Matcha, the answer to life’s busy times

  • CULTURE
  • Otemae, the practice of matcha (tea) making, is an art shrouded in history. Associated closely with Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sado 茶道), it continues to intrigue both Japanese and foreigners alike. In a tea ceremony, matcha is the liquid “bridge” that binds guest and host. Combined with the equipment chosen, the Qi (chi energy 気) of the participants and aesthetics of the room, it creates an experience Japanese call “ichi-go ichi-e”.

    Yet the intricate world of matcha need not be confined to the philosophical complexities of the tea house. A perfect symbol of Japan, the art of good matcha making does not require years of training at either the Omotesenke (表千家) or Urasenke (裏千家) schools of Cha!

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    The basic otemae equipment needed to make matcha

    Far from it, matcha is a drink that can – and should – be enjoyed at home. The making process is simpler than you think and requires only a minimal amount of specialist equipment. With its health benefits and great taste, matcha is the ideal drink to give that important boost to your day!

    Otemae Equipment : Chasen and Chashaku

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    Authors’ chasen and chashaku

    The only specialist equipment required to make matcha are the chasen – a smallish bamboo whisk and the chashaku – a thin, long scoop. With a history dating back to Master Senno Rikyū, creator of the Japanese tea ceremony, their designed is based on wabi-cha principles which values “plain and simple”, over lavish and extravagant.

    Chasens are made by splitting a piece of bamboo and pealing the bark to form a series of bristles. The shape of a chasen is relatively standard; however there are some variations. Omotesenke tea ceremonies use a smoked bamboo chasen, where as Urasenke prefers natural cane and Mushakojisenke favours black bamboo. Chasen tips also vary; straighter for Mushakojisenke, more curvy for Urasenke and Omotesenke.

    All chasens do the same job. The main thing home-matcha makers must consider is the number of bristles on their chasen. The higher the number, the frothier the matcha. Chasen bristles range from 16 (Heiho) to 120 (Araho). For the ‘matcha connoisseur’, a good thick tea (Koicha) requires a bristle count between 16-48, whereas a thin tea (Usucha) requires a count of 68-120.

    I use a standard 64 bristle chasen which makes both styles well. To clean your chasen, wash it in warm water and let it dry naturally. Store it bottom up using a whisk stand or top up within an open container. A Chinese chasen costs 2,000 yen, and a good Japanese one, around 3000 yen. If you want the ‘best’, nothing beats a hand-made chasen from Takayama (Nara Prefecture).

    The chashaku is a thin long-handled 20cm bamboo tool used, like a tea spoon, to measure and scoop the matcha into the bow. The shape of the chashaku scoop can vary depending on the style of tea ceremony, but a gyo shape is the most standard. Chashakus are easy to use and cheap (500-100 yen). Cleaning is similar to that of a chasen. If you don’t have a chashaku, a tea spoon can be used.

    Otemae Equipment : Chawan and Kyusu

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    Authors’ chawan (a picture is sometimes painted on the bowl to indicate its “front”)

    While not essential, the chawan and kyusu add a beautiful aesthetic to tea making.

    The chawan is a largish bowl used to prepare and drink matcha. While a cereal bowl can be used, I highly recommend you invest in a chawan. You can buy one for around 2,000 yen. However prices exceed 100,000 yen for classic Raku-ware.

    In general, a chawan should be easy to drink from and deep enough to whisk matcha. Classic chawans look “amateurish” to the untrained eye, as they do not have the finish found in Western and Chinese ceramic. Yet these faded colours, imperfections and uneven rims, actually add value to the bowl. They are treasured as they symbolize the wabi-cha philosophy of appreciating flaws and faded beauty.

    The kyusu or tea pot, is an unique piece of equipment. While it can be substituted for a normal tea pot, it, like the chawan, adds that Japanese element to the otemae process.

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    Authors’ Yokode no kyusu and strainer

    The most classic style of kyusu is the Yokode no kyusu, a wonderfully designed “side handled tea pot”, created to make serving water when sitting on a tatami floor easy. The pot is also a popular tool for ocha making (leaf-based green tea). The side handle allows a very natural and elegant pouring movement. The lid is tight-fitting with a small air hole to allow circulation.

    Being clay, it retains heat well. Yokode no kyusus range from 2000 yen upwards, with the best coming from Mie’s Banko-yaki clay. Other regions, including Tohoku, Tokoname, Saga and Echizen, also produce high quality kyusus. The other necessity is a strainer. You can buy these for less than 400yen. The strainer is essential to filter the matcha, ensuring only finer grains enter the chawan.

    Other Otemae equipment

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    Authors’ Salon-tea Chabitsue containing otemae tools

    The word Chaki generally refers to the small container matcha is stored in during a tea ceremony. These containers are usually wonderfully lacquered and elaborately painted; in stark contrast to other otemae tools.

    Usucha containers are called natsumes, as their shape resembles the natsume (jujube) fruit. As natsumes are not airtight, matcha stored inside one should be used within a few days.
    Some people use a box to store and transport their tea equipment. These boxes come in many styles, but are usually wooden with a lid that can act as a serving tray.

