Jun.1998 / A Tea Tour of Japan


 As I flew into Tokyo airport on March 23, I knew that I was going to be drinking a lot of tea during the next 10 days, but I had no idea how varied and fascinating my tea experiences were going to be. I had been invited to give presentation and hold seminars about black tea drinking in the U.K. for a variety of audiences in four cities, and throughout my stay - with their usual overwhelming generosity and hospitality - my Japanese hosts arranged for me to discover more about their own traditional green tea culture as well as the recently developed interest in black tea.

Japan's green tea consumption:

 Because of an increasing knowledge of teaユs health benefits, it seems that the Japanese are drinking even more green tea than in recent years and the beverage plays a prominent role in everyday life. I was taken to a number of different restaurants at different times of the day, and once we had removed our shoes and settled into the private room that had been reserved for us, kneeling in traditional style or seated at floor level (but with a welcome hollow for our legs under the table) , the first item to appear was always a pot of green tea. Sometimes this was Gyokuro, the very best grade, whole deep rich green leaves give an unbelievably sweet aromatic liquor.

 Sometimes our bowls were filled with Sencha, the high quality tea that is most commonly served; or our thirst was quenched with Houjicha, the roasted tea that offers a slightly barley - like flavor and a more golden liquor than Sencha, or Genmaicha, a lower grade leaf mixed with toasted popped rice that gives a sweetness to the pungent brew. More tea appeared throughout every meal and was always the final drink to cleanse the mouth and body after indulgent samplings of sake, local beers, and the red wines that are now so popular in Japan (a result of the news story about the anti - oxi - dant properties of red wine).

 Tea rooms also offer a range of Japanese green teas, and even those people who are confirmed black tea addicts and who regularly indulge in British - style 'afternoon tea' still drink a great deal of green tea throughout the day. And the equivalent of the Westユs canned soft drink and mineral waters are various types of tea - based beverages that often also contain a wide variety of beneficial herbs, no sugar, no artificial additives, and have the advantage of being prepared with Japanユs wonderful water ミ after drinking London water for most of my life, it is a real joy to drink such pure sweet water. Trolleys on train, in grocery stores, and in machines on street corners and stations all offer a range of these types of drinks.

 It is rare to be invited into a Japanese home, but I was honored and thrilled to be taken to visit Mr. Hyohzoh Fukynaga, founder in the 1930s of the now - famous chain of Lipton tea rooms, in home just north of Kyoto. As part of the gracious and generous welcome by his wife and himself, the customary little tea ミ time sweets (sweetened soy bean paste that had been colored a delicate pale green and decorated with little yellow flowers) were served with Sencha, and this was followed, five minutes later, by larger bowls of Matcha, the powdered green tea that is whisked into hot water in a large bowl and which I had previously thought was only served as part of the Japanese tea ceremony. This was by no means the only time I was offered Matcha; I drank it several times at various tea venues such as museums, tea companies, and tea research centers, as well as in restaurants and tea rooms. And, as I shall explain in an article in next monthユs edition, Matcha (along with other types of tea) is now being more widely used in cooking and in the preparation of iced drinks and desserts.

The Black Tea boom:

 Since Japan has such a strong tea culture and history, and because so many Japanese drink tea as part of their daily diet, the interest in black tea has come almost as a natural progression. It is apparently due mainly to a general boom in interest in all things British - the British garden, British lifestyle, stately homes, English heritage, 'afternoon tea', and black tea drinking. And, as is so often the case with the Japanese, they have taken something foreign, absorbed it, examined it in detail, and developed it into something almost better than the original. For example, three and a half years ago, when I was last in Japan, the attempts to offer scones produced only hard and rather dry biscuity things that were nothing like the British tea - time specialty, and clotted cream had to be imported or substituted with whipped cream. But now, after persistent research and perseverance, deliciously soft, light, plain or fryit scones are now available in tea shops -both for consumption on the premises and to take away for tea parties at home, and the Nakazawa dairy is making excellent clotted cream that compares extremely well with the original British version (which is also available in small tubs but which, because of extreme chilling during transportation, is often rather grainy and hard and not smooth and creamy as it should be).

 And to accompany these afternoon tea favorites, the black teas that are proving most popular among Japanese consumers (who generally drink their black teas without milk) are the lighter, softer varieties such as Sri Lankaユs Dimbula, Indiaユs First and Second Flush Darjeeling, Chine and Taiwan Oolongs, Earl Grey, and Afternoon Tea blends.

