Tea cultivation began in Japan at the end of the 12th century, after the Zen Buddhist priest Eisai (1141-1215) returned from China in 1191 with tea seeds/seedlings. Eisai regarded tea as medicinal, a view held by many in our times as well. He even wrote a treatise on tea drinking, "Kissa Yojoki" (Drinking Tea for Health) that is still read and well regarded. Eisai is also credited with first introducing the concept of the tea ceremony, which combined tea, Zen and meditation into a highly stylized ritual that still enjoys popularity.
Eisai first planted his seedlings on the northern flanks of Mt Sefuri, which sits on the border between Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures on the island of Kyushu. Tea plants, Camellia sinensis, require good drainage, making them a good crop for hilly or even mountainous areas. The Hoshino-mura district of Yame, some 35 or so kilometers to the southeast of Mt Sefuri, is exactly such an area and remains a center of tea production even today.
Earlier this year (pre-pandemic), a friend took me on a visit to Hoshino to meet Kiya Yasuhiko, proprietor of Kiya Horyouen, producers and purveyors of the best in Japanese tea and tea accoutrements since 1930. As a community, Hoshino trades heavily on its tea “industry”, and even has a “Museum of Tea Culture”, but for me, the true joy of my visit was the chance to spend the afternoon with Kiya-san, a tea master devoted to helping people deepen their respect and awareness of green tea.
At Seisui-an, his boutique overlooking the Hoshino River, Kiya-san gave us a “tea tasting”, complete with detailed explanations of his tea, how to brew it to bring out the best flavor, and even how the shape of the tea cup affects the flavor. It was an intense study, yet thoroughly relaxing and pleasant; one could say it was a post-modern tea ceremony.
Kiya-san began by explaining his own motivation in growing and developing the finest green tea. In our modern times, many people no longer brew their own tea, but instead purchase it pre-made in bottles. He began to fear that the advent of this convenience-oriented product was causing people to lose their appreciation of good quality tea. Thus 10 years ago he set out to create in Seisui-an a place where quality tea would be available in its most authentic form.
For our tea-tasting experience, Kiya-san began from a “cold brew” made with his special shincha leaves. He explained how different varieties of tea are harvested at different times, as the timing of the harvest has as much impact on the flavor as the leaves themselves. Shincha is usually harvested annually around the third week of April, but in Hoshino the harvest is slightly later, right around Golden Week. Kiya-san himself personally selects the best tea leaves for shincha.
When Kiya-san walked out of his prep room with a bottle of cold brew, the contents look clear, with dark leaves sitting at the bottom. Kiya-san explained that this clear liquid was, in fact, brewed tea. He noted that most people believe that o-cha (Japanese green tea) should be green, but that is not the case. Even very pale liquid can be tea. The green color that people are familiar with comes from breaking the tea leaves. As if to demonstrate, Kiya-san gave the bottle a quick shake and the liquid instantly changed color, becoming a cloudy green, darker than regular green tea. But the real surprise came when he poured the tea into pinot noir wine glasses. Sitting on the wooden bar under a down light, the liquid glowed a yellow-green. The taste was as surprising as the color, smooth and not at all bitter.
In response to our oohs and ahs over the color and appearance, Kiya-san explained that he had tried his cold brew in a number of different shapes and sizes of glasses and tea cups before deciding that the pinot noir wine glass was the one that best complimented the flavor as well as showing off the distinctive color.
For our next “course”, Kiya-san poured nearly boiling water into a pot, tested its temperature, then poured it into another pot and finally into four cups, all with the aim of getting exactly the right water temperature. All the while he chatted to us about the ins and outs of tea and his own experiences with tea. Perhaps the point of this post-modern tea ceremony isn’t so much to drink the tea as it is to enjoy the conviviality of “tea time”.
Kiya-san’s goal was to get the water to 40 C to 50 C, a rather lukewarm temperature, one might think, but Kiya-san insists it is the temperature that brings out the umami of o-cha. While waiting, Kiya-san also measures out the required amount of tea from an airtight canister.
He served us each five cups of tea made from these leaves. The first cup was poured out as soon as the tea leaves were wet, just a couple of mouthfuls of tea with a slightly bitter umami.
Each subsequent cup, made from the same leaves, had a different flavor. Between the third and fourth cups, he served us a wagashi sweet: a palate cleanser or something to trick the taste buds? Either way, the fourth cup of tea tasted the most like everyday green tea.
After the fifth cup of tea, Kiya-san pronounced that the leaves had finally opened completely. He carefully scooped the leaves out of the tea pot, dished them onto small plates, and sprinkled them with salt crystals from Itoshima on the Fukuoka coast.
After we ate the leaves, Kiya-san asked what we tasted, a twinkle in his eye. I had tasted spinach. But one of my companions said the leaves tasted like watercress, while another said he tasted carrot greens. Smiling, Kiya-san explained that the leaves always tasted different to different people. But he had no explanation of why that would be.
For our final tea of the afternoon, Kiya-san served hojicha, a lightly roasted tea that is best brewed with water closer to boiling temperature. Kiya-san noted that hojicha is a tea from eastern Japan that is not well known or popular in western Japan. For this tea he used an earthenware tea cup that was also shaped like a pinot noir wine glass, but without the stem. He began having these cups these specially made at the Takatori-yaki Onimaru kiln in nearby Toho, after he decided this shape best released the earthy aroma of the lightly roasted hojicha. Personally, I just found the cup fit comfortably in my hand.
Visitors don’t have to take as much time as we did to enjoy Kiya-san’s teas. At Seisui-an, one can browse the selection of teas, pick up a new tea pot or cup designed to enhance the flavor of the tea, or enjoy a refreshing “tea and sweet” set, all in an elegant riverside atmosphere. It is most definitely an opportunity to develop a better appreciation of the wonders of green tea. For those not ready to travel yet, Kiya Horyouen has an online store (Japanese language only).
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today