It has been a long, long time since I have visited a country that made me want to hop straight back onto a plane the very second I left it.
It may be due to the palpable foreignness of the place, the mind-boggling variety of strange food, customs and landscapes, the impenetrable language… whatever it was, Japan has got me hooked and I can’t wait to head back!
Just a week in the country has left me with so much I’d like to share that I’m sure my Platetrotter posts are going to be pretty one-tracked for the next few weeks.
And high on that list of memorable experiences would have to be my much anticipated introduction to matcha tea.
I have to confess that I have never tasted matcha tea prior to visiting Japan. Having heard mixed reviews about it, I had clung onto the idea that I would save that first taste of matcha for the land of its origin.
Nowhere seemed like a more appropriate place in Japan to try this strange tea than Kyoto, the beautiful old capital of Japan and the cultural heart and soul of the country. And when I came across a great little blog about Japanese tea and all its associated customs and quirks, I knew the lady who wrote it – Atsuko Mori – was the one to introduce me to matcha.
Atsuko runs authentic Japanese tea ceremony sessions at Camellia, a 100-year geisha house in Gion – touted to be among the most beautiful spots to enjoy this essential Japanese experience.
Just the walk to the tea room was enough to set the mood for a relaxing encounter. The path we took wound its way through serene temple grounds – all green gardens and grey, glistening roofs – and as it was the last day of the year, the grounds were filled with people giving thanks for the year that was and praying for success and happiness in the year to come.
The old geisha district of Gion is one of the city’s most atmospheric places to wander around and is probably best to see both early in the morning, as the bright dawn glow hits the traditional wooden matchiya houses, and in the evening when the lanterns come on and make you feel you are walking back in time.
The tea ceremony itself is hosted by Atsuko in a bright little room, with traditional tatami mat flooring. After introducing the idea of chanoyu – or the tea ceremony – Atsuko proceeded to demonstrate the graceful sequence of movements that go into creating a perfect cup of Japanese tea.
This included purification of the vessels, heating of the bowls, scooping out the matcha tea using a tiny bamboo spoon and then whisking the tea into a light and frothy cup using a bamboo whisk. The tea ceremony is taught in special schools and takes years to practice and perfect. Atsuko said she has been practicing it for more than 20 years.
The tea itself is made from young delicate green tea buds, that have often been left in the shade or covered to stimulate extra chlorophyll production (responsible for matcha tea’s distinctive bright green hue). The plucked tea leaves are dried flat, de-veined and de-stemmed before being milled to a super fine talc-like consistency. The tea we drank tasted very “green” – like drinking the scent of a forest or woods with a dry sweetish flavor profile unlike any tea I had drunk before.
As we participated in the tea ceremony on the last day of the year, the cup and the tea caddy used in the ceremony depicted a horse (the Eastern animal associated with the year 2014) as a form of reflection on the year past.
The kakemono (traditional scroll hanging) and complementary ikebana arrangement which is meant to set the mood of the ceremony also paid tribute to the new year in the form of a rising sun on the scroll (January 1st is a huge festival in Japan, with many people staying up all night to watch the first sunrise of the year and then celebrating each time they do something for the “first” time in the following year).
The ikebana arrangement included Japan Pine (a celebratory form of greenery and the most important of the Japanese trio of plants used to symbolize happiness and celebrations – Sho Chiku Bai, which includes Sho (Pine) Chiku (Bamboo) and Bai (Plum).
The tea ceremony is often accompanied by quirky Japanese sweets, all of which have their own associated traditions and stories. For example, Japanese sweets are often only served in odd numbers – especially to couples – so that they are not easy to divide and have to be shared.
As the source that led me to this beautiful little tea room, Atsuko’s blog is a great resource on Japanese tea customs and traditions – everything from sweets to furniture to sacred waters used in the preparation of the tea ceremony – making for some fascinating little nuggets on this must-try Japanese experience. Definitely worth a read!
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