Food trail Japan! Part 1: Tea Time! (sadly missing “ほかご” in front)

Hey guys, we have been really bogged down by everything other than food, os the going has been slow. Courses overseas, however, have given us the chance to see new things in new places, so expect them to come. Jack will be back with his Chukha food in no time, so wait right there! In any case, here is my offering. Coming from the far Eastern nation of the rising sun, here is Food trail Japan! Honshu-Skikoku Part 1! This particular post is a reblog from our trip’s wordpress, http://rigapsemesterjapan.wordpress.com so go give it a hey ho! Co-written by my group members, here is a small post on tea in Japan. Enjoy.

It is hard to imagine, especially for westernised Asians like us in Singapore, what an important role the bitter sweet liquid plays in Japanese society, let alone why it plays one akin to the main character in the world of Japanese drinks. To understand the complex and fluid dynamics of the fluid, we first take a look at the history of their tea.

I'm a little teapot, short and stout

The antiquity of tea can be seen from its long and deep roots in Japanese history and legend. As records have it, it is as old as Buddhism is to Japan, and both of their introductions into Japan were closely linked.

The first recorded batch of tea leaves was brought into Japan by returning Buddhist monks Saichō in 805, and another by Kukai a year later. They were two out of many other monks who both served as envoys to the Tang Dynasty and as students to Buddhist schools in China, who had learned of tea and brought back the culture of tea drinking to the religious classes. Tea quickly became a drink for the royalty after the Emperor Saga promoted tea cultivation.

Over the centuries, slowly but surely, tea gradually spread to the warrior class, and then to the aristocrats by the 13th century. It had become a drink for the cultured. Its health benefits were not missed out on, and were recorded down by Zen priest Eisai, who stated that “Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.” This is the basis of the tea ceremony, which is still widely observed in Japan today.

Japan has had a long history of importing tea from China. Various tea leaves and seeds like Pu’er were imports from China. More importantly, Japan also imported the methods by which tea leaves were prepared. Tea bricks, steamed tea leaves and roasted tea leaves all came from different centuries, and each produces distinct characteristics in the tea. And lastly, by the 18th century, sen-cha was created by the Japanese themselves, who have never ceased to improve what they already have.

As a matter of fact, Japanese tea plays another integral role in Japanese society by the process of the 茶道 (Sadō), known in English as the Japanese Tea Ceremony, alternatively translated as The Way of Tea. The Japanese tea ceremony is an excellent example of the extent of Japanese culture and heritage, due to its unique practices.

The Japanese tea ceremony was brought about thanks to the effort of no one man, but Sen no Rikyū is generally regarded as the father of the tea ceremony. He was the tea master to the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and he popularised most of the implements of the tea ceremony in his tea ceremonies. The implements used in the tea ceremony include the tea bowl, (photo here) usually a deceptively simple bowl of made of earthenware, but actually is very expensive; the tea whisk, used to mix the matcha (tea powder) and the boiling water; the tea caddy, in which the matcha is stored; the tea scoop, to scoop the matcha, as well as a ladle of bamboo to scoop the boiling water from the pot into the tea bowl.

The preparation of the tea is as simple as it is elaborate. Simply, it involves placing the tea into the tea bowl with the boiling water, and then mixing it with the whisk. However, there are numerous rituals and methods in which to do this task, all which adds to the complexity and richness of the tea ceremony. This article will not go into detail here, but you can view more here: http://japanese-tea-ceremony.net/preparation/steps_furo.html

While the tea is being prepared, Japanese sweets will be served in order to prepare the guests’ palette. Normally, the sweet is chosen precisely for its flavour in order to complement the type of tea which would be used.

In our experiences with the sweets, they differed from a marble cake to a food akin to a snow-skin mooncake, to a jelly like red-bean sweet which possibly was homemade. The sweets are presented with a bow to the guest and the words “Okashi wo dozo”, who bows back in return.

After consuming the sweets, the tea is then presented. Conforming to the culture of wabi-sabi (http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm), the teacups are simple pieces of glazed earthenware. Depending on the type of host, the teacup may have elaborate designs on the sides, but more often than not there be but just a simple pattern along the side. The bowl is placed with the end of the pattern facing you, and once again the exchange of bows takes place, except with the words “Ippuku sashi agemasu”.

