Japanese tea is some of the finest in the world, boasting a tradition of growing centuries old. Mie, the prefecture I call home, is the 3rd largest producer of green tea in the nation. The famed Suizawa tea fields stretch out toward the sea from the foot of the breath-taking Suzuka mountain range. Heat lamps perch over the deep-green leaves, ready to aid in maintaining the delicate temperature balance required in the cultivation of high-quality cha.
A new cultivation technique has been in use relatively recently. At a particular time during the growth of new leaves, the tea plants are covered with a black net, allowing the plants to grow in the shade, increasing the catechins in the final product, an antioxidant that aids in metabolism. The flavor is also considered superior, and the finest kabuse-cha (the name of the resulting tea) sells for much higher than the average product.
Visitors are welcome to tour the tea fields by car via the narrow streets that grid the small towns at the foot of the mountains. Signs direct you to each farm’s small store, where the growers are happy to welcome you with a sample of their delicious tea, an explanation of how the tea is grown and cared for, and offer a selection of their finest dried goods. The product is not limited to the beverage. Dried tea leaves are also used in seasoning and garnishing Japanese cuisine, sometimes even served as a companion to alcohol.
The secret to optimum brewing when it comes to green tea is not to boil the water. Heat the water to just before it boils, then add the powder, dried leaves, or tea bag.
The traditional companion to Japanese tea is a traditional Japanese sweet, commonly rice cakes known as mochi. Mochi served with green tea come in many different styles and flavors, reflecting the seasons. Cherry blossom mochi are commonly featured in the springtime, chestnut in the autumn, for a couple examples. But most mochi feature mashed, sweet red or white beans, a famous, traditional dessert with hundreds of years of history in Japanese cuisine.