THE GREAT TEA EXPEDITION

Although I’ve been working as a photographer in Japan for two decades, I haven’t been to Kyoto as many times as I would like.

The very first time I visited was with my mother in 1997 or 1998 and we saw it all.  All the usual suspects, Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, every other temple you’ll find in any guide-book and much more.  Subsequent visits however only padded out my visited temple stats and I never really got beneath the surface of it all.  To randomly explore the tiny back streets, get cozy with the local artisans, or discover any of its claims to fame, one of which is Sencha.

Being British, tea is in my DNA.  It flows in my blood, but that tea is British, not Japanese tea and even after living here for 20 years, I have never been in a supermarket and decided to purchase a packet of green tea to brew at home and drink.  It’s fair to say I never really took to it.  I always regarded green tea as something I had to drink at a restaurant or someone’s home when it was the only beverage available, whilst covertly seeking out possibilities of other liquid opportunities.

I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I wouldn’t say I was too fond of it either.  It was just there, but not part of my consciousness.  Much like oxygen, though unnecessary to sustain my life-force!

That said, I needed a direction, a plan, an itinerary to follow on this trip to Kyoto otherwise I was going to end up ticking off more temples on my long list.  I wanted to get stuck into one subject and see where it would lead me.  That something I decided was going to be tea and little did I know that I would come back to Tokyo so loaded up on green tea that I would have difficulty circumventing the crowds on the return journey with my large haul of various kinds of green tea, and to boot, know more about the subject than any other Japanese person I personally know!

Green tea is not only Sencha, the most popular tea in Japan which makes up about 80% of all tea produced here, amongst others there is Matcha which is whisked with hot water to a frothy and light finish and Gyokuro, the highest grade tea that has a complicated procedure to follow in a fixed order before you can enjoy it, akin to performing an all systems check on a commercial airliner before take-off, but it does pay off.

There is a long history of Japanese green tea that I could go into in great detail citing places, names and processes but I think if you choose to embark on a journey like this, much like the elegant taste of Japanese teas themselves, it is something best discovered gradually and by oneself.

For now let me at least point you in generally the right direction.


Manpuku-ji is said to be the scared ground of Sencha-do, the school of Japanese tea ceremony.  Here you can try Fucha Ryori, a Chinese vegetarian style cooking that the monks there eat, though bear in mind you need to make an advanced booking.  I’m glad I went to this temple as it is quite impressive and a little different from all the others as it of the Chinese Ming Dynasty architectural style and you’ll probably find a lot people come here to sit and paint it, even of bitterly cold days like the day I visited.

 

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Manupuku-ji, built 1661. Said to be the sacred ground of Sencha-do, the school of Japanese tea ceremony.
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Detail in front of the alter inside the main temple building
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
This walkway connects to other buildings, important ones like where you can get that tasty lunch, but note the lanterns – very cool.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
3 lovely elderly ladies braving the cold to paint this very impressive structure!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

With lunch out of the way and a little taste of something related to tea, I was ready for a home visit.  Soen Nagatani’s home in fact and a lesson in necessity as the mother of all invention.

Soen Nagatani was born in 1681 and lived high up in the mountains of Uji where a new shading method of tea cultivation was developed to make Tencha, the raw tea materials needed to make Matcha which was the popular tea of the time.  Growing up in Uji, Soen knew about tea and wanted to grow it himself but only ‘tea masters‘ of Uji selected by the government were allowed to shade their tea trees and therefore only they could make Matcha.  Matcha was also too expensive for regular people, consumed by only the upper classes of Japanese society.  This led to Soen developing a method that would allow him to not only cultivate his tea without shading it, but create a tea that was better than what was available at the time.

Soen spent 15 years of his life relentlessly perfecting his method of rolling and drying tea leaves at the same time.  This was a combination of using two very different methods of processing tea but it gave birth to what is known today as Sencha.  This was a breakthrough for processing palatable tea without utilising shaded tea fields and although Soen had confidence in the result of his invention, he didn’t feel the conservative locals of Kyoto would share his enthusiasm and embrace it with open arms so he travelled to Edo, (now Tokyo), the cultural centre of Japan where he thought he would have better luck trying to sell his tea.

Yamamotoyama, now one of the worlds largest tea manufacturers, Yamamoto-ya was a small family owned tea shop in Edo which bought some of Soen’s tea and popularised it all over Japan, making the owners very rich and the company what it is today.

Yamamoto-ya sent money to the Nagatani family every year until 1874, some hundred years after Soen’s death, but Soen never struck any deal with Yamamoto-ya to patent, or otherwise control his methods.  He freely shared it with anyone would wanted to learn.  The sort of person we need more of these days.

So it was with this story in my head and the knowledge that Soen’s house was still standing up there in those misty mountains that I knew I wanted to see for myself where it all started.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Nagatani Soen’s house in Uji, Kyoto

The house is a modest thatched roof abode with a living area that houses a small area for brewing tea and another area which Soen used to roll and dry his tea leaves and is left pretty much the way it was those hundreds of years ago.

