A few weeks have passed now since returning from an unforgettable trip to Japan yet, as time passes these memories and their impression begin to fade, so it's time to recount this life changing experience with a blog post.
Arriving in Tokyo in the evening and dealing with a minor setback of having forgotten my Japan Rail Pass voucher back in Vancouver, I purchased another and hopped, somewhat bewildered, aboard the Narita Express for an hour long ride into Shinagawa Station. The noise, the throngs of people, the smells and the lights as I walked out into the rainy Tokyo streets put me squarely into scenes from Blade Runner but after a short walk, I found myself on a surprisingly quiet street at the front door of my hotel for the evening.
Having been awake for 24 hours, and feeling it, I walked up and down the street looking for somewhere to eat yet felt completely overwhelmed by the prospect of entering the tiny, packed restaurants and trying to order something! Finally, I saw a relatively quiet restaurant and sat down only to realize it's styled as a European bistro and Italian is on the menu. Too tired and hungry to care and feeling a bit embarrassed to leave, I ordered lasagne. Two others were also in the restaurant and after some furtive glances we struck up a conversation, with the help of Google translate, and traded stories of who we are. They were thoroughly pleased and surprised that someone had come all the way from Canada to explore Japanese tea, something I experienced many times more during the trip. Back at the hotel, I fell into a deep sleep listening to the rain pouring outside and the unexpected lack of city sounds. Am I really in a city of 30 million?
Finally in Kyoto
May 3rd, the start of Golden Week, perhaps the busiest domestic tourist time of the year. My friends back at the restaurant had told me this morning would be busy and asked if I had reserved a seat on the Shinkansen bound for Kyoto. Ummm, no! So I figured I'd beat the crowds and get an early start back to Shinagawa Station to catch the train only to be told all seats were reserved until later afternoon. I'm sure I'm not the only tourist to shuffle around the station feeling highly confused but after finding some onigiri for a snack, I discovered there were unreserved seats on each train...kind of like flying standby. What luck! I found a seat on the next Hikari Super Express and was Kyoto bound.
A note to new visitors to Kyoto...When you're looking at the city map and think, "That doesn't look too far to walk." Well, the maps are deceiving as I found out choosing to walk from Kyoto Station to the charmingly preserved tourist area of Gion. First order of the day, after checking in to the ryokan, go find some comfortable shoes as my RM Williams boots are made for looks not walking. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, Gion Ryokan Q-beh will make you feel completely at home with clean facilities and the friendliest staff. Be sure to say hi the Michan san for me!
With shoes as comfortable as little clouds on my feet now, I took to the streets bustling with what seemed to be all of Japan, and half the world, on vacation.
After several days of the most extraordinary visual buffet, eating piles of ramen and feeling a general wonderment of how such a city can exist, I took the train again for a short trip to Uji, the birthplace of Japanese tea.
It was in Uji, with its proximity to the then capital Kyoto, that tea cultivation began in earnest, some two hundred or so years after the first tea arrived from China. Since its introduction, tea was a medicinal drink reserved for the royal classes but as it later became popular with the gentry after the publication of Eisai's Kissa Yojoki, larger scale cultivation began.
A Day with the Kitamura Family
For several months prior, I had been in regular contact with Sho Kitamura and had been fortunate enough to try the sencha, hand-picked gyokuro and matcha his family crafts from their one hectare of tea gardens. He had explained to me the difficulties small scale producers face in Japan with ever increasing costs of production and rather stagnant prices offered by the large tea buying companies. This, combined with a yearly decrease in national loose leaf tea consumption, has prompted him to market directly to retail companies like Yannoko Tea and highlight the single-origin characteristics of small scale artisan tea. I can only imagine the sense of duty and obligation to continue when coming from a family that has produced tea from these same fields for 350 years.
At Uji station I was warmly met by a smiling Sho san and after picking up his friend Hiroyuki, who's putting together a short documentary about small-scale tea producers, we drove up into the hills lined with the patchwork of tea gardens.
Uji is famed for its superior gyokuro and matcha production as can be seen by extensive tea gardens bursting with tender new growth under the cool canopies that block out up to 90% of sunlight. It is in these conditions, being shaded for three weeks before harvesting, that specialized varietals, such as Gokou, Okumidori and Saemidori, retain the amino acid theanine, yielding a sweeter flavour. The shading also imparts a distinct aroma to the tea leaves.
After visiting their fields, where leaves are painstakingly hand picked by experienced pickers, who are able to pick about 10kg each per day, we were invited to the Kitamura home for a hearty lunch, and some tea of course!
After lunch and a bowl of the most expertly prepared matcha I've tasted, we joined Sho's father , Shoji san, at their local tea cooperative tea factory. Six families used to utilize the factory, but that number has dropped to just three in recent years, presumedly due to rising financial pressures. Steamed hissed from rotating drums, conveyor belts relentlessly turned, transporting leaves through a well used circuit and mechanical arms churned wilted leaves around and around. It was a busy day at the factory with fresh loads of vital leaves arriving throughout the day to be transformed from a simple leaf into an exquisite product. What struck me was the obvious knowledge and experience with which these artisans crafted their tea.
A Brief Explanation of Japanese Tea
Japanese green tea undergoes several steps through processing to turn a raw leaf into a drinkable product. The main difference between Japanese tea and green tea from China, which is pan roasted, is that in order to halt the degradation or oxidation of the leaves immediately after harvesting, Japanese tea is steamed for a short duration, 15 - 45 seconds approximately. Afterwards, the steamed leaves will have lost a lot of their moisture content, and they move through to a rolling process, giving them the characteristic needle like shape. Once dried, the leaves are now stable enough to be stored or sold as aracha or 'rough tea' or they may undergo several steps to sort the aracha into various types of tea of different grade. Buds, stems and flakes are filtered out, as are coarser leaves that were not tender enough to be rolled. Fine stems and flakes are sold as kukicha and mecha, respectivley. Coarser leaves and stems are packaged and sold as bancha, hojicha and genmaicha. In this way, the entire plant is utilized. Even the tea bushes, when heavily pruned every few years, will be used to fertilize the future growth.
After a week in Kyoto, having finally figured out the local train and bus system, I bussed it down to Kyoto Station for a five hour train ride through Osaka and Wakayama, around the Kii Peninsula, to the fabled land of the Kumano Kodo to visit the tranquil mountains surrounding the tea gardens of Dokodemosora. To be continued...