cups were as small as Chinese gongfu tools. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of capturing every last drop, which requires a certain meditative patience as each drop slowly gathers, coalesces, and then falls into the pitcher. He called these “golden drops”, and the metaphoric importance was not an overstatement.

Later I had the opportunity to have five incredible infusions of an aged Sencha brilliantly made by a tea sommelier in the eclectic back streets of Omotesando, Shibuya, Tokyo. At his little shop of Chachanoma, Mr. Yoshi Watada used several different temperatures to make each infusion a whole experience unto itself. This master not only prepared each infusion in its own particular way, he also served each one in a different vessel to bring out different characteristics. From a tiny funnel-shaped cup to a wide, round cup, to a bulbous red wine glass (for the third, cold, infusion), the experience of each taste was emphasized and refined in amazing ways.

This whole adventure left me with a deep reminder of the critical relevance of what in Zen is called “don’t know mind”. It’s so important to come back to the things we are most familiar with with the mindset of a beginner. Our unconscious biases strangle our ability to learn and to discover, and the more we think we know, often the less we really understand. I’m so grateful for having had this opportunity to rediscover Japanese tea. I still have so much experimenting to do! Hopefully I’ll have a few more blog posts coming in the near future to share those experiments with you.

4 thoughts on “Re-discovering Japanese tea

  1. Hudson Gardner

    I have long “known” (there is so much to know) this world of Japanese tea far more than I know Chinese or Taiwanese. So I am coming from the other direction! Indeed sencha is quite difficult to steep well. And you generally use water that is a lot cooler than other teas. It’s very delicate. However if you nail it, the flavor is singular. I’m happy you had these experiences!

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