    The box is sometimes called a Chitose-Bon (1000 year tray 千歳盆) or chabitsu 茶びつ. I use a box made by Salon-Tea, a local Nara company with a store in Tokyo. It is well designed, with four gridded compartments and a chawan enclosure. The lid is large enough for serving, with a removable slot for the chasen to be stored upright.

    The most essential element of Otemae : Tea

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    Authors’ Uji (Kyoto) matcha

    Matcha is the finely grounded powder extracted from tea leaves. The most famous comes from Uji Kyoto, however good matcha can also come from Aichi and Mie.

    Matcha has three grades; (1) ceremonial, the highest handpicked grade, costing over 5000 yen for 20mg. (2) premium, an excellent quality matcha ideal for tea ceremonies and every day use, costing around 1600 yen. (3) cooking grade, drinkable but lacks complexity; mainly used to make sweets. There are also two styles of matcha – usucha, a thin tea with a rich green crema texture and koicha, a stronger, dense forest green (syrup-like) drink. Usucha is the most popular, while koicha is usually drunk at tea ceremonies. High quality matcha can be used to prepare both styles.

    Matcha should be stored away from sunlight in an airtight container. Some suggest refrigeration after opening. If you do this, remember to allow the matcha to return to room temperature before using.

    Some of my recommended brands are, Fukujuen (specializing in high end, favoured matcha), Ippodo (one of the most famous brands with an extensive range for beginner and professional pallets), Nakamura Tokichi (great high-end quality matcha and deserts), and Kanbayashi Shunsho Honten (a 14th generation traditional-style producer). One boutique brand recommendation is Cha no Kiminoen, whose Shizuoka matcha is surprisingly tasty and good value. They have a small shop in Ueno.

    Lets make some tea!

    Matcha is not a fast drink to make or consume, so it’s best to give yourself a little time to enjoy this “spirit of Japan”.

    Koicha

    Edgy and intense, koicha gives a wonderful “boost” to your day! The powder I have chosen is Nakamura’s Zen no Mukashi. With its full flavour, complexity, rich forest green colour, high tencha content and “umami” (savory) characteristics, 5-2 is the perfect Uji cha. As koicha can be a little bitter, many Japanese eat wagashi (Japanese sweets) prior to drinking, which adds gentleness to the koicha.

    Step (1)

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    Author’s photo

    Get your equipment ready and rinse your chawan with hot water.

    Step (2)

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    Place the strainer on top of your chawan. Using your chashaku, transfer 4 scoops (4-5 grams or 2 teaspoons) of matcha. With the chashaku, push the matcha through the strainer, encouraging the finer grains into your chawan.

    Step (3)

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    Author’s photo

    Heat some water in a standard kettle to 80c. Transfer the water into your kyusu and slowly pour 30-40ml (2 tablespoons) directly into your chawan. Gently but firmly start whisking left to right and up and down using your chasen.

    Step (4)

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    Continue this 360 degree rotating action until you produce a thick consistency in your matcha. Your whisk and chawan should be coated in a green matcha paste.

    Step (5)

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    Your syrupy koicha is now ready to enjoy.

    Usucha

    Usucha showcases the gentler flavours of matcha. With its nice green froth, Usucha looks like a green cappuccino. While Nakamura’s Zen no Mukashi can be used to make both koicha and usucha, I have chosen to demonstrate usucha otemae using Fukujuen’s Unpou, a gentle matcha favoured by the Omotesenke school.

    Unpou produces consistently good quality usucha with a lovely crema. You may notice that my usucha has bubbles. While Omotesenke discourages bubbles in their tea, I use an Urasenke whisking style (which encourages a bubble effect).

    Step (1)

    Get your equipment ready and rinse your chawan with hot water.

    Step (2)

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    Author’s photo

    Place the strainer on top of your chawan. Using your chashaku, transfer 2 scoops (1.5 – 2 grams or 3/4 teaspoon) of matcha. With the chashaku, again push the matcha through the strainer, encouraging the finer grains into your chawan.

    Step (3)
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    Heat some water in a kettle to 80c. Transfer it to your kyusu and slowly pour 70-80ml (4 tablespoons) directly into your chawan.

    Now vigorously whisk in a “w” / “m” direction (avoid whisking in a circular motion).

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    Step (4)

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    Continue to whisk until you get a nice green froth (30 seconds). Your tea is ready to enjoy!
    If your tea tastes bitter or lacks froth, it might be because the water was too hot or the ratio of matcha wasn’t right. It might also mean your whisking skills need more work. Remember an even whisk using your wrist (not arm), is essential.

    Conclusion

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    Matcha truly is the soul of Japan. Steeped in philosophy, the intricacy of the otemae process is symbolically magical. While not as quick as a coffee, matcha gives you a healthy start and a warm finish that will combat life’s hurdles, “creating” a piece of Japan in your hands, you can enjoy any time.

    *Featured Image: PhotoAc/