-’Chatsumi’, a traditional nursery rhyme in Japan.
The temperature’s falling, which seems the perfect excuse to snuggle up with a cup of tea in a favourite armchair. The Japanese take it to the next level, through the concept of ‘roji’, the art of creating a sacred, separate space for tea drinking. Roji literally means ‘dewy ground’ and refers to the garden through which one walks to a tea room for a tea ceremony. That’s some tea-dedication right there.
The secluded garden leading to Kakuun-tei, a teahouse hidden in amongst Tokyo’s Shibuya skyscrapers.
Southwest of Kyoto, Wazuka is Japan’s revered ‘teatopia’. This small town with a population of less than 4000 people is renowned for producing some of the finest tea in the world. Surrounded by rolling tea fields, the small local farms produce matcha, green tea and everything delicious in between.
Scenes from the Obubu Tea Farm, in the heart of Wazuka. New season, new growth, new life: the landscape in a sea of green.
Japanese green is unique amongst teas. High quality tea leaves are handpicked by expert tea growers. The young tea buds are then on the same day steamed, dried, rolled and packed without pause so as to preserve their freshness and flavour.
Growing green tea in Wazuka is a delicate process. Like producing varieties of wine, the exact timing, climate, location, harvesting and brewing are crucial in the development of flavour. Each batch will have a signature taste, an expression of the tea plant’s growth and the careful handiwork of the farmer.
Take dark brown Hojicha, harvested in the heat of June and roasted after the leaves are steamed. It has a deep, hot, smokey and slightly sweet flavour with notes of vanilla and warm charcoal.
Meanwhile Gyokuro is shaded from the sun for three weeks before its May harvest and only lightly steamed. The result is a softer, pale green tea with a silky and rich umami flavor accompanied by hints of caramel and a lingering melon aroma.
Summery Senchas, grown in full sunshine and harvested later in July, are a bright yellow with a sharp, zingy floral aftertaste and gentle kiwi undertones.
Kyobancha is unique to the Kyoto area and is distinguished by its smoky aroma. Harvested in March from leaves that have matured over the winter months, it is considered the very last tea crop of the year. And this is reflected in the taste. The leaves are roasted, producing a comforting, warming, wintery, woody flavour. Definitely one to take the chill off.
Then to mix it up there’s Genmaicha, one of Japan’s most popular teas. It’s made by combining unshaded Bancha leaves harvested in June with roasted rice. This tea is brass yellow in colour, with a nutty pecan-like aroma and buttery sweet taste.
This appreciation of tea reflects the Japanese sensitivity to the changing of the seasons and an awareness of the passage of time.
Serenity at work. The tea growers traditionally wore a ‘sedge’ hat. Wide brimmed, it protects from the sun and rain. When made of straw or matting, these hats can be dipped in water and worn as an impromptu evaporating-cooling device. Yohji Yamamoto even featured sedge hats in his SS 2004 collection.
Meet Sencha and Hojicha, the resident goats on the Obubu tea farm. They’re natural weedkillers (read weed-eaters). Hojicha is the roasted brown colour, like roasted Hojicha tea. Sencha is, by default, the other one.
Whereas most tea in Japan these days is harvested with the use of machinery, the high grade green teas in Wazuka are hand-picked. Hand plucked tea is smoother, mellower and more fragrant. You’d use one of these baskets in the fields for collecting the tea leaves.
Matcha is green tea leaves which have been ground into a fine powder on a stone mill.
Matcha as we know it was actually developed by accident: during one harsh winter the farmers decided to cover their tea plants with reed and straw to prevent damage by frost right before the harvest. They realised that the shaded plants compensated for the lack of sunlight by producing more chlorophyll. It is the super-green young buds, meticulously grown and selectively harvested, which are these days handpicked and processed into the full-bodied and umami-flavoured matcha now so loved.
Bonus: this stone-ground tea is reputed for being high in antioxidants such as catechin. Totes Gwyneth Paltrow.
Matcha is typically whisked with hot water in a chawan bowl using a bamboo whisk or ‘chasen’, to give the tea its creamy and frothy texture. The more bristles on the chasen, the better the lather. Soft water heated to just 65 degrees with a dash of milk makes for the mellowest taste.
A bowl of matcha is typically prepared in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony setting with a serving of ‘wagashi’ (Japanese confectionery). We recommend the mini fish-shaped biscuits (Kotaiyaki) and green tea mochi. Or try our green tea sweets in store.
A myriad of spoons used in the preparation and presentation of green tea, all beautifully crafted and works of art in their own right.
We were invited to a tea tasting by the lovely people at the Obubu tea farm. Sencha, gyokuro, kukicha, genmaicha…Pots of tea leaves line the walls. Each variety is brewed for a different length of time and to a specific temperature, to bring out the fresh and subtle flavours. Such consideration and care is the essence of high quality Japanese green tea.
The tea salon at Obubu, with hand-painted shoji screens. A soft fragrance perfumes the air. The ritual of drinking tea is intended to find calm. Nothing is rushed. It’s just you and the tea. Tea is refreshment not just for the body, but for the mind and soul.
If you ever make it to Wazuka, Obubu and other farms in the area regularly host guided tours, tea picking experiences and tea tasting. You can also sample recipes in nearby Uji such as ‘ochazuke’: green tea poured over rice with savoury toppings, ‘cha-soba’: buckwheat noodles flavored with green tea powder, and even green tea tempura. It’s a day-trip from Kyoto.
Closer to home, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is one of the few places in the UK where you can experience an authentic Japanese tea ceremony, subject to booking.
You can find our matcha and indigo-leaf tea favourites in store. We have some lovely green and sakura blossom teas arriving this autumn, plus smoky flavours from the forest and a tea-coffee blend. There’s also an Artrip guide to the best tea houses in Tokyo and the latest issue of ‘Journal du Thé’, the handbook for any true ocha-zuki.