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Drink of Japan: Japanese Green Tea
The way to enjoy authentic green tea in Kyoto

Green Tea in Kyoto
History, Tea Ceremony and Cultivation

Tea first arrived in Japan in the possession of the famous Japanese Buddhist priest, Eisai, who returned from a long stay in China in 1191. His precious seeds were planted in Uji and flourished there in the warm, moist climate. At that time tea was highly prized in China for its medicinal properties and for use in rituals. And the Japanese priesthood and aristocracy were attracted to tea quickly. However, due to the labor intensive nature of making tea it remained a luxury for nearly 1,000 years, only becoming a part of daily life for the average person at the end of the Edo or early Meiji Period (late 19th century).

While tea wasn't a daily drink for average people, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) perfected the tea ceremony, or Chanoyu, around the late 16th century, as a sophisticated way to display one's wealth, and an elaborate entertainment that combined stylish ceremony with minimal simplicity.

In the Muromachi period (1333-1576), through the powerful patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns, Zen Buddhism and the samurai military class, tea ceremony developed into a radical, distinctly Japanese direction. Through the simplicity stressed in ways of Zen, tea ceremony increasingly emphasized elemental things and styles.

Rikyu unified and perfectly refined these trends and created the modern Japanese tea ceremony. Rikyu was a pioneer and genius for recognizing the beauty in the natural materials native to Japan. He left behind a ceremonial tradition that was refined, yet simple, a ritual of perfection that incorporated the entire body of Japanese aesthetics, a ceremony that is based on sincerity and reaches out in its dignified stillness to calm and pacify the heart and mind.

Surprisingly enough the picking method had a strong influence on the final product's taste. Like when cutting certain vegetables with a knife, tea leaves can take on a metallic taste from the machine blade. Hand picking, despite the fact that it is becoming increasing rare in Japan, still results in the finest teas. Economically, however, the advantages of machine picking are indisputable, yielding 30 times more tea in the same amount of time.

The differences in the type of tea yielded depend primarily on the way the plant is grown and how the leaves are processed. The best qualities of Japanese tea are produced by severely limiting the amount of direct sunlight reaching the leaves, in a uniquely Japanese technique which produces a sweeter tasting tea. Another characteristic of Japanese tea is that they are steamed to prevent fermentation, and this increases the tea's aroma.

Though tea is consumed widely throughout the world as a daily beverage, it is a well established fact that tea is good for you. Tea is said to slow human aging, the outbreak of cavities, lessen the effects of hangovers, prevent colds, and have a cosmetic effect on skin, etc. Green tea also contains significant amounts of vitamin B and C. So drinking a little Japanese tea everyday is something worth thinking about.

May is the season of new tea leaves. Tea fields in Uji or other areas become a paradise of beautiful new green. New leaves are like precious jewelry that we can only enjoy for a few weeks of the year. While you are in Kyoto this month, why not enjoy the pleasure of a special cup of new-leaf green tea?

Types of Green Tea

Matcha is in the form of finely grounded powdered green tea. Matcha is synonymous of Tea Ceremony, and how to prepare a bowl of matcha is very different from the way to prepare a cup of loose-leaf teas (a few teaspoons of powdered green tea is dissolved into a small amount of hot water and is briskly whisked by a bamboo whisk). The taste is intense and rich, and you can consume the whole leaves into your body as matcha is not a defused tea but uses grounded tea leaves.

Gyokuro is said to be one of the finest green teas in the world. It differs from the standard sencha (a typical unshaded green tea; see below) in being grown under shade rather than in full sunlight. The name ''Gyokuro'' translates as ''Jewel Dew'' referring to the beautiful pale green color and to its noble, mellow and sweet taste.

Sencha is one of the most typical type of Japanese green tea. The word ''Sencha'' means ''simmered tea,'' referring to the method that the tea is made from the dried tea leaves. Sencha's best features are its refreshing yet mellow aroma, and balance of sweet and bitter tastes. When brewed, the tea color is light yellowish-green. It is considered that the most delicious sencha is that from the first flush of the year, the Shincha ''New Tea of the Year'' which is harvested around the 88th night after the spring equinox.