 The stronger Assams and African -style teas tend to be too strong for the Japanese palate, although Cameroon tea, drunk as 'milk tea', is appealing quite widely. I was amazed to find supermarkets (local stores as well as the import shops) selling a huge variety of black leaf teas. In one shop in Kyoto, I found four 'Single Estate' teas from Taylors of Harrogate, including KwaZulu and St. Coombs, several of their blends, and five flavored varieties; Twinings packets included seven different types, including Queenn Mary Blend, Prince of Wales Blend, and Ceylon Orange Pekoe; Brooke Bond (which I understand is sold under license by a Japanese firm) included an organic tea, Milk Tea Blend, and Restaurant Blend; Wedgwood gift boxes held Orange Pekoe, Engrish Breakfirst, Queenn Anne, Assam, and Darjeeling; unnamed brands offered Castleton Second Flush, Margarettユs Hope Second flush, Darjeeling Autumnals, Organic, Nilgiris Tamilnadu, Assam Golden Tips, CTC Assam, Indian Chai, China Keemun, Oolongs, and decaffeinated; and the shelves were just about overflowing with flavored teas that included banana, caramel, strawberry, apple, mint, orange, vanilla, black cherry, chocolate, grapefruit, apricot, blueberry, cinnamon, and rose, as well as herbals such as rooibos, lemon and ginger, rosehip, passion fruit, apricot, blackcurrant, 'relaxing tea', 'fasting tea', and chamomile.

La melangee tea shop:

 My trip to Japan was organized by the owner / director of La Melangee ミ a very successful tea shop / tea room in Kyoto. Yoshie Matsumiya is a dynamic and enterprising lady, with more drive and enthusiasm than most, who strives to offer customers something a great deal more than just tea. She opened her shop 10 years ago when a stressed and tiring career as a dress designer and clothing manufacturer used up too much of her energy and took away from her life more than it put back in. And, long before anybody could have predicted that black tea and British ミ style tea drinking were going to attract such an enormous amount of interest, she decided to open a tea shop, extend her existing knowledge and enjoyment of all different types of tea and herbal infusions, and offer to the tea consuming public a mixture (or melangee) of teas, teawares, tea accessories, and all the life ミ enhancing aspects of tea drinking that she had already discovered.

 In the early days, it was difficult to source quality teas. Most of the Japanese agents were buying ready blended teas, and importing tea was not particularly easy. So, La Melangeeユs supplies were obtained from Mariage Freres of France (which now also has stores in Japan) and from an existing Japanese company. Today, Matsumiya has agents and brokers in England, Germany, France, India, and Sri Lanka and is constantly tasting new teas in order to give her discerning clients what they want.

 Tea shop is located in one of Kyotoユs smartest areas, close to the Botanical Gardens and Concert Hall, and surrounded by very classy boutiques; plenty of potential customers often shop in the area and, of course, need refreshment in the from of tea and scones. The 14 seats inside and 16 in the sheltered courtyard outside are busiest on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (although weekdays bring a steady stream of eager visitors) , and the menu offers black teas, green teas, coffee, afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones (with, of course, clotted cream and jam) and cakes, cream teas with scones, clotted cream and jam, a pot of tea, and a variety of traditional Chinese cakes as well as English cakes and desserts that include Victoria Sponge and Bread and Butter Pudding.

 Four different sandwiches are elegant fingers in time ミ honored style ミ filled with English cheddar cheese (apparently no problem to purchase in Kyoto), smoked salmon, cucumber, and tomato. Scones are served warm, cleverly kept at the right temperature by placing then on heated terraミcotta bread warmer that sits neatly under a doily on the cake stand.

 All the food appears almost as if by magic from the tiniest galley kitchen where scones are baked, cakes are created, sandwiches are spread, and teas and coffees are brewed by extremely reliable and well-trained staff who are as much part of the shop as Matsumiya herself. When I asked to have a peek behind the scenes, the chief scone maker threw her hands up in despair as if she thought I was about to witness the worst mayhem and as efficient as the rest of the business.

 Once guests are settled in their chosen seats, pots of tea brewed with loose leaf tea and served with pretty strainers. While patrons sit and indulge in all cholesterol that is so untypical of the Japanese diet, they can decide which of the teas they would like to buy to take home.

 There are over 200 types that range through 13 ヤworld teasユ (including Kenya Marinyn, Zimbabwe Southbowne, Turkish OP, Mount Cameroon, Sikkim, Argentinian, and Brazilian Mate, six Ceylon estate teas, seven Darjeeling, five Assams, two Nilgiris, 11 Chinese, three Taiwan, 14 Classic Blends, 46 flavored teas, 20 Japanese teas, and a range of herbals. Sales of teas have increased from 500-800 Kg. of leaf sold in the first year or two to six tons a year now. In the last three years, business has increased tremendously and looks set to continue growing.

 Sales of tea accessories add considerably to the shopユs turnover, and the selection on the shelves tempts one to buy gifts and treats from a wonderfully attractive variety of English and oriental teapots; cozies; strainers; infusers; European, Japanese, and Chinese cups and saucers; including some made locally that feature the shopユs name as part of the design; Turkish tea glasses with matching spoons, trays, silverware, cakes stands, chopping boards, chocolate shakers for decorating cappuccinos, olive oils, cards, books, and gift packs of tea. It is a treasure trove of teaware that attracts regular purchasers especially at Christmas and in the wedding season from May through the Summer.

