Kutani tea pot
IngredientsTeaSenchaIppodo Tea Shop

Sencha Basics at Ippodo
Ippodo is a shop specializing in tea, and its elegantly simple grey facade has been at the same location on Teramachi-dori since 1846. The main shop is a visual delight, with old traditional ceramic tea storage jars sitting in neat rows along shelves and on the floor along pristine counters. The staff —wearing white head scarves — scurry to and fro with scoops and containers, measuring and packing tea for a steady stream of customers. As you can imagine, the aroma is heavenly, although not as strong as some other tea shops due to Ippodo’s unique method of production (more later). Next door, there’s the Kaboku Tearoom, an elegant oasis of calm — the perfect place to enjoy a mid-afternoon break. It’s a famous place, and every afternoon there’s a line out the door.

On the second floor, there’s an event space/classroom, where on a recent, chilly day, we took part in a lesson on sencha. We were invited by Ippodo’s director of Public Relations & Corporate Planning, Miwa Ozaki, and under her expert tutelage, we were the given an opportunity to learn how to brew sencha, gyokuro and hoji-cha, some of the varieties of loose-leaf green tea.

sencha lesson at Ippodo

Miwa explained that we would be drinking a LOT of sencha during our lesson, enough to really learn about the differences in flavor. Even when using the same variety of tea leaves, every cup is different, depending on the temperature of the water, amount of tea leaves, time of steeping and even the mood of person the brewing the tea.

Tea Production
All tea is made from camellia sinesus; an evergreen, bushy plant with small leaves. The same plant makes matcha (powdered tea, which is not covered in this article), gyokuro, bancha and hoji-cha. The flavor and quality of the tea leaves depend on the amount of sunlight, time of harvest and method of preparation. Ippodo’s fields of neatly trimmed green bushes are located in Uji, to the south of Kyoto, and occupy the top of a mountain.

The plants are dormant in winter, and news buds form in March. By May, the tender bright green shoots, rich in umami (the fifth taste), are ready to harvest. Sunlight increases katekin, which decreases umami and results in the bitter, sharp and refreshing flavor desired in sencha, while decreasing the katekin results in a concentration of umami prevalent in gyokuro. This is achieved by a laborious process of shading the plants with a wooden trellis covered with black cloth. Because of the labor and expense, gyokuro only accounts for 0.4% of Ippodo’s tea, but interestingly, the Kyoto area produces 50% of Japan’s gyokuro tea.

Ippodo’s tea is unique even in Kyoto because the leaves are steamed for 30 seconds 15 to 20 hours of the harvest. This stops the oxidation of the leaves and keeps the bright green color and high levels of vitamin C. Tea bushes cannot be harvested for the first five years, and the most productive years are from 10-25.

Sencha lesson at Ippodo: scooping the tea leaves Sencha lesson at Ippodo: Poring hot water Sencha lesson at Ippodo: pouring the tea
Use a tea bowl that lets the leaves unfurl. Use one heaping tablespoon for a small teapot. While this seems extragavant, you can use the leaves up to three times. The temperature of the water is inverse to the brewing time. To reach the right temperature, pour water into an intermediary cup until it cools to the right temperature Since the tea grows stronger at the end of the pour, pour tea into each cup, alternating bewteen them so that the strength is consistent.

After hearing all about tea production, it was time to learn about brewing. We sampled three of the owner’s favorite kinds of tea, which was helpful because there are so many different varieties, each with a poetic and esoteric name. Miwa explained that the names were given by both of Kyoto's main tea ceremony organizations, Urasenke and Omotesenke.

Since the temperature of the water is inverse to the brewing time, the ideal temperature to brew sencha is 80°C at 50 seconds of steeping time, which provides a nice balance of umami and bitterness.

50° to 60°C at 90 seconds is good for brewing gyokuro, and the taste is utterly fantastic and truly unique. The umami intensity is hard to describe, but has a deep, rich and complex, almost sweet and earthy flavor. However, as the temperature is almost lukewarm, it can take some getting used to. You can also make gyokuro with cold water, which takes 30-40 minutes to steep and is perhaps the best way to enjoy the umami richness.

Hoji cha
Hoji cha is roasted instead of steamed, resulting in a brown color. It also has less caffeine. Use hot boiling water and steep for 20 seconds. Pour all servings to the last drop (do not leave water sitting in the teapot).

Tips for brewing a perfect cup of tea:
1. Use a tea bowl that lets the leaves unfurl. In other words, don’t use a tea ball or teapot with a basket mesh cup. Instead, use a strainer to catch debris while pouring tea into cups, or better yet, use a teapot with fine mesh or small holes to strain the tea.
2. Use an ample amount of leaves: 10 grams for 250 cc of water, which is like one big heaping tablespoon. This was a surprise to us and seemed like an extravagant use of tea leaves, but we also learned that with this amount, you can also enjoy the tea at least three times. 60% of the umami is released in the first brew, while the second and third steepings (Use hotter, 100°C water) are milder. So you can be extravagant and thrifty at the same time.
3. Don’t shake or swirl the leaves in the pot.
4. Keep the tea in a cool, dark place away from foods with strong odors. Since fluctuating temperatures increase moisture, don’t freeze tea. However, if it can’t be consumed within 2-3 weeks, store open containers in the freezer and wait until the surface becomes dry before using.
5. Carve out enough time to brew and savor your tea. It takes time to really do it right. Slow down!


Ancient tea storage jars at Ippodo
Above: Ancient ceramic tea storage jars; Below: Ippodo's quick and easy way to enjoy matcha (powdered green tea) for every day will be covered in a future article.
Modern matcha at Ippodo

ippodo: Kyoto Main Store
Teramachi-dori Nijo, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0915, JAPAN
Tel: 075-211-3421
Fax: 0120-21-0280
Website: http://shop.ippodo-tea.co.jp/kyoto/shopf/
E-mail: info@ippodo-tea.co.jp