In Japan, a special tea is served during the Cha No Yu, the famous tea ceremony. It is called Matcha.
Matcha differs in appearance from other Japanese teas in that it is ground into a powder. In any other tea-producing country, tea that comes in broken leaf or dust form would be a sign of poor quality, but in Japan, Matcha is one of the most renowned teas due to its high quality. It comes from a shade-grown variety of plant called Tencha. The tea leaves are ground in a stone mill which is filled from the top. The result is this very fine powder which, as you can see from my photo, collects around the edge of the two stones that rotate across each other and push the tea to the outside.
In my previous post I spoke of the master potter Hattori Koji-San. I showed you his agile hands at work. Here he is in his studio in the centre of Kyoto. For the photo, he decided to sit where he would normally place his wheel. This year, Le Palais des Thés has asked Hattori Koji-San to make its raku bowls. The various colours are achieved by the use of different mineral pigments. Part of the craftsman’s skill is to achieve the desired crackled finish to the glaze, along with the black, red or white tones that can symbolise stars or seasons, snow or night.
Each tea accessory used during the Cha no Yu (the Japanese tea ceremony) is made using the methods of an ancient craft. Raku is a classic technique often used to make the “chawan”, the bowl used in the tea ceremony. This process involves firing at a very low temperature.
Here, in the Kyoto studio of Hattori Koji-San, I watched the master potter deftly work the clay and gradually shape the contours of a tea bowl.
Kyoto is undoubtedly a traditional city, but that does not exclude a certain sense of fun. I have chosen these happy Japanese women, who must sometimes wear less classic outfits than these, to be my ambassadresses in wishing you a wonderful year in 2011, a year in which we might allow ourselves to express our “joie de vivre” in front of a passing photographer, a year in which we might take the time to observe such delicate things as the petals of cherry blossom.
The end-of-year festivities are often associated with the colours green and red. Green like the needles of the Christmas tree, red like Santa Claus; green and red like the leaves and berries of holly.
So I looked through my photos to see what I had in these shades, to offer you a touch of seasonal cheer, but I found nothing. But then I realised that I give you green throughout the year, with the fields of tea, so I thought a bit of red would serve to illustrate the season.
In a city like Kyoto, with more than a thousand temples, there is not one dedicated to tea. It is not very fitting for a country where so much of it is drunk. Last month, a little disappointed by this observation, I have to say, I decided to call on the Rice God instead, and set off to visit his temple. I am glad I did, because it means I can bring you an image of the wonderful red pillars of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha sanctuary. This Shinto temple has thousands of the beautiful “tori”.
I hope you like this end-of-year celebration in red. Enjoy the festivities!
Just before leaving Japan for China, here is a last glimpse of the landscape shaped by tea. Here, the rows of tea plants are precisely aligned. All is in perfect order, with a few organised clumps here and there, as if to underline the overall harmony. What I love most are the subtle nuances of green, the different shades of the same colour, a touch more yellow where the shoots are still young, slightly darker green where the leaves have recently been plucked.
While all tea plants belong to the camellia family, you know that there are different cultivars within that family. Here in Japan, the tea plant most commonly grown is Yabukita. It accounts for 85% of the tea crop, unlike in other tea producing countries, where many different varieties cohabit.
Yabukita is easy to recognise with its long, straight, intense green leaf. It also has its own way of growing, very straight, reaching up for the sky.
A typhoon has just swept through Japan, from the south to the north. I don’t know what delayed it, because it was very late; typhoons normally hit Japan in September. Violent winds flip your umbrella inside out and rain drenches you from head to toe.
It seems I didn’t choose the best day to visit Ryogôchi and admire these mountains, where some very high quality Gyokuro and Sencha teas are grown. However, this abundance of clouds does add to the mystery of the place. Although the village itself is slightly hidden, along with the river Okitsugawa, you can still make out some shapes, and it is very Japanese to suggest, rather than to assert.
I am writing this in the city where time stands still, where thousands of temples are hidden, where the gardens are of moss or of stone, but always invite contemplation. Here, everything is silent, beautiful, refined.
Those on a journey of self-discovery can loose themselves among the narrow paved streets. Will you see reflected in the surface of the stream the geisha about to cross the bridge, her face whitened with rice powder and protected from the sun by a delicate parasol? Will you hear the clicking of her pretty wooden clogs? They echo to the beating of a heart: perhaps mine, perhaps yours. This is Kyoto.
In Japan, there are teas grown in the light, and teas grown in the shade. These shaded teas, which are called “Kabusecha” here, are deprived of light for three weeks before harvest. This inhibits the process of photosynthesis in the leaves, meaning the tea plant must draw heavily on its own store of nutrients. This changes the chemical composition of the leaves as well as the aromatic properties.
In terms of flavour, it makes the tea smoother and more delicate, and it develops less bitterness. The best known “Kabusecha” tea is called Gyokuro, which has distinctive dark green, fine, glossy leaves.
In this photo I took very near Shizuoka, you can see how some of the tea plants have been covered by a large tarpaulin to shade them from the light.