It is worth visiting Japan’s first tea gardens. These ones were planted on the island of Kyushu, apparently around the 17th century. They are very small gardens, situated on the mountainsides. To visit them you must travel through dense forests, mainly made up of magnificent cryptomeria trees. You walk along a narrow, well-worn path and then, coming across a clearing, you discover a tea garden.
This stele may look unprepossessing, but for fans of Japanese teas it is worth a detour. The stone bears an inscription stating that it was in this place that the monk Eisai, who came from Long Jing in China, planted tea seeds he had brought with him. As for the rest, you can see the outlines of some Camellia Sinensis trees on the right. At the moment I’m on the island of Kyushu, near the city of Saga, where the story of Japanese tea began.
I should also mention that there are a few other similar stelae on the same mountain, bearing roughly the same inscription.
The Japanese city of Tokoname, situated not far from Nagoya, is one of the best known centres of ceramics. The city is home to well-known potters who work in their own studio, which is sometimes part of their house. Many make the famous “kyusus”, the small teapots that can be slightly flat in shape, with a handle perpendicular to the spout. They are used to make the best Gyokuros, or equally delicious Senchas.
Tradition and modernity come together in Japan. This mix also applies to tea houses. In a city like Kyoto, for example, which is near where I’m staying at the moment, you will find establishments that are more than two hundred years old, which are really worth a detour. Personally, I like the peace and charm of a comfortable place with clean lines like the Zen Kashoin tea rooms, located in the city centre. There, you can enjoy matcha ice-cream and various pastries, accompanied by your favourite green tea.
Good news from Japan! All the teas harvested since the start of the season by the farmers we work with have shown normal levels of becquerels. This is a huge relief for the growers as well as for fans of senchas and other gyokuros. Of course, we will continue to be highly vigilant and to analyse each lot before making it available for sale, to ensure it is completely safe and allow us to enjoy our tea with peace of mind.
This March I’ve tasted about 50 samples of tea a day. The first flush Darjeelings launch the season, followed swiftly by the Nepalese teas. A little later it’s the turn of the new-season China green teas. Then the Japanese Ichibancha. The teas are tasted blind, of course. The ritual is always the same: having smelt the infusion, you suck in the liquor and swish it around your mouth. You analyse the texture, the flavours, the aroma groups. You take your time. You taste and you taste again. You have to concentrate… Except for when a photographer bursts into the tasting room and captures the moment.
I have chosen this photo of a lovely landscape, taken at Wasuka near Nara, to tell you that it would be a shame to miss out on the Japanese spring teas, the famous ichibancha, this year. Le Palais des Thés has sent all batches of its Japanese tea to be analysed by a laboratory, which will check whether their radioactivity levels comply with European standards. Only once we have received the results can we start distributing the teas to our various stores. In the stores, you will be able to ask to see the laboratory test results for the tea you want.
So you will be able to drink the best shinchas with complete peace of mind. Japanese farmers have suffered enormously this year due to the tsunami, and we must not abandon them, or their deliciously delicate teas!
This is what a Japanese tea shop looks like. Or rather, a tea shop in a covered market, like here at Nishiki Ichiba in Kyoto. In the foreground are chests full of Hojicha and, on the right, the apparatus with a chimney is actually a Bancha roaster. It is used to produce Hojicha. It gives off a wonderful woody, caramelised aroma which spreads to the nearby stalls.
With the terrible images coming out of Japan at the moment, and with so many people in distress, I wanted to show you another side to this country, and pay homage to its beauty.
In the east of Kyoto, next door to the Chion-In temple, the Shoren-In temple hides in the shade of maple, eucalyptus and willow trees. Cross the stone garden, remove your shoes and step onto the wooden walkway. Admire the soft light filtered by the shojis, stop to look at the pond and then the garden, with its different coloured mosses. A little further on, a tea ceremony is taking place. The host takes the bowl of tea in both hands and raises it slowly up to his forehead, as a sign of respect.
This image of a stream gently winding its way between the ancient wooden houses of Kyoto’s old town haunts me as I think of all the victims of the terrible earthquake.
The contrast – particularly strong in Japan – between the tranquillity of nature and an earth capable of rising up and swallowing so many lives, reminds us of the fragility of our existence.
Of course, I am thinking of all my friends over there, of the people who work for Le Palais des Thés in Tokyo, of our suppliers, and particularly of those in the prefecture of Iwate, north of Sendai, which has been so badly affected.