What is Matcha? you ask. Literally the two kanji 抹茶 mean powder & tea but that doesn't mean if you powder your Earl Grey tea leaves you're going to get matcha as it's understood in Japan!
History of tea in Japan
Tea was originally brought over in the 7th century from China by monks to keep them awake during meditation (I guess you could think of it as an ancient Red Bull!) and soon became a fashionable drink among the elite religious and military leaders as well as the aristocracy of the time. It wasn’t until the 12th century though, when Eisai, the monk accredited with introducing Zen to Japan, that the custom of drinking matcha Japanese green tea began to spread to the masses. He is said to have brought not only tea seeds but also farming and processing techniques.
How it's grown and cultivated
In April the matcha tea fields are covered to starve the leaves access to the vital sunlight. This slows down the growing process and as the leaves strive for the sunlight they increase the chlorophyll level and amino acids like theanine. In May, leaves are picked then taken directly to the plantation where they are steamed, dried and stone ground into a fine powder.
The fresh green color and unique taste comes from tea leaves that have had no fermentation, oxidization, flavoring or smoking. It is the purest form of tea you can drink, just 100% pure tea leaves. Matcha comes in two varieties… koicha or thick tea and usucha or thin tea. In chanoyu (tea ceremony) when serving usucha each guest will receive one bowl but with koicha the bowl is shared between the guests. The sharing of the thick tea is at the heart of the formal gathering.
Thick tea is THICK! More like a paste or a creamy potage. Thin tea on the other hand is the most common way to drink matcha. It is the main tea served at the majority of informal tea gatherings. When done in the Urasenke tradition it looks like a frothy bowl of matcha cappuccino! (I'll give a brief how-to at the end of this article!)
There is an event that pays tribute to the old tradition Ochatsubo Dochu Gyoretsu, a procession of large ceramic jars containing freshly picked tea leaves. From the time of the samurai the tea would be sent from Uji in Kyoto to Edo and many other domains across Japan. It must have been quite a sight to observe the procession as the jars made their way across the country to the various daimyo warlords from Edo to Kumamoto. These days it's a relatively small event in November where tea is presented from the old plantations to the grand tea masters of the various tea traditions.
More than the traditional drink though the matcha flavor is very popular here in Japan. It's in everything from cosmetics (not a flavor I know!), drinks and condiments to an all time favorite, ice cream! Internationally matcha is gaining popularity as a flavour as well after being introduced first as a health product.
There is no end to the shops serving matcha and matcha flavored products. I have listed a few below. The first three shops are actual tea establishments with a long history connected to the way of tea.
Marukyu-Koyamaen This Kyoto green tea specialist has a history of over 300 years. Headquartered in Uji, the shop I will introduce here is their tea shop in Kyoto. Opened in 2008, Nishinotoin Tea House Motoan is located in Kyoto's Nakagyo district. It offers an extensive selection of tea and sweets that can be enjoyed in a traditional Kyoto atmosphere. Their website is here. access details here.
Ippodo Kaboku Tearoom If I'm not mistaken Ippodo celebrated its 300th anniversary last year! In the Kyoto green tea specialist's shop on Teramachi you can browse a wide variety of teas as well as enjoy a break in the tearoom. The staff is more than happy to show you how to make the proper brew if you'd like to give it a try! Check them out here.
Gion Tsujiri For over 150 years Tsujiri has been "continuing to innovate and sustain the tradition" of their teas. Their shop is located on Shijo in the Gion district of Kyoto. The cafe is famous for matcha flavored sweets... don't be surprised if you have to stand in a long line! Link here. Map is here.
Urasenke Center Urasenke is the largest tea school and the tradition that I belong to. Here at the center on the first and second floors one is able to view exhibits relating to the way of tea. The Konnichian Library on the second floor is open to the public to peruse (on site) their collection of books, reference works and magazines as well as DVDs and videos. There is also a replica of the famous tearoom Yuin. On the first floor there is a tea service where you can enjoy a traditional Japanese sweet with a bowl of tea. Find them here. Map link here.
Pass the Baton Opened in 2015, Pass the Baton is an old Kyoto machiya that has been renovated with an interesting balance of East and West. It houses an eclectic collection of Japanese and international antiques coupled with modern pieces commissioned by local craftsmen. Tasuki is a Tea and Sake room where guests can enjoy...Tea & Sake!!! (Duh!) Of course they have other items on their menu one being their featured sweet...matcha shaved ice. It is VERY popular with the customers. Map link here.
ran Hotei Of course I would be amiss if I didn't introduce my own shop ran Hotei. Located near the Nijo Castle we celebrated our 10th anniversary last year. (Not as much history as the others but to me it feels a LOT longer!) In my shop aside from matcha flavored drinks and sweets I have my own original line of matcha. I also offer a traditional tea experience where you can partake in a private tea ceremony. Find me here. And here's a map.
How to matcha... thin tea in the Urasenke style What you'll need... Tea! Hot water, a bowl and VERY important a tea whisk (chasen). Into a bowl add about 2gm of tea and to that 50~60ml of hot water (I have heard anywhere between 70°C to 100°C...experiment!!!) then whisk vigorously in a straight up and down motion from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock (not temporally, you understand) until all the tea has dissolved and there is a nice frothy texture to the bubbles on the top.