Japanese tea is to Japan, what English tea is to England. Just as English tea conjures up stereotypical images of ladies in elegant hats and gentlemen in pressed linen suits enjoying refreshments after a morning safari in India, Japanese tea presents its consumers with a taste of traditional Japan in every sip.
There are two perspectives to the Japanese “Way of Tea”. The first is metaphysical, focusing on the deep, profound and unique nature of Ichi-go ichi-e ( 一期一会), a principle underlying the ethos of Japanese tea ceremonies. It says we should treat every encounter we have with someone, as the first and last encounter we will ever have with that person; we should put our total spirit into the meeting. The making and sharing of tea is a way to show this connection.
Ichi-go ichi-e is just as important to enjoying tea, as the actual tea leaves and water. The second perspective says “The Way of Tea” is as simple as “boiling water, making the tea, and drinking it”. Funnily, these words were actually spoken by Sen no Rikyū, the founder and grandmaster of all current forms of Tea Ceremony.
Whichever school you follow, one thing is clear. Japanese tea is beautiful to drink and full of health benefits. The choice of Japanese tea can be a little daunting – there are officially 28 types. Sencha, a sweet mild tea, is the most popular, but there is also Gyokuro, a top-grade tea with wonderful aromas, Kukicha, produced from discarded sencha leaves, and Hōjicha – created by roasting sencha into a brownish savoury tea. Yet the most classic of all Japanese tea is matcha – the spirit of Japan!
Matcha is a bright, green, finely grounded powder, extracted directly from tea leaves that grow in many parts of Japan. The most famous matcha comes from Uji in Kyoto, but good quality matcha can also be found in Aichi (Nishio) and Mie. Sencha, the most common style of tea, on the other hand usually comes from the tea producing regions of Kagoshima and Shizuoka. Both matcha and sencha use the same tea plant, however matcha is created under shade-grown conditions and is a pure powered form, whereas sencha is grown in sunlight and produced in leaf or tea-bag form.
The story of Japanese tea starts in the 9th century, when it was brought from China and served to Emperor Saga, who liked it so much he started cultivating it himself. Matcha came to Japan later (1187) when a monk from the Tendai sect of Buddhism bought a sample back from China along with the skills of making matcha using a mortar and pestle – a tradition still performed in Uji today.
During the Kamakura period, matcha gained popularity amongst the rich and warrior class. Elaborate events were held around tea, including “tea of amusement” (Tōcha) parties, where guests had to guess if the tea was “real” (grown in Uji) or “non-tea” (grown in another part of Japan). These “honcha and hicha” parties were lavish affairs where hosts boasted their wealth and status. Often extravagant and decorative Chinese tea equipment were used in these celebration. However, the Sengoku era spelt the end of such luxury, as wealthy households began to lose their power and the luxury of tea faded. It was during the later Sengoku period that the origins of matcha, its meditative calmness and religious roots, where rediscovered and the tea was reborn.
One of the most influential figure in this movement was Sen no Rikyu (1522 ~ 1591). He began to add philosophical principles of harmony, purity, tranquility, and respect (wa, sei, jaku and kei) into the tea drinking and making process. He did away with Chinese over-the-top cutlery, replacing it with plan, natural coloured Japanese pottery. These cups (chawan) had subtle imperfections which formed part of the wabi-sabi philosophy (withering beauty and flux) now so closely associated with tea ceremonies.
Matcha can be categorised into three grades; (1) ceremonial grade, the highest quality matcha, handpicked and used in tea ceremonies. This tea can cost over 5000yen for 20mg. (2) premium grade, high quality matcha and very tasty. Used for tea ceremonies, practice events and every day enjoyment, it is a little less expensive, around 1600 yen.(3) cooking grade which, while suitable to drink, lacks complexity and is mainly used to make sweets.
As well as the grades, there are two styles of matcha making – usucha (thin) and koicha (thick).
Usucha is made using a bamboo whisk. It has a nice head of crema and a rich grassy green texture. Koicha is much stronger (using more scoops of matcha powder and less water) and does not have any crema. It is a thick, dense syrup-like drink with a dark, forest green colour. Usucha is the most popular form of matcha. Koicha, which has a longer finish and can be a little bitter, is usually drunk on special occasions or at tea ceremonies. High quality grade matcha can be used to prepare both styles of drink.
While most people associate matcha with tea ceremony, you can enjoy it without the formality. In Tokyo, for example, there are several Kyoto-based tea houses that offer a café-like atmosphere. Two of the most famous are Nakamura Tokichi, located in the ultra-modern Ginza 6 building and Ippodo, which has its own tea house in Marunouchi.
Nakamura Tokichi was founded in 1854 in Uji Shi, and is currently run by a 6th generation Nakamura. Originally a tea distributor, the family sources their tea from the best Uji producers. Their teahouse is a world heritage site, and the company has successfully blended traditional tea styles with modern needs, encouraging the ‘uninitiated’ to try all its forms of matcha, from sweets and desert to their thick koicha.
The Ginza store is a recent acquisition for the Nakamura family and opened in 2017. It is the only store in Tokyo and has a wonderful modern feel, while still retaining the old world charm, with its decor and wooden furniture.
