Tag Archives: japan

Spring Sencha from Obubu

In my trip to Japan this spring, I was looking for a way to visit some tea fields and learn about tea production from farmers. Several people told me that this would be difficult given that I don’t speak Japanese. It turns out it wasn’t that hard after all, thanks to the wonderful people at Obubu Tea Farms in Wazuka, Uji, who make all sorts of tea, give daily tours in English, and offer training courses in all aspects of tea production! They also have an amazing internship program and a tea club. Overall they’re one of the most kind and fun tea companies I’ve ever encountered. Today I drank a couple of their Sencha teas to compare the flavors and it brought me right back to Wazuka.

The teas I drank were both Spring-harvested Sencha: the Spring Sun and the Sencha of the Earth. As I had explained in my last post, I was awed to discover all the differences in Sencha since I had previously thought them all more-or-less similar. These two present quite a contrast, despite being harvested in the same time frame and processed in the same manner.

I brewed both teas with 5g of leaf for 2 minutes with water at around 50°C. Both cups appeared a light golden-green.

Sencha of the Spring Sun

The Sencha of the Spring Sun is made up of long, needle-like rolled leaves in brilliant white-and-green jade hues. In the cup I tasted flavors of freshly cut grass, fresh dill, and celery, with a lot of bright notes. The Yabukita cultivar probably contributes to this character, although there’s a lot I still need to learn about the effects of different Japanese cultivars. It has a full mouth feel that leaves a lingering dryness behind.

Sencha of the Earth

The Sencha of the Earth has shorter, darker leaves, but they’re still longer than most of the factory Sencha I’ve had in the past. The flavors I tasted were more raw, reminding me of wicker, green beans, and carrots. The mouth feel was similar to the Spring Sun but a bit thicker with more of an oily texture. Perhaps this is due to the Zairai cultivar, but again I still know so little about Japanese cultivars that it’s hard to say.

For a second infusion, I brewed both teas for 1 minute at roughly the same water temperature. Both were still a delicate golden-green, and neither had any unpleasant bitterness. The second infusions tasted similar to the first, only with their flavors more pronounced. The Sun Sencha was still bright and reminiscent of dill and the Earth Sencha was all straw and spinach. The third and fourth infusions still had quite a bit of flavor, although the specific notes became more subdued. The main difference was that the Sun Sencha remained bright and sweet tasting while the Earth Sencha remained rich and savory.

I’m extra glad to have discovered Obubu because they are a wealth of knowledge and they love to share it. They were founded when several young people turned away from the rushed pace of the modern world and fell in love with Uji tea. They learned that many tea gardens in traditional families were being abandoned. The result is the loss of centuries-old knowledge, not to mention all those tea plants. The founders of Obubu decided to create a tea company whose mission is not only to produce high quality tea, but also to educate the world about this unique product and to share the art as widely as possible, keeping it alive.

We took a half-day tour and learned a lot. We tasted many teas (including an iced gyokuro!), learned about processing, cultivars, harvesting, and chemical analysis, before visiting several tea gardens and their small factory. Although Obubu makes the majority of their tea using machines, they are also teaching and practicing hand-crafting arts which could otherwise so easily be lost. I can only imagine what I’d absorb if I took their master’s course or became an intern. One of their interns even wrote when I think might be the most concise and informative English-language text on Japanese tea: Japanese Tea: a Comprehensive Guide.

Obubu’s tea club is one of the most interesting subscriptions in the world of tea that I’ve seen. It’s essentially a community supported agriculture service where you become an honorary farm owner. They also send you quite a bit of tea four times a year, once after each of the main harvests! If that sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend supporting their mission. And if you ever end up in the Kyoto region, give them a visit! You won’t regret it.

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.