 La Melangee also hosts tea classes in the evenings for people who wish to know more about the production and manufacture of world teas and different brewing methods. Matsumiya also organizes trips abroad to tea producing regions in India, Sri Lanka, China, and Taiwan, and to tea consuming countries such as Britain and France, where she arranges museum visits, seminars, tea tasting, and afternoon and high teas.

 Adverting at the shop and mailshots to regular customers generate more than enough interest to fill two group visits a year. And during the 11 tours to date, and in the course of other personal trips abroad, Matsumiya has never missed an opportunity to find new supplies of quality teas and teaware, and to learn more about tea drinking around the world.

 It was her enterprising spirit and interest in acquiring and sharing knowledge and information that led Matsumiya to invite me to tour Japan with her and speak to groups of tea buffs and enthusiasts in Obuse, Kamakura, Kyoto, and Kyushul in hotels where managers and owners have recognized the potential of tea and tea events, and in other tea rooms and tea shops that have customers who want to know more and wish to share all the extensive pleasures of tea and tea culture.

Sakurai Kanseido Tea room:

 The tea room owned by Sakurai Kanseido was the venue for my second seminar in Obuse, just west of Nagano where the snow-capped mountains reminded me that the Winter Olympics had only recently ended. The company makes and sells all sorts of confectionery products made with the delicious local chestnuts, and owns a restaurant where I tasted my first ヤSobaユ buckwheat noodles that come plain or flavored with green tea. The tea room is furnished in English style with dining tables that provide space for 50 or so guests and is almost identical to the one I grew up with in London.

 Botanical prints and soothing lighting create a very calm and relaxing atmosphere in which to enjoy cups of Ceylon or Darjeeling tea served with wonderful patisseries and chestnut specialties. For our tea event, a light lunch was served to the 55 ladies and three gentlemen who attended and, after my initial presentation, we discussed all sorts of tea-related matters over a wonderful afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones, delicious apple jam, clotted cream, and little cakes. Managing to dollop jam and cream on to scones still proves a little daunting for delicate Japanese fingers, but everyone seemed to tuck in with great relish.

 As at La Melangee, a retail area at the front of the shop offers all sorts of attractive gifts. There are teapots, mugs, caddies, cups and saucers, warmers, strainers and strainer reats, cozies, trays, napkins, cards, books, and tea confectionery ミ as well as packets of specialty, flavored, and blended teas. And like Yoshie Matsumiya, the owners are constantly on the look out for new products and teas. The morning after our seminar, the director of the business arrived back from China with packages containing Keemun and Yunnun tea and some flat cakes of compressed black teas, and Puユer teas which were brewed and tasted with eager interest.

Tea Events:

 The seminars I was involved in were just an example of all the tea activities taking place in Japan at the moment. Classes are being held and very well-attended all over the country to teach all about black and oolong teas and the correct ways to brew them. And groups of Japanese (ladies in particular) meet regularly over afternoon tea and are keen to travel to Britain to learn more about how we drink our tea.

 There is also a growing interest in eating as well as drinking tea. I spent some time with a cookery writer called Mutsuko Tokunaga who is running her own personal campaign to encourage the use of green tea in cooking and who has written two recipe books and talks regularly on the radio about the culinary possibilities and the health benefits of green tea consumption.

 There is also a new culture center and museum in Hoshino, at the heart of the tea growing area in southern Japan (apparently, I was the first British person to visit since it opened four years ago), and not far from Kyoto, one of the major tea producing companies, Fukujuen, has established a research and culture center called CHA (Culture Health Amenity) which houses laboratories, grows and experiments with tea, holds seminars, has displays of different tea drinking rituals from around the world, and welcomes school parties and other visitors from all over Japan.

 The sort of questions being raised and discussed by the general public at meetings and seminars as well as by tea professionals in company offices and research laboratories are: Why do teas taste different when brewed with Japanese water? Which teas are best drunk with milk? Whatユs the best way to brew black tea? Why are teas blended? What are catechins? Which black teas are popular in the U.K? Which teas are best with scones and clotted cream? How easy is it to buy organic teas? Isnユt organic production very difficult? Which teas can be easily flavored? Why are the London auctions closing? Clearly, there is a very wide interest in all aspects of black tea and tea drinking habits among the Japanese consuming public and a growing market for both teas and tea accessories in Japan. I shall be discussing the new approach to tea in cookery and food items; activities of the new research facilities, museums, and culture centers; and what happens inside a green tea factory in an article appearing in next month's issue.

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
130 West 42nd Street,Suite1050 New York,New York 10036 U.S.A
Tel:(1)(212)391-2060 / Fax:(1)(212)827-0945