Tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world and has been enjoyed for ages. From something as simple as soaking dried leaves in hot water, who would have known it was packed with something truly extraordinary for our health and mentality? Undoubtedly, for many die-hard tea fans, or like myself who has succumbed to its divinity during my dark ages, know that it is not only about soaking it in hot water. It is a lifestyle. Every cup that is brewed is a blessing for your body and spirituality. That is why the perfect cup of tea should be treated moderately and delicately. The Goldilocks principle is very important to teas, just as it is to coffee. But because they come in different strains, every tea type has its own optimum temperature and special process to yield its goodness. Even the best of teas can be brewed into mud, and sometimes the most regular types of teas can provoke enlightenment, if you know what you are doing.
This notion was imposed to me by my barista-sista, who taught me about the qualities of certain teas, and why the same batch of tea can be bitter on some days and not others. It is all about temperature. For example, black-tea, which has gone through a more oxidative process and was “cooked” longer, can use boiling hot water. Green teas and white teas on the other hand, are much more mildly processed and therefore can burn easier than black teas. This is why these teas are often bitter if made by a strong hand. The best temperature for these teas are around 85-95 degrees Celsius.
So, because I’m of a more delicate type my palate seeks to compliment my personality. (Cough! cough!). I am very sensitive to bitter tastes, which is why I was never fond of teas in my earlier years, until I discovered that teas, and myself included, just needed another chance and a different approach to make amends. And certainly, there may have been some people that traumatized my tea experience but that is all about to change, because I am getting another fresh outlook in tea-life by joining a Japanese Tea ceremony.
Chanoyu or Chado (Way of Tea) is a ritualized ceremony mainly involving the preparation of matcha. I’m sure we all know that starbucks Matcha Frappe or matcha iceream but if you enjoy Matcha Lattes like I do too then you should not mention that to any Japanese matcha enthusiast because you will be frowned upon. This type of tea is serious business, as I will get into in a bit. But first, I need to promote some nutritional facts of matcha why this type of tea is my favorite. Then I will get into how my love for this tea made me had enough in my house to bathe myself in matcha. This also lead into a part where I was tremendously traumatized with it (which I can only vaguely explain) and that thanks to this ceremony, I am back on path to rejoicement with this tea!
Matcha is made by stone-grounding entire green tea leaves into a very fine powder. The source also comes from the young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant and is derived from a very refined harvesting technique. Around the beginning of April, when the shoots appear at the tips of the bush, the entire plantation is shaded for 3 weeks to prevent photosynthesis. By doing this, high amount of Theanine is accumulated into the sproutings. Theanine is an amino acid analogous to glutamate and glutamine, which means it can be readily absorbed by the small intestine, and gives green teas and gyokuro that distinct full-bodied, umami-ish flavor. It has also been shown to give profound effects on the body, and has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier intact. Because it is analogous to glutamate, it can bind to its respective receptors (of course in a much lower affinity) and can thereby give profound effects on our neurobiology. It has been shown to increase serotonin, dopamines, GABA and glycine levels. The mechanisms however are still speculative at this point. Several studies have shown theanine’s antagonizing effect on AMPA and kainate receptors, and also the inhibition of glutamine and glutamate transporters, and thus blocking the reuptake of those two amino acids. This could be the reason for its marked increase, but it is still uncertain.
What is for certain, is that theanine’s ability to cross into the brain allows it exert something rather interesting. A psychoactive property has been reported by theanine which is that it can promote alpha-wave production in the brain. Alpha waves are produced during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes, sorta like meditation when you are feeling zen. And these waves are reduced when we are tired, sleepy or stressed. So theanine is believed to be potential in reducing mental and physical stress, improve cognition, and boost your mood. It’s psychoactive properties can reduce anxiety, control blood pressure, and much more.
Green tea also holds an immense amount of antioxidants, which can further reverse the deleterious effects of stress and aging on our body and mind. They say, 1 cup of matcha is equivalent to 10 cups of regular green tea in terms of antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and chlorophyl (source). That is because you are consuming whole leaves and not just the water it was soaked in. Not only can green tea magically detoxify the body, it can help remove many carcinogens from your system as well. Green tea extract has been shown to reduce intestinal absorption of lipids and Benzo(a)pyrene or BaP, a common carcinogen found in cigarettes, smoked or charbroiled foods, such as BBQ or fried chicken. Green tea extract can also increase billary secretion of these carcinogens, and remove them from the body. So the big tip, next time you have BBQ or hotpot, enjoy it with some matcha!
Now to the story! Because of my love for matcha and its amazing properties, I decided to order a batch for myself when I was in university. Knowing how unhealthy I have become, the kinds of foods I ate, this was something I sincerely needed. Matcha is quite expensive, it is not called green-gold for no reason! So frugal as I can be, I decided to find a wholesale solution to my ever-so small life budget. I found a nice source from amazon, about 10 ounces for $30. When it arrived, It was cocooned in duct-tape so a no-name someone decided to open this with a knife. When we finally got it open I noticed a small tear on the side, and matcha was pouring onto the floor. Remember, matcha is very very fine, a small hole will work matcha like a sandclock.
