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Tea, or ocha, as it is called in Japan, is not just a drink. It forms the basis for Japan’s entire aesthetic life. Painting, calligraphy, gardens, architecture, poetry, ikebana, ceramics, and cuisine all trace their roots to Sado, the “way of tea,” In fact, many aspects of Japanese culture can be said to have formed from the tea culture.
Tea was introduced from China in the 6th Century, but didn’t become popular until late in the 12th century, with the spread of Zen Buddhism. During this period, Japanese monks who were allowed to study, and therefore, trade with China, brought back not only knowledge, but many treasures, including art and tea. Matcha was a powdered form of tea used by monks in China to stay awake. Curiously, it is no longer found in China, but is widely used in Japan. Matcha is made of the tips of fresh tea leaves, and is a beautiful shade of light green. A few scoops of powder is placed in a tea bowl and is whisked with hot water to a frothy consistency. The flavor is pleasantly bitter and goes particularly well with wagashi (Japanese sweets).
Japanese green tea is of the Chinese type, while English black tea hails from Assam in India. The uniquely Japanese method of cultivation, which includes the limitation of direct sunlight weeks before harvest, results in a sweeter tasting tea. Traditional methods like hand-picking also greatly enhance the flavor and quality of the tea, but such intensive labor is increasingly rare. These days, machines pick most of the tea in Japan. Japanese tea is also steamed, which prevents fermentation and preserves its' aroma and bright green color.
Tea and Health
The health benefits of tea are becoming widely known and is seen as something of a miracle. Tea contains important antioxidants and is high in vitamin C and D. The Japanese believe it slows the ageing process, prevents colds and improves skin lustre. Recent studies have shown that certain types of green tea even prevents some types of cancer. The various types of green tea profiled in the sidebar have various levels of caffine.
How to Brew a Perfect Cup of Tea
It is a good idea to use a small tea pot for high-quality teas such as sencha and gyokuro varieties, as the temperature can be better controlled. This is why there are diminutive teacups (often called sencha cups) made specifically for high-quality tea. It is important to use water that is not too hot: the optimal temperature is 120°. Using hotter water would ‘burn’ the tea leaves, spoiling the subtleties of their delicate flavor and killing beneficial antioxidants. To ensure the right temperature, pour the water into four cups. (This allows the cups to warm and the water to cool.) Then, pour the water back into the teapot along with 2 teaspoons of tea leaves. Allow to sit for a few minutes. Line the cups up, pouring one by one, up to half. Fill the forth cup and then return to the first in order to get the same strength in each cup.
Ippodo is a classic tea shop in Kyoto that has been in existence for almost 300 years. They also have an English language website and online shop. For more information, visit the Ippodo article in the Kyoto travel section
Matcha is used for tea ceremonies, and comes in a powdered form; the leaves are steamed, dried flat, and powdered.
Gyokuro is the best quality leaf tea; baby leaves are hand-picked in early spring, then steamed and dried. It should be brewed with warm, not hot, water.
Sen-cha “infused tea” is mid-level quality, suitable for daily use, and is brewed with hot water.
Ban-cha is a coarse and inexpensive tea, which is served free with meals at restaurants. Of a lower grade, it contains more stems and twigs, and required boiling hot water.
Hoji-cha is roasted ban-cha, which has a slightly bitter, smoky flavor, and is brown in color. Brew with boiling hot water.
Genmai-cha is ban-cha with roasted grains of rice, which lend a nice nutty flavor.
Mugi-cha is actually not made of tea at all, but roasted grains of barley. It’s enjoyed during hot weather, infused with cold water and served chilled.