In a new series for Outpost, explorer and editor-at-large JEFF FUCHS reflects on the fascinating people and indelible moments of his extraordinary expeditions, and the role tea has played along the way. In this installment, he writes about the ceremonial, almost transformational act of partaking in tea in Japan.
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs | Outpost Travel Media
Where: Kyōtanabe City, Kyoto Prefecture. The Tea: Yamashita’s Gyokuro (Maiko Tea)
The Puerh cake remains as it always does: tucked carefully into my satchel, which is slung around my neck. It is the “just-in-case” go-to for the rare moment when I have need of a quick splash of reliable and dependable tea.
Such a thing exists in my world — when a tea on offer doesn’t quite sate the necessary spots on the palate or in the blood. It is faintly obscene in a way, as I am tucked into one of the most tea-obsessed little pockets of leaf growth that exist. Near Uji and Kyoto, in Japan, I’m surrounded by meticulous makers of great teas (as well as the odd charlatan).
There should be no need for a backup plan in such a tea-centric zone. But, in the back of my mind, even travel through tea bastions like these require that there is a stash somewhere for the unlikely event of a sudden need.
The satchel hugs me as I exit into a thin, humid air that hints at an approaching winter. Pine trees make small “woosh” sounds as moving air brushes through them. A long wooden walkway leads to a large set of wooden doors through a garden (茶庭 Chaniwa) of mosses and stone steps. It was once a tea garden in that it led to a tearoom within the home I have just left.
Now, the mosses have serenely taken control and sprawl relentlessly over everything. Above there is only open grey sky, whose tone seems to sit somewhere in the middle of the greyscale. Nothing dramatic or overstated here. It is a space of moderation, resilience, and muffled sounds.
Friend, DJ, and lover of local everything, Apollo, leads me quietly through this garden of silences and through the big wooden doors. His partner Maki is all smiles, and joins us as the unofficial translator. Apollo is eager to reveal something of what he calls “the Japan under the Japan.”
Though he is from a rural area far from here, he tells me that “there are always small corners and people who are in touch with the past.” And by past, he refers to specific elements of traditions that are not simply for show — but ones that are resolutely alive in society today, and in daily life.
Apollo is an advocate of what he calls “mixing life,” a term perhaps derived from his DJ world. He describes the best elements of life as inevitably being a kind of hybrid, or greatest hits assemblage, of new and old. With tea, he mostly prefers a “simpler is better approach,” and I am entirely with him on this. Throw too much terminology, too many semantics, too much talk of “qualities” — that many will not even really sense — and the moment of tea has been ruined. A tea’s time is about a good tea, and the time that surrounds it.
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We depart this space for another teahouse. Around our home and garden on the outskirts of Kyōtanabe city, in Kyoto Prefecture, we move out into square and rectangular sheets of tea fields that will only be used for the top grades of Gyokuro.
One solitary street bisects immaculate little fields into two worlds of identical green. Beyond, straight, and tall coniferous and bamboo form a wall around the small envelope-shaped teagardens. Woven rolls of black screens are tethered to polls in the dull light waiting for their time to be of use.
These are the shades, which will be unrolled as protective covering for the tea leaves just before being carefully plucked. In some parts of Japan, this shading process will be done in the ultra-traditional way, by using handmade sheets of straw. Three to four weeks of shading prevents the amino acid l-theanine (which promotes relaxation of the nervous system without turning one narcoleptic) from dissipating through photosynthesis.
The resultant Gyokuro tea provides one of the great examples of that elusive culinary element of umami. Of all the definitions I’ve heard of umami, the most telling was: “It is a feel that rests somewhere between the savoury and the sweet that will change your palate’s view of what is possible.”
That much sought after element, which finds itself in more and more culinary and palate discussions, traces some of its formal identity back to Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, who suggested that umami was a distinct flavour present in “dashi” (a common stock in Japan using kelp and fish flakes). The term umami is derived from a Japanese word for delicious, umai. The umami sensation is stimulated by several compounds, principally glutamate, which is a key component in cellular metabolism
In many ways, Gyokuro is the antithesis of my simple bit of Puerh that sits quietly stuffed in my satchel. To create a quality Gyokuro, one needs a mastery of human intervention. An almost zealous understanding of fertilizer and soil, pH levels, the delicate roll, and an understanding of how to emphasize that wonderful amino acid, theanine, which contributes so much to the umami flavour, all must be present.
“Numbers don’t make something clearer or even better,” are the translated words that cut through our little teahouse, as we sit tucked around a firepit of sand, smokeless charcoal, and fire.
