Being a tea connoisseur, I made it my mission to find hidden tea houses deep within the Japanese mountains, to seek the joyfully bitter taste of matcha green tea, and to find the local growers who devote their lives to cultivating the camellia sinensis plant and drying it’s leaves. This is my journey.
Most travelers know Hiroshima as the first place targeted by a nuclear weapon in 1945. Today, Hiroshima is a city dedicated to peace. On the side of Hiroshima’s Mt. Mitaki-yama, not far from the epicenter of the bomb, is a heavily forested valley, with multiple waterfalls. Hidden within this mossy mountainous terrain, one can hear Shingon Buddhist monks chanting, like they did back in 809, when they first settled here. Nestled within the forest, is a tiny teahouse, Kutenan, which serves traditional Japanese fare next to the lilting melodies of the chanting Monks. Kutenan is like an old curiosity shop with lots of striking masks hung on the wall, and all sorts of odds and ends scattered about the place. It was the perfect spot for tea on a rainy afternoon. The owner, a kindly Japanese baachan (grandma), presented us with her home-made delicacies, steaming matcha tea and warabi-mochi covered in kinako powder. I was so cozy, I didn’t want to leave.
Having sampled matcha green tea in the forest, I wanted to see how this pungent tea was grown and produced. At the foot of Mt. Fuji the climate is ideal for growing green tea. With our guide, we visited a small mother/son orchard in Shizuoka, near the port of Shimizu. We walked amongst the plants, smelled, touched, tasted, and absorbed ourselves in tea. Matcha gets its name from the Japanese words “ma” meaning rubbed or ground, and “cha” meaning tea. When you order traditional green tea, components from the leaves get infused into the hot water, then the leaves are discarded. With matcha, you’re drinking the actual leaves, which have been finely powdered and made into a solution, that is whisked with hot water to make a frothy beverage. The tea leaves are picked, steamed, air dried, de-stemmed and ground-on-ancient-stone-grinding-wheels. We sampled their matcha, which was deliciously pungent with a wheat and umami flavor, and a deep verde palette.
Toyko is always at the forefront of new design and hip trends, and tea is no exception. I was able to experience a modern tea service at Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience. We were greeted by the “tea tender,” a cross between a scientist and a bartender, and shown our seats at the intimate tea bar. The experience ranges in price from $60-70, and includes three kinds of tea and light bites. A simple pot of tea is $15. My friends and I each selected a different pot of tea and a snack. There was one other local lady enjoying tea at the bar when we arrived. Our “lively” conversation caused her to move seats to the end of the bar, which I’m afraid did not help very much with the noise factor. It was difficult not to stifle our laughter when Scott’s teacup arrived in miniature size, and when we were asked to eat Scott’s left-over tea leaves. We didn’t know what our snacks were, so those were a blind taste-test, some good, and some not-so-good. The teas were all divine. (We didn’t sample the liquor teas which were listed on one solid page of the menu.) It was surely a new experience for me and an interesting one.
In comparison, we were able to have a proper English tea in the British Embassy in Hakodate, Hokkaido Prefecture in Northern Japan. Our tea came complete with delicious scones, Devonshire cream, jam, and finger sandwiches. It was scrumptious.
Some of my finest memories of tea are the cups of tea I shared with new Japanese friends I met while traveling. Over a cup of tea, one can learn life’s lessons, pearls of wisdom, and touches of humor. Sit down for a cup and enjoy!