Outside in the garden and huddled under a wooden gazebo, armed with pots of hot water, tea pots and paper cups ready to serve up Soen Nagatani branded tea, were these lovely ladies.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

I don’t know if the tea tasted good in and of its own right or perhaps Soen’s story and his un-selfish act had tainted by perception.  Or maybe I was just tired and happy to be under a gazebo with 6 charming little old ladies having a chat while the light faded and it began to snow.  Whatever the reason, it tasted good to me so I picked up a couple of hundred grams and headed back down the windy roads to sea level and back to Kyoto.


So, that was where Sencha came from.  I had been to the very house, the very laboratory of the inventor of Sencha and saw where he relentlessly steamed, rolled and dried his leaves for 15 years and developed the green tea we all know today.  Great, so that covered dried tea leaves but have you ever wondered how Matcha is made?  No, of course you haven’t and don’t worry, I’m not going to explain it to you.  Just suffice to say that the next day while I was in the area visiting a famous tea shop in Uji to try some Matcha and experience a Matcha tea ceremony, I popped my head into a Matcha factory close by and this is what I saw when they turned the lights on!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Matcha production is full spin.

At the tea shop Horii Shichimeien, I am invited to a room out the back that is accessed through a quaint garden courtyard to experience a Matcha tea ceremony and it would be (I’m ashamed to admit) the very first time that I would try Matcha after living here for so long.  And all I can say is, I wish I had tried it much sooner.

Matcha is the powdered form of ground tea leaves that is spooned into a bowl, (Chawan) hot water added and this is all whisked into a frothy bright cocktail with a bamboo whisk.  The ceremony is involved, detailed and quite calming.  In fact, is about the only really calm ritual I’ve ever experienced in Japan.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Matcha at tea ceremony in Uji, Kyoto
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Matcha at tea ceremony in Uji, Kyoto

I thought Sencha tasted good back at Soen’s place, but this Matcha just matcha’ed that level.  With more packets of exclusive Uji tea stuffed into every available pocket, I leave the tea factories and tea shops behind on a tip-off for the road less travelled.


Once the bustling wholesale tea district of Uji next to the river Kizu that flows into Osaka, the port that would ship tea all over the world back in the day, Kamikoma is now a shell of its former self.  Still a great walk for the architecture, the quiet and stillness of the streets and the few wholesale shops that still remain today.  In its heyday there were something like 120 wholesalers here I’m told and the 25 now remaining are really more retailers than wholesalers and I think it’s a safe bet that once the current owners have passed on, these last 25 shops will go with them.

If you get chatting to one of the owners and get lucky, they might invite you in for a sample or two and you can really step back in time for a few moments and experience an authentic Kyoto, off the grid, off the map, off the beaten track without another tourist in sight.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
A typical wholesaler in the Kamikoma district of Uji. I’m not sure how the wooden upright panels on these buildings are stained the way they are, but it’s pretty nice to see.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
The Kizu River runs from Uji to Osaka and would serve as the best means to get tea from Uji to the rest of the world

I had seen tea in its dried form, I’d seen it powdered.  And I’d seen both of those with water added, but I hadn’t seen a tea tree yet.  Or had I?

A short trip by car, (I couldn’t find any other way to get there), is the Wazuka area of Uji where the majority of tea tree farms are hidden away.  If you are moving around in Uji however, more than likely you will have passed a lot of tea trees, but not known it – they’re everywhere.

I will say, looking at other pictures taken in this area at different seasons, it’s quite a scenic place to visit in the right season.  In winter the snow covered tea trees are an amazing sight judging by the pictures I’ve seen or during the cherry blossom season which can also look quite epic.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
The rolling tea fields of Wazuka in Uji, Kyoto

At the beginning I mentioned Gyokuro, the highest grade tea that one can buy and which has a very involved and particular method of brewing and drinking.

On my last stop in Uji, I visit ‘Takumi no Yakata‘ Uji tea experience house where I get to play aristocrat for a few minutes.  Here you can try Gyokuro, Matcha and Kabusecha, and learn how to brew and serve it to yourself under step by step instruction from the staff.  The tea sets are all 500 yen or 650 yen if you have sweets with your tea.  This will get you a pot of whichever tea you choose and will be a lot of fun and a lot less expensive than a regular tea house in Kyoto as this place is subsidised by the local government.  A great opportunity to experience a usually very expensive tea at a fraction of the cost.

Gyokuro is king and if you drink it in Uji, in the way it is supposed to be drunk, there’s a very good chance you won’t be disappointed.  If you think you’re done when you’ve drank all your tea, look again at your tea set with all your utensils and you will note… a dainty fork.

Enough said, I think it’s something to be discovered for yourselves so I won’t break it down any further.  Just go forth into the unknown and you might come back a little more culturally enlightened and probably a lot more luggage heavy.