The guest then picks up the bowl, places it on the palm of his left hand, and uses his right hand to turn the bowl clockwise twice (some places say it requires 3 turns), at least until you reach the end of the pattern. This is to show your admiration for the teacup. Then, tipping the frothy green liquid into your mouth, you finish off the bowl in roughly 4-6 sips. It is worth noting that in China, the tea ceremonies require you to finish the tea in 3 mouthfuls, but in Japan more sips are allowed as the cups tend to be bigger. After that, one turns the teacup again, anti-clockwise this time, until you reach the end of the pattern once more. Placing the cup onto the floor, you then bow again to your host when he comes.

Other variations of the tea ceremony also include a setup in which the same tea bowl is shared by 5 people, each drinking a sip in turn.

As you can see from the above, the Japanese tea ceremony is a very complex one with exquisite rituals that must be followed to the letter, which really embodies the Japanese spirit of perfectionism and their link to their history.

“Every meeting is precious,” so goes the motto of the tea ceremony, and we find no reason to disagree. The tea served acts only as a conduit by which we receive the once-in-a-lifetime memory, and also as the balm that we preserve it in. As time goes by, the memories are brought back by the heavy aroma of matcha and the hanging scroll, “ichi-go, ichi-e”, “一期一会”.

Due to its long history and treasured place in Japanese culture, the emerald broth flows and permeates every aspect of Japanese life. In Japan, tea is ubiquitous. In business hotels, in temples, from small cafes to big restaurants, tea is omnipresent. It is a given that there will tea wherever you are in Japan. Vending machines dispensing green or red tea, then milk tea, and occasionally brown rice tea, more often than not, are found. Many places even dispense it free of charge, cup included. Many a times tea is a means by which we relax and wind down, the same way kit-kat advertises. Hotels regard tea bags, cups and a water boiler as a given, so it is hard to resist being sucked in by the Japanese tea culture while you are there.

The significance of tea in Japan has not diminished since its introduction, and continues to be the staple drink in Japan. Tea, especially green tea, has become a large part of the Japanese culture. Instead of simply being a popular drink, drinking tea in Japan has achieved a ‘ cultural tradition’ status.

Japan is a country where what is consumed is treated with great respect, adhering strongly to the Japanese sense of perfectionism. This unique blend of attitudes towards tea has made it a part of culture than no other mainstream drink can achieve in anywhere else. From 10,000 yen matcha in sadō to 100 yen cartons of mugi-cha sold in convenience stores, tea in Japan is made so than anyone can drink it without reservation.

More than just a love for tea drives this fervour. Health benefits are among the reasons why the Japanese are so involved with tea. Many in Japan would tout it as one of the principal reasons for their well-known longevity and health.

Some people deem the popularity of tea in Japan similar to the fact that coffee is synonymous to life in America, or perhaps Vodka to the Russians, and claim that tea is just another beverage that got lucky.

Yet, tea in Japan has always mattered more than the drink itself. For one, tea has had a long history, and starting from China, is on par with the oldest alcohols. Whether it is green, red or black, it has always served to break the ice between strangers and strengthen bonds between friends. It can be appreciated alone too, as one sips on tea and enjoys the refreshing taste, it provides an entrance into peace and silence, as an exit from one’s bustling modern and urban lifestyle. With the Japanese constantly on the move, tea gives them the ability to relax and retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

In the West, coffee is often the beverage that serves this same purpose. However, coffee is not offered in every home there, and is often limited to the few successful commercial brands. This is unlike tea, where tea leaves from different places provide a unique taste for the different places of Japan. Also, up to this day coffee’s health benefits are still greatly disputed, as it is believed to cause an increased chance of heart disease. When drinking Japanese tea, one can drink without worrying, because the health benefits of tea are substantial, and the only concern being that it keeps you up at night. With the Japanese being among the longest living people on the planet, and considering that tea is drank all the time in Japan, there is no reason to worry about drinking tea.

To sum things up, tea is more than just a beverage in Japan. It is even more than a lifestyle. It is a culture in itself, and a living example of the wabi-sabi beliefs in Japan.

Inked onto computer screens by: Thomas Tay, Mathew Gan, Tan Wei Kang, Lionel Loi

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