Japanese Culture: Japanese Tea
Enter a Japanese-style room (washitsu) in a Japanese inn (minshuku or ryokan) and one feature invariably present is a container with a tea service and an electric hot pot providing water at the correct temperature for making Japanese Green Tea.
This beverage is so indispensable in Japan that it can be considered the nectar of life. It is served at the end of every Japanese meal and is available free in many situations where people eat or wait.
Japanese tea is available now in dry leaf form, in powdered form, in bottles, jars, cans, and in the ubiquitous PET bottles it can be found in every convenience store in the land.
From the Indian sub-continent to Japan, tea is derived from the leaves of just one tree, a kind of camellia (Camellia sinensis). Like other camellias, it is an evergreen, with glossy green leaves throughout the year and bright, showy flowers that drop suddenly when over.
Left to its own devices it will grow tall, but where cultivated it is trimmed by hand or machine to appear as a low, flat-topped shrub or long low hedge. On tea estates in India and Sri Lanka, plucking is by hand and the bushes are irregularly formed and scattered loosely across hillsides on vast tea estates.
In Japan, tea farms are smaller, more compact, the bushes aligned in precise rows, their tops slightly arched, the gaps between them narrow and in straight lines and it is hard to imagine how pickers can achieve such symmetry - hard that is until you realized that tea in Japan is not picked by hand, it is trimmed by a machine that resembles a spindly tractor on narrow wheels.
Wherever tea is grown, its name Camellia sinensis is an indication of its origins in China. Initially, used by monks to sustain themselves during meditation, its use was introduced to Japan by the same priest, Myoan Eisai, who introduced the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
Its bitter flavour and caffeine content helped wakefulness and promoted good health. From a monastic aid, it has come to be considered the indispensible daily beverage of the nation, where it is known simply as ocha, or nihoncha.
Like a wine depends on its grape, the quality of a green tea varies depending on the region, the farm, the leaves or the parts of the leaves used, and the process they are subjected to, leading to a tremendous price range between lowly household teas and the finest teas.
Japan produces almost all of its own tea, with approximately 40% being grown in Shizuoka Prefecture alone. The nature of the camellia tree from which the leaves for tea are taken, is such that it grows only in warm, humid regions of Japan experiencing few frosts, from central Honshu west to southern Kyushu.
Japanese green tea is considered, though not entirely proven, to have health-giving properties. Regular imbibers are considered to have a reduced likelihood of developing heart disease and certain cancers, and the tea is said to stimulate fat oxidation and assist in weight loss.
The bitter flavour-giving ingredient of the tea, known as catechin, is said to be an effective bacteriocide, particularly killing those bacteria causing food poisoning and eliminating their toxins (could this be why it is so commonly served after meals?).
In the same way it is said to promote oral hygiene by killing the bacteria that promote plaque and halitosis, and to prevent cavities because it contains natural fluorine. This almost miraculous catechin is also said to suppress high blood pressure and prevent the build up of cholesterol in the blood, while also lowering blood sugar levels.
Both the vitamin E that green tea is rich in, and the already mentioned catechin, work as antioxidants, which, it is said, serve to slow the ageing process. Perhaps, given this catalogue of health benefits it comes as no surprise that drinking green tea has spread and become a global phenomenon, competing with coffee in North America and with the drinking of black tea in many other western countries.
Producing Tea in Japan
From Kagoshima to Shizuoka, tea farms spread across hillsides. Regimented rows of 'bushes' perfectly trimmed are watched over carefully. Tall poles stand about the fields, each sporting a fan on top gently turning in the breeze.
These are not, as one might imagine to cool the leaves, but are switched on when frost threatens to keep air moving over the bushes so as to prevent frost forming and damaging the precious leaves. Certain teas (Sencha), are grown in direct sunlight, while others (Gyokuro) are grown in shade.
Each May the tea harvest begins; the leaves are picked or trimmed and carried to the premises of the processing factory. There the leaves are sorted, steamed, dried (or 'withered') and rolled. Some (Houjicha) are roasted, more like a black tea; others (Maccha) are ground into a powder; one (genmaicha), is made by blending tea with popped rice. While hand-picked specialty teas are extremely expensive, others (Bancha) are made from the rough lower-grade leaves and are inexpensive.
Making Japanese Tea
From elaborate ceremony, performed in kimono in a tiny, tatami-floored tea house, to pragmatically sipping from a plastic bottle while driving on a highway, taking tea comes in as many forms as the beverage itself.
Tea is drunk by academics and factory workers, students and the elderly, health freaks and stressed 'salarymen'. It is drunk first thing in the morning to last thing at night, and like the archetypcal English-man and his ever-present 'cuppa', it is acceptable, if not desirable, at any time of day.
Making tea couldn't be simpler, as it only requires placing a few pinches of leaves in a teapot (kyusu), pouring on hot (not boiling) water, then covering with a lid. While the higher grades of tea may be brewed for a minute or two, lower grade teas should not be brewed for more than 20 seconds, in each case decanting the now lightly green aromatic brew from the teapot into a handle-less cup (yunomi).
No milk, no sugar, nor sweetener is added. The cup is placed on one hand, while held with the other and it is raised to sip. Some consider slurping to be part of the ritual, others that such behaviour is bad mannered, revealing once more the diversity of approaches to this simple, but crucial drink.
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