Hojicha is a roasted green tea while Japanese tea is usually steamed. The tea is fired at a high temperature, altering the leaf color tints from green to reddish-brown. Hojicha is less astringent than other green tea varieties due to the loss of catechins when being roasted. Because of its mildness, hojicha is a popular tea to serve during a meal or after the evening meal before going to sleep and even preferred for children and elderly.

How to Make the Best Cup of Green Tea?

When brewing Japanese green tea, the temperature of the water greatly affects the final taste. A lower temperature brings out the flavor, while a higher temperature brings out the astringency. Here is the way to make a perfect cup of sencha.

1) Use 2 heaping tablespoons (about 10 grams) of leaves per 210 ml of water to get the full flavor of the tea. The proper balance between leaves and water is essential. Even a one-person serving requires 10 grams of leaves to produce the proper flavor.

2) 80 deg C (176 deg F) is the best water temperature. To cool boiling water down to 80 deg C, you can pour it into tea cups before pouring it into the tea pot. This also serves to pre-warm the tea cups.

3) The tea will be ready one minute later. Try not to disturb the leaves during steeping, as this will bring out the bitterness. To ensure an even strength, pour a little tea into each teacup in turn, then repeat.

4) The last a few drops contain the essence of the tea's best flavor. Don't leave any tea in the tea pot! When brewing the 2nd and 3rd pot, no steeping is required. Just add 80 deg C water, and immediately serve.

For more information about each tea variety and how to prepare the cup of tea, visit IPPODO Tea Co.'s informative, all-English website.

Recommendation for Kyoto's Best Green Tea

Horaido is a small, typical Japanese-style family run store that started to sell green tea in 1803. The present owner of Horaido, Mr. Yasumori, always welcomes customers from all around the world with a gentle smile and with his incredibly wide knowledge of Japanese tea.

''Maybe we are very old-fashioned,'' Yasumori says. ''What we offer in our shop is not merely tea leaves but also the tradition of drinking tea the way our ancestors did some hundreds of years ago.'' ''Convenience'' and ''ease'' are pursued in modern days, however, Yasumori questions if it can apply to Japanese green tea.

''In the past, people didn't have the technique to keep the state of tea leaves the same. Even one kind of tea leaf changed the taste in a year because they slowly ferment after touching air. In other words, we can enjoy several different tastes during a given year even with just one kind of tea leaf. This is what we can't enjoy with pet bottled teas in many shops.''

If you wonder which tea leaf to choose, don't hesitate to ask Yasumori. Just tell him your preference and questions, then, he will give you the best answer. You will be surprised at tasting what he chooses depending on the situation. For example, gyokuro and sencha have strong and rich tastes which are similar to how Westerners enjoy espresso, while bancha (roasted brown tea) is recommended for a drink during a meal.

Horaido has many fans in the world who never miss a chance to visit the store to get acquainted with a new tea and, of course, to enjoy a conversation with Yasumori. Horaido will lead you to the deep world of Japanese green tea.

Open: 10:00-20:50; Closed: 2nd, 12th, 22nd of the month; On the west side of Teramachi, north of Shijo; Tel: 075-221-1215; www.kyoto-teramachi.or.jp/horaido/

Left: Extra fine Sencha tea leaf ''Miyako no Midori'' (1,260 yen/100g), Right: Gyokuro ''Fuki'' (2,100 yen/100g)

Ippodo Tea Co.
Ippodo Tea Co. has been providing the highest quality Japanese green tea for nearly 300 years. Not only selling the tea leaves, but Ippodo Tea Co. offers interesting and educational opportunity to help you learn more about Japanese green tea. There is a Japanese-style cafe, Kaboku, next to their main store. Their staff will introduce you to experience firsthand, the techniques for brewing different types of green tea.

