My hands were shaking a little when our tea instructor from the Shizuoka O-Cha Plaza in Japan, instructed us to pour a small amount of very hot water into our tea cup. There were seven of us from different Asian countries, and all were excited to experience learning how to make green tea and participate in a tea ceremony since it’s our first time in this country.
As I was waiting for the hot water to cool a bit, our tea instructor, Ms. Jitsuko Abe, a very nice lady who provided us each with a tea party set, told us that what we are preparing is Gyokoru, a variety of Japanese green tea that is cultivated at the Shizuoka prefecture.
Welcome to Shizuoka—regarded as No. 1 in Japanese green tea leaf production. Its natural environment has made it famous for growing green tea leaf fields. And its strategic location: being situated near the big markets like Tokyo and nearness to big international airports has boosted its position in the area of green tea cultivation.
It was the chosen venue for the World Ocha (Tea) Festival on Oct. 28-31, 2010. Tea lovers from all over the world converged at the Shizuoka Convention and Arts Centre to discuss the latest trends in global green tea consumption and participate in various regional ways of drinking tea and unique ways of enjoying it.
As I paid attention to our lecturer on the basics of Japanese tea ceremony, I placed one teaspoonful of the green tea leaves onto the tea pot and poured the cooled water into the pot and allowed the tea to steep for about one minute.
You see, Japanese like to enjoy drinking high-quality tea not too hot and not too lukewarm either but just on an average temperature, maybe around 70 degrees. Afterwards, I poured the liquid into my tea cup, pouring to the last drop. This is to prevent a difference in flavor, our instructor said.
I took a sip. Then smiled—it was just how I imagined it would taste like. There’s a bitter tang but its sweet and refreshing, minus the sugar. (In fact, green tea or any other tea is best without sugar). And though I arrived here on a month of June, I still knew I had tasted quality green tea even if April is the best season to get premium leaves.
Our instructor told us that all the tea in the world actually originated from Yunan province in China but the difference depended on the climate and characteristic of a region or country where it was produced. The diversity of cultures gave birth to variations of tea parties such as the English tea party, Chinese tea party, Moroccan tea party, Korean tea party, Japanese tea ceremony and Myanmar tea ceremony.
After knowing the basics of serving hot tea, our gracious hosts served us iced green tea. Green tea is more popularly called “o-cha.” The procedure is basically the same, but this time there’s a block of ice on each tea cup.
Abe-san said that if one wants to drink quality tea, we shouldn’t use “used tea.” Once tea is used, even one that is in a teabag, it gets oxidized thus losing flavor and essence. So we need to use it only once.
It’s been said drinking tea has a lot of health benefits. Even before I came here, I’ve been drinking tea occasionally; sometimes when I have a cold or if I just feel like I want to lose some flab around my waist. But as Abe-san gave us more revelations about green tea, it made me sit upright. Though recent scientific studies have substantiated what people have known, advanced research has expanded the link between the intake of green tea and diseases in modern society.
The real benefits of green tea have been watered down these days when people can buy bottled ice tea or the powdered ones from the local market or grocery. Because, some of these products have lots of sugar, one wonders if a tea lover would really get any health benefits at all. However, based on research, green tea—taken in its simplest form—could help modern society people battle dementia, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, hepatitis C, and obesity.
Green tea has catechins a component that function as an anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, anti-hypercholesterolemic, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-ulcer, anti-bacterial, fat-reducing, and bowel modulator among other things.
It is also high in Vitamin C which is responsible in removing stress and preventing colds; Vitamin B, amino acids, flavonoids, polysaccharide, fluoride, and Vitamin E (anti-aging and anti-oxidant). The theanine in green tea acts as an anti-hypertensive but also contributes to that “umami” taste.
Health benefits aside, my interest in green tea was further piqued when our guides gave us a tour of the Tea Museum “Ocha no Sato” in Kanaya, Shimada-Shi which is at least an hour and a half drive away from the Shizuoka O-CHA Plaza in Suruga-ku. It was built 12 years ago and its façade is typical of Japanese interior design.
A cute girl wearing the traditional Kanaya green tea picker or harvester costume came to meet us and showed us around the building.
Because tea has become part of everyday lives, its true value has been forgotten and lost. The Tea Museum was built, according to our Kanaya guide, to enable visitors to “reconsider the original meaning of tea.”
In ancient times, serving and drinking a cup of tea is an exchange of hospitality in Asia. It is in fact, one of the foundations of Japanese and Chinese culture. It is widely accepted that China and Japan developed the tea culture and this later spread all over the world. Differences in culture and people had given rise to remarkable distinctions in the way tea is served.
It was said a Buddhist monk from China first introduced green tea by bringing seedlings to Japan during the Heian period. Since then, drinking tea has become deeply rooted in the lives of the Japanese people. It was also during this time the “tea game” was a popular past time. In this game, a person is asked to tell which tea is authentic and non-authentic by just smelling and sipping.
After the museum tour, we proceeded to the Shoumokurou, the tea ceremony house located just below the building. The house itself is surrounded by a beautiful garden making it a perfect idyllic spot. Over the horizon, one can see the panoramic view of the magnificent Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest peak (though we didn’t get to see Fuji-san during our three-day stay). A part of the house, Kouhoukyo, was used by a legendary nobleman as a place to hold poetry-reading sessions.
Inside the house, we were asked to sit on the floor lined with tatami mats in front of an elder woman wearing a traditional kimono who is busy brewing tea. While watching her, we were served a Japanese sweet delicacy they called “river stream.” I liked it very much and wondered where we could buy that kind of dessert. When we finally drank the green tea served us, the refreshing taste of it coupled with the tranquility of the place was just utterly amazing.
Our lesson on tea did not end here, we were then given the opportunity to try harvesting tea leaves and grind it ourselves.
I felt a bit sad when we wrapped up our three hour tour and lesson on green tea. Japan is not just a place where you could take pictures of its powerful landscapes and beautiful scenery. When in Japan, a cup of tea would open up your heart and open you to new experiences. Engaging in a tea ceremony is a great occasion to reflect and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.
And that, definitely, is my cup of tea.