There is always a queue, so try and come early. Most customers are couples, but there is a good range of older and younger groups, as well as a few foreigners curious to sample some genuine Uji products. The most popular products, apart from the tea, are the numerous sweets and deserts, including matcha chocolates, soft ice cream and jellies.
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. 明日2月1日から14日までの間、宇治本店・カフェでは 「バレンタインプレート」のお取り扱いを開始いたします。 各日13時から数量も限定でのご提供でございます。 ・ バレンタインに贈るギフトBOXのように「美味しい」を 少しずつ詰め込みました。しっとり濃厚な風味に抹茶の旨味がマッチした「抹茶パンナコッタ」は当プレート限定品。 . 当店での人気商品がこんなに集まって、 しかも限定品、薄茶までセット。 一度にこんなに当店のスイーツが一式食べられるのは、 なかなかございません。 ぜひ、明日2月1日からの「バレンタインプレート」 をお楽しみください。 #中村藤吉本店 #nakamuratokichi #中村藤吉 #スイーツ #sweets #茶 #tea #抹茶 #matcha #宇治 #uji #京都 #kyoto #バレンタイン
Nama-cha jelly, along with green tea and teabags, are their most popular products. The parfait, is another highlight and is made up of layers of signature jelly, ice cream, tea and syrup! Awesome. The café also has seasonal products and ‘café only’ specials, including ice creams and cakes. While the menu is in Japanese, illustrations give foreigners a guide when ordering.
My recommendation is Nakamura’s matcha Yōkan, a thick jelly desert made of matcha and white bean paste, it complements the tea very well. It’s so delicious. Matcha here is made tatedashi style – at the back of the restaurant and brought to your seat.
The staff at Nakamura are very friendly, but their English is limited (although the head operator speaks excellent English). Prices are around 1500-2000 yen, which is reasonable for the quality. The store also has an excellent shop outside.
This is the only place in Tokyo you can buy Nakamura products, and so it has an extensive range of sweets, ice creams, jelly, and tea. Matcha in all grades can be found here. Nakamura also has a wonderfully laid- out catalogue which makes for a nice, free souvenir.
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Enjoyed thick (koicha) and regular (usucha) matcha at Ippodo Tea in Marunouchi🍵🌸 一保堂茶舗丸の内店へ行きました✨『明昔（さやかのむかし）』の抹茶を濃茶としていただき、その後薄茶に点てていただきました🍵最初に白湯と、抹茶と一緒にスモーキーなお番茶が出てきます。お店の前に茶葉が飾られていて、店内も外も素敵なお店でした🌿😊 . . . #ippodotea #ippodo #ippodomarunouchi #marunouchi #marupix #japanesegreentea #matcha #matchalover #matchaholic #matchagreentea #teatime #ig_japan #ig_tokyo #ig_nihon #visitjapan #japantravel #icu_japan #japanfocus #tokyolife #lifeintokyo #lifeinjapan #japanlife #mytokyolife #一保堂 #一保堂茶舗 #一保堂丸の内店 #抹茶 #和菓子 #丸の内
The name Ippodo has been synonymous with matcha for nearly 300 years. Made from local Uji and other Kyoto producers, Ippodo has a wide selection of high-end tea and matcha. Their range can be confusing, as tea names are based on ancient kanji; however, all matcha products have a number associated with it, which makes ordering a “number 3” matcha easy!
Ippodo’s Tokyo cafe was opened in late 2010 in Marunouchi. With an English and Japanese menu as well as staff who can speak English, Ippodo is very foreigner friendly.
The menu ranges from sweets to teas. Prices are a little expensive, but the taste and environment more than makes up for this. Matcha is prepared in an open area for all to see (otemae style). The café is usually crowded with limited spacing. Customers are a mix of first-timers, regulars and tourists.
My recommendation for first-timers, is the koicha (you must experience it at least once, and Ippodo is the place to do it). While sometimes bitter, Ippodo has managed to add softness to their koicha, making it more drinkable. Plus, the great thing about Koicha is, you get two drinks for the price of one!
Many people eat wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) before drinking koicha, in order to add a honey-like sensation to the drink. The koicha experience starts with the syrupy drink itself. Its flavour hits you, as it slowly seeps into your body. It might look strange, but wait patiently for the liquid to slowly move from the chawan into your mouth. If you really want to be authentic, when you receive the koicha, say to the staff – “Otemae chodai itashimasu”, meaning, thank you for making this tea.
Once you finish your koicha, the staff will use the same koicha bowl to make a second drink for you – usucha, the more drinkable form of matcha. Included in the price, this allows you to experience the flavoursome subtleness of matcha. Wonderful!
After enjoying the café, it’s time to do some shopping. On display is a wide range of tea products and equipment. The great thing about Ippodo is you can try most of the teas before you buy. Let them know the style you like and the staff will find a tea to suit you. English is spoken here too, and there’s even an English catalogue, which makes selection easier. Note that Ippodo can also be bought in department stores.
So there you have it – matcha at its finest – formed through tradition, and accessible here, in modern Tokyo. An intricate part of Japanese culture, matcha won’t disappoint.
And, if you start enjoying the drink, why not try making matcha yourself?
In my next article I will describe how you can prepare your very own matcha at home! It’s not hard, loads of fun and it means you can enjoy that Subarashii/ すばらしい (fantastic) “Japanese spirit” anytime you want!