I told him about not knifing my matcha bag, and this immediatly broke into a fight. I was being cautious and worried as he would not let go of the leaking matcha bag as we argued for a good 10 minutes. For someone who cannot take a mild accusation, he continued to flip a bitch, and he threw the matcha bag against the garbage bin (AGAINST, not even into). This turned into a major disaster as the matcha bag ripped and is now all over the floor. Trying to calm myself after seeing this horrible incident, I turned away to my desk, knowing that this has now gotten out of hand, yet again. Feeling guilty he decided to take the responsibility and clean it. Usually, you would have to use a wet cloth for something this delicate, but here he comes with the vacuum cleaner and decided to shortcut. And of course, POOF! matcha-floor turns to matcha-clouds in my room. This fine powder does not get filtered by the vacuum cleaner and for the next couple of weeks, my room reeked of matcha, and a small thin layer of green powder lined the surfaces of my room. Everytime we needed to use the vacuum cleaner, the smell of burnt macha stank the room. Since then, I thought I could have never enjoyed matcha again.
But that is all behind me now. I have entered a country where matcha is praised and ritualized and where 20% of the world’s green tea is consumed. I was given twice the opportunity to participate in traditionally making matcha here in Daisen! The first time, was with a neighbor of the place I am currently living and the second time with a couple who teaches and practices the ultimate tea ceremony. So how do you prepare matcha? Lets get into it.
To brew the perfect bowl of matcha, you’ll need the right utensils. As the master proclaimed, this is the “beginner set” and it consists of a bamboo whisk and spatula for scooping. These are essential utensils that when replaced with something else like a metal whisk, just doesn’t produce the same texture as the way I have tried here. For every bowl, you scoop about two full spatulas of matcha.
One scoop has a tall pile of about 1 and a half cm. Then a small cup of hot water (remember, not boiling hot!) is poured into the bowl from the coal heated kettle. When placing this ladle back to the kettle, you lean the base of the cup on the edge of the kettle, then spreading your hands and using only your thumb, slowly and gently lower the ladle to the kettle. Next, using the bamboo whisk, you start by whisking fast in a back and forwards (lateral) motion first, until the peaks are formed.Then you finish off by swirling in a circular motion, to loosen the bubbles and separate them from the sides of the bowl.
The types of bowls are also an important aspect in making and serving matcha. The bowls are usually made of a handmade earthenware and come in individual styles. Unlike serving tea in a western way, which comes in identical sets, Japanese enjoys their matcha in large irregular shaped bowls, each with it’s own unique pattern. Part of the drinking experience is appreciating and noticing the bowl that it is served in, and serves as a point of discussion with your fellow tea drinkers during the ceremony.
At an official tea ceremony, it is usually hosted by a person who has spend decades mastering not only in making and serving tea, but also in understanding and appreciating art, crafts, interior design, gardening, poetry and calligraphy. Hosting a tea ceremony is a task that is taken very seriously. It is important to know the type of sweets that are served alongside the tea, which is dependent on the season. Also, the kinds of flower that must be vased in the room, and other interior ornaments to serve the atmosphere. The garden is also another highly important aspect in the tea ceremony.
As a guest, the initiation of the ceremony occurs in another special room where the guest wait for the hostess to prepare the tea and coal. When he/she is finished, the guests follows a path that takes them through a specially designed garden. Peacefully, you make your way to a stone water basin situated in the garden where you wash your hands and mouth of any impurities. You then continue the path to a tiny entrance. You crawl inside, to find another room with the tea and kettle cooking. This is where you will enjoy your tea. You must first admire the hanging scroll on the wall, which is usually a calligraphy of a Zen Buddhist priest and then take your seat. First you are served with sweets, which you must consume before your tea is served. I had an orange jello, and something bitter that was sugar coated.
When you receive your bowl of macha, you take it with your left hand and with your right hand supporting the bottom. You need to first place it inbetwen you and your other guest on the left hand side and ask an excuse for going first. Then you place the bowl infront of you, place your hands on the floor and thank the host for their service. Then you take up the bowl in the same manner, but turn it twice so that what was supposedly the part where you sip is now on opposite side. This is because the placement of the bowl that was served to you is the host’s choosing of the best “side” of the bowl as it is presented to you. This is usually with the designs facing you. But upon receiving it, you must not take the best side, and turn this back to your host as a way to show respect and courtesy. When you finished your matcha, you are allowed to admire the artistic elements of the bowl. When you drink matcha, you usually have two bowls, each time in the same manner but out of a different bowl each time to keep things interesting.
The tea ceremony is a lot like dancing with many intricate steps involved. The first time you do it you might be a bit clumsy and it can be a frustrating experience, but once you get the hang of it, and go with the flow you can really appreciate the value it serves. Also, given the psychoactive properties of matcha and the meticulous aesthetic elements it is served with, the whole experience can really put your mind in strangely enchanting state. Especially after two cups of strongly brewed matcha, and sitting in a dimly lit room with things to admire, I definitely felt a peculiar sensation that I wouldn’t mind to experience more frequently in my life. So to conclude, I call upon all hearty tea-drinkers and lovers out there, if you ever come to Japan and especially to the country side like in Daisen, this is something you have to try! It has definitely stitched-up a little spiritual patch in me. Peace out!
I want to thank the Kodani’s (left) for their inspiring lesson about tea culture, all the information, their hospitality and tour of their zen garden and rooms. I also want to thank Irie Kazuko and Atsuko Kazuko for having me over for tea, kimono dress-up time and tie-dying, I had a lot of fun!