They also have a store and cafe, ''Kaboku,'' in Tokyo (a 3-min. walk from Yurakucho Stn.; Tel: 03-6212-0202) where people can buy and enjoy the same quality teas and tea-related items. Another interesting feature of Ippodo Tea Co. is that they provide take-out tea. You can order a cup of hojicha (roasted tea) or Sencha, both hot and iced available. They carefully brew every cup of tea for take-out. Stop by Ippodo Tea Co. and take time to explore and discover all the delicate pleasures that each green tea has to offer.

Open: 9:00-19:00 (until 18:00 on Sun. & national holidays); On the east side of Teramachi, north of Nijo; Tel: 075-211-3421; www.ippodo-tea.co.jp/

Take-out teas in Ippodo's original design cups (Hojicha and Sencha): 315 yen

Established in 1790, Fukujuen is one of Japan's leading corporations in the field of Japanese green tea. Their Kyoto Flagship Store will satisfy all your needs about tea, particularly Ujicha. In the shop on the first floor, this year's newly harvested tea leaves are available (some kinds are available only at the Kyoto main shop). The leaf, named ''Hachiju Hachi,'' uses only new buds picked around the 88th day from the first day of spring in the early Feb. It has refreshing aroma of the new season.

On the fourth floor, there is a traditional Japanese tea ceremony room where visitors can enjoy teas in each season. For May, the new tea leaf of the year will be served with a Japanese sweet (1,050 yen). French restaurant and cafe serving dishes using green tea and tea blending experience are available on other floors (see their website for details).

Kyoto Flagship Store: Open: 10:00-19:00 (restaurant on 3F: 11:30-15:00, 17:30-21:30); On the southwest corner of Shijo and Tominokoji; Tel: 075-221-2920; www.fukujuen-kyotohonten.com/

Fukujuen Kyoto Flagship Store
Tea ceremony room on the 4th floor

Marukyu Koyamaen
The first generation of Marukyu Koyamaen, Kyujiro Koyama, began the cultivation and production of tea in Uji in the late 17th century. Based on their motto, ''Making teas with quality as the highest priority,'' Marukyu Koyamaen's teas have been carefully inspected and produced by succeeding directors for generations, some of which have received top prizes in the tea exhibitions.

In addition to their retail shops in the JR Kyoto Isetan Dept. Store and the main shop in Uji, they have a superb Japanese-style tea room. Here people can take a table in a relaxing atmosphere and enjoy the aroma of green tea, and can enjoy a true green tea, from typical Japanese green tea kinds to unique contemporary types, like refreshing Green Tea Soda, which is perfect drink for early summer. Baking soda is combined with a fine green tea, and all you have to do is to pour cold water and stir it well, then, a totally new taste of green tea is ready.

Nishinotoin Tea House: Open: 9:30-18:00 (Cafe: 10:30-17:00); On the west side of Nishinotoin, south of Oike; Tel: 075-223-0909; Visit their website for other shops; www.marukyu-koyamaen.co.jp/

Matcha soda: 840 yen (200g), 683 yen (7 packs)

Matsuda Toukouen
Since its foundation 380 years ago in Fushimi, the southern area of Kyoto city, Matsuda Toukouen has never compromised in what they offer as the long-established green tea store in Uji. Tradition and pride of the store have continued until today, to the 13th generation owner. The quality of their tea is proven with the fact that some of their teas have even received honorary names from Kyoto's famous temples and the three Iemoto (masters of tea ceremony).

Not only the variety of typical green tea leaves, like gyokuro and sencha, Matsuda Toukouen offers an opportunity to learn about utensils related to Japanese tea. As May is the season of new tea leaf, Matsuda Toukouen offers a variety of green tea leaves using freshly picked buds. The newly picked sencha has a refreshing taste and mellow aroma. Get one of their green teas, and take time to make a delicious cup of green tea at home.

Open: 9:30-19:00; Closed: Tues.; In the Otesuji Nibangai Shopping Street in Fushimi; Tel: 075-601-1017; www.toukouen.jp/

This year's Shincha (newly harvested tea leaf)