Tea plants in Japan were first said to be planted by the Buddhist monk Saicho upon his return from China in 805 AD. Tea is not only the principal beverage of Japan, but it is also used in a variety of food items like cakes, sweets, ice-cream, etc. I was fortunate enough to be invited to Japan to take part and to deliver talks on Assam tea at an international workshop held in the Tokyo Metropolitan University and at a seminar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, three months ago.
Japanese tea is made from the leaves of the tea plant Camelia sinensis. Japanese tea can be divided into non-oxidized tea (green tea), lightly oxidized tea (white tea), semi-oxidized tea (oolong tea), oxidized tea (black tea), and fermented tea (Goishi cha). Green tea may be steamed or pan-fried. Japanese steamed green tea may be further classified into Sencha (orthodox tea), Bancha, Hojicha (roasted steamed green tea), etc.
I, along with my daughter Tanisha, landed at the Narita Airport in Tokyo on November 11, 2018. We were greeted at the Minami Osawa Station by my friend Dr. Azusa Fukushima – who had arranged the entire program. On November 14, we travelled with some other participants of the workshop to the Saitama Tea Research Institute, a little more than an hour’s drive from Tokyo. It is one of the oldest tea growing regions of Japan. Due to a cooler climate, frost fans are used in the tea gardens and the bushes are also sometimes covered with black fiber sheets to protect them from the cold and also to produce teas like matcha, tencha and gyokuro.
Afterwards, we travelled to the Iruma City Museum, where we first had a delicious vegetarian Japanese lunch at the museum cafeteria and later went on a tour of the museum. The museum houses pictures and implements used in making tea in Japan. The museum not only has a wide collection of items relating to the history of Japanese tea, but also of other tea consuming countries like China, the U.K., Russia and India.
After the museum visit, we went to the Asami-en tea garden and factory located nearby. In Japan, unlike in India, tea leaves are plucked by machines and the tea gardens are usually small and operated by the family members. Labourers are hired in the harvest season, which is from May to July. Moreover, tea leaves are usually plucked only twice or thrice a year. The highlight of the visit was the tea ceremony conducted by the hostess in traditional Japanese attire. Afterwards, we tasted different varieties of Sencha (orthodox) tea.
Many varieties of tea can be created by altering growing methods, harvest seasons, sections of the plant and preparation after harvest. The same tea leaves taste different, depending on the temperature of the water and the steeping time. When poured from the teapot to the teacups, small amounts are poured into each individual cup in a circular motion until the last drop is “squeezed out” of the teapot. This ensures that each participant gets the same taste of the beverage. The taste elements of Japanese tea are characterized by aroma, sweetness, bitterness, astringency and ‘umami’. Umami is usually described as the sensation of richness or savouriness in food. It is a taste element which makes Japanese tea truly unique.
On November 16, we travelled to Kyoto by the Shinkansen (bullet train) and after delivering my lecture at Kyoto University; I had the much awaited opportunity of spending the night at a traditional Japanese guest house Enu to Enu at Wazuka Prefecture near Kyoto, complete with floors covered with tatami mats, a low table and futon mattresses. Wazuka has some of the most beautiful tea landscapes of Japan located on sloping hillsides. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the hostess and made to warm ourselves at the traditional stone fireplace. We were served tea and a five-course dinner consisting of starters (fried flour fritters with tea leaves), pumpkin soup, salmon, pork, celery, green herbs, tofu with soya sauce, along with rice beautifully decorated with maple leaves in traditional porcelain ware with chopsticks. Almost all of the above items were sprinkled with tea leaves for added taste.
The landscape of Wazuka town has been shaped by the River Wazuka. The geological conditions create a distinctive temperature gap between day and night, which often leads to the formation of a fog that shields the tea bushes from strong sun exposure. Due to this, one of the highest quality of Sencha, described as “Kiriker” or the “Scent of the Fog” by tea professionals, is produced in Wazuka.
We also plucked tea leaves from a garden which was later “quick steamed” and served to us at the D:Matcha tea café. Inside the café, we were taught about the nine types of Sencha tea. We also tasted tempura made of tea leaves and sweets made of matcha and hojicha tea. Later, after having our lunch which also included tencha tea, we made matcha tea by first grinding tencha tea leaves in a stone mortar and later sieving the powdered matcha tea with a sieve. The world map at the tea café proved that it is patronized by visitors from different countries and my daughter Tanisha had the opportunity to place a sticker on Guwahati on the map to add to the growing number of visitors.
The Japanese love for tea has proliferated to such an extent today that the supermarkets have bottled cold green tea which many prefer to drink over sugary aerated drinks. After experiencing Japanese tea culture in Japan, what struck me is the wide scope for tea tourism in Assam. Although the Japanese prefer green tea, many also enjoy drinking black tea. I see no reason as to why we cannot market different flavours of black tea in Assam which will taste as good, if not better then Japanese green tea. Assam tea is also famous for its strong liquor and flavour, and by blending it with a variety of spices, by altering the boiling temperature and steeping time of the tea leaves, we can also develop an Assamese tea culture. Moreover, we can serve tea and traditional Assamese sweets in traditional bell metal utensils like banbati, bankahi and the like.