The expensive powdered form used in the tea ceremony, and added as a flavoring to everything from ice cream to parfaits to Kit Kat bars, is matcha, sometimes termed hiki-cha. However, the common tea of choice for daily drinking is bancha, a coarse tea, invariably drunk hot, and often served free of change in restaurants.
It is drunk to quench thirst, is inexpensive, and is made from larger, older tea leaves sometimes including stems. When it is roasted creating the magnificent smell that pervades every Japanese shopping arcade it becomes hojicha, roasted tea, which possesses a deep, wonderfully smoky taste, and is good hot or cold. When roasted and popped rice is added to bancha, it becomes genmai-cha, which possesses a nutty, less-smoky quality.
The leafy green sencha, literally, ‘infused tea’, is enjoyed in its own right. It is made from leaves that are reasonably tender and young, and tends to be served on more special occasions. When the real top brass stop by, however, out comes the gyokuro. This is a fragrant, comparatively rare green tea that is grown in specially constructed bamboo cages that shut out much of the early spring light, resulting in extremely tender leaves that are picked in a single harvest.
Mugi-cha wheat tea, konbu-cha kelp tea and soba-cha buckwheat tea are not strictly teas at all, but infusions made with their respective ingredients. Mugi-cha is served in the humid Japanese summers; konbu-cha tastes more like a seaweed soup, and is often serbved containing an umeboshi dried and pickled Japanese plum. It is found on sale at temples, such as Kyoto’s famed Ryoan-ji. Soba-cha, which, as the name suggests, has a flavor akin to that of the buckwheat noodles, is often served to accompany a soba meal, and its powdered form can be bought at the more upmarket sobaya testaurants.
Green tea is one of the most commonly purchased souvenirs of a visit to Japan, and in a straw poll taken by FGL of tourists’ ‘reasons for visiting Kyoto’, ranked number one, slightly ahead of other massive favorite wagashi Japanese sweets. Those famous temples, by the way, were lagging rather behind in the survey.
If you are thinking of heading to Kyoto, and wish to sample both green tea and temple watch, make sure to head to nearby Uji. The city has been supplying the Imperial court, and us mere mortals, with green tea since time immemorial. It’s also where you’ll find the splendid Byodoin temple, the world’s oldest wooden structure.
A little further afield, south-east of Uji on the border of Nara and Shiga Prefectures lies the tea town of Wazuka, a beautiful, sleepy rural place, little larger than a village, that has been producing matcha and kabuse sencha for about eight centuries. Each year during the first weekend of November it hosts the Teatopia Chagenkyo Tea Festival.
Kyoto and Uji are not the sole centers of tea production, by any means. Shizuoka Prefecture, and especially the mineral-rich slopes of Mount Fuji are famous for their green tea, however be warned: certain Shizuoka-based merchants ship in green tea from China and repackage it as the local specialty.
Kaga, is a district in Ishikawa Prefecture, and now a tourist hotspot due to the inauguration of the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train that puts it within several hours’ reach of Tokyo. Kaga produces the wonderful, Kaga bocha. It is a kuki-hojicha, that is, a roasted tea made using just the stems of the green tea plant, and was once the favored drink of the local nobility. It can easily be found in the shops of the Higashi Chaya district of the prefectural capital Kanazawa. Be warned in advance, though: it’s price can be rather ‘aristocratic’ too.
This is just a basic introduction to the topic. Stayed tuned for upcoming FGL articles on particular stores, tours, and tasting possibilities.