The words cut for all the right reasons, and are said by Ojisan (meaning “uncle,” it’s a term in Japan often used to call a middle-aged man), who acts as languid philosopher and tea server. His words dispel, annihilate, even calm, many of the technicalities of the tea world that sometimes threaten to dominate the enjoyment of tea itself. His words distill tea down to a simple core, and came in answer to my question: “How do you know when the water temperature has dropped to 40 degrees Celsius?”
This is the optimal temperature designated by Ojisan as the ideal for Gyokuro, which is considered the highest grade of tea within Japan. In late April, when the first young buds appear on certain specific cultivars like Okumidori, Saemidori and Yamahai, among others, the shading is pulled over the entire plot of leaves and left there for about three weeks.
There are times when words and their meaning (whether intended or not) seem to hit some deeper truth. With these words, our tea-master has eloquently blown apart a notion that everything in Japan’s finite and exacting tea world has a precise number, recipe, or ratio. Yes, the time, temperature, and amount of tea (8 grams) are important; but those who enjoy teas use these as a guide to set off on their own tea journey.
Ojisan wears a golf shirt, is an admitted “sipper of things other than tea,” and sits in a kind of elegant disarray beside the fire-pit.
Much about him is the antithesis of the precise and adorned tea-master who moves in a choreographed sequence of gliding movements. He is, however, a master of Gyokuro, and someone whose family is involved in the actual making of the delicate leaves. His reverence needs no decoration nor ornate descriptions. He is precisely the kind of tea-master who registers a tea’s vital elements and enjoyment, rather than the selling or deliberate mystification of the leaf.
Ojisan uses a wooden bamboo ladle (hishaku) to gather water from a large kama, which sits hanging above the coals, burbling water. The kama is a thick round cast-iron kettle that hangs over coals and embers. It’s worn with time and heat, and is central to our entire tea session.
Apollo and Maki are nearby, sitting forward towards Ojisan. We are all drawn to him. He tells us: “I cannot make this tea, but I can serve it. My hands and skills are not of the master Yamashita.”
Ojisan tells us that the water in the kama is “just” at a gentle boil, then he ladles the water into a small vessel. Ojisan looks carefully at Apollo and Maki as if to intensify the necessity of the correct translation of the next words.
“Every additional stage of pouring the water will decrease the temperature by about 8 degrees Celsius. We want to get the temperature down to approximately 40 degrees Celsius. So, about six slow transfers of water.”
He then pours the water from the initial vessel (but not the flat vessel, which holds the precious 8 grams of still-dry leaves) five times back and forth between the cups. And then — at last — pours everything carefully onto the leaves. It is time!
There are no thermometers. He explains to the ever-attentive Maki that “my hands know the correct temperature.” He has cupped the vessels continuously, shifting and gently cradling the ceramic.
Maki, who sits alongside me, makes gentle cooing sounds, as if each clarification from Ojisan is a minor miracle. I’m rapt and now certain that there will be no need for the Puerh cake which lies in my nearby satchel. No need at all for that emergency tea, as what is unveiling before me is a casual but thorough adherence to the principle of tea moments.
Ojisan then waits, hands clasped, and gently whispers that the infusion time will be about three and a half minutes within the mothership of this operation: a flat, shallow bowl with a lid that contains the delicate green buds.
After a small period of time that I’m quite sure is almost exactly three and a half minutes, Ojisan carefully tilts the lidded vessel containing the leaves into our cups, using the lid to, in his words, “squeeze every single drop out.”
Heated cups thus readied, with no overstated introduction needed, I tip a sip of the lukewarm fluid into my mouth. Maki and Apollo tip their respective cups back as well. And then there is a moment I can only describe as “the grip.” This “grip” of the umami is true to the description that it “rests somewhere between the savoury and the sweet,” though it also churns and grabs the entire palate.
Softly, it seems to remove any previous memory that the palate might have had! Tea and its taking are like most personal experiences: laden with perception and sensations based on previous experiences. With this being true, it still feels as though with this infusion, this umami, my senses seem to have no real reference point.
Ojisan groans as he sips and nods his head, pleased. He then lays down another statement that will long ring in my mind.
“Tea and people are a little bit alike. They should both reflect character. I like character in people, and I like it in tea. A tea should reveal its maker.”
With those words, I’m smitten. More infusions will be had, but only one more of that particular round of Gyokuro. At one point, when still in a tea swoon, the leaves which have provided such pleasure are mixed gently into a large bowl, where a small amount of Shōyu (soya sauce) is added and we are encouraged to eat the leaves.
Say Ojisan: “We can eat the leaves as well. Mustn’t waste it.” **
Jeff Fuchs is an explorer who can often be found in the mountains retracing the ancient trade and pilgrimage routes of human history, where he always makes time to stop for tea.