Jul 26

Cha…all about tea

 Japanese tea, not unlike rice, is a staple that every man, woman, and child in Japan simply cannot do without. It has its own terminology. It has its very own ceremony.  A tea master studies years to perfect the craft.  Young girls are taught how to conduct tea ceremony as part of preparation for marriage.  To partake in tea ceremony is tantamount to a spiritual experience for most Japanese.

When you think of Japanese tea you probably think of green tea.  We in the west are now well versed in the healthy benefits of green tea which is high in antioxidants.  Sencha (roasted tea) is the most popular tea in Japan.  Cha means tea. Add “sen” and it becomes roasted tea.  Add “ban” and it means ordinary tea.

Sencha varies in both quality and price, depending on when it’s harvested.  The earlier the harvest, the better quality tea you can expect.

Tea plants start out in April and are ready to harvest in May. As soon as the leaves are harvested they are steamed to prevent fermentation. They’re then rolled and dried.  The finished product has a subtle sweetness a little bitter, with a distinctly fresh aroma.

Gyokuro is the best tea Japan has to offer. It is only served on special occasions, usually to special guests.  The Gyokuro tea bushes are shaded from the sun for the last couple of weeks before the leaves are harvested.  This gives the tea its special characteristics with darker and thicker leaves.  The flavor is stronger but less bitter than sencha.

Bancha (ordinary tea) is the lowest grade of Sencha.  It’s from the same bush but harvested later in the year when leaves are older.  Some people prefer the robust flavor of bancha. It’s the building block for Genmaicha (bancha mixed with toasted brown rice) which was one of my favorite cold tea drinks in Japan.

Matcha is the powdered tea used in the famous Japanese tea ceremony.  The very best leaves are dried in wind tunnels and then ground into a fine powder. To brew Matcha, the tea powder is mixed with hot water and whisked briskly with a bamboo whisk.  This helps dissolve the tea and produces a froth which is believed by many to improve the flavour of the tea. Taking part in tea ceremony is a very moving experience.  Tea ceremony is very difficult for foreigners as one is required to sit on the floor on tatami mats, Japanese style, for a long period of time or until you can no longer feel your legs and are unable to move without calling for heavy equipment.  This style of sitting is taught to toddlers so it’s no problem for Japanese.

I had my first experience when one of my adult classes hosted a party for me.  As soon as I saw the low table and cushions I knew I was in for a painful night. First, you need to know that I’m an ample woman, all six feet of me.  All my students, female, weighed in around 100 lbs or less, none of them over five feet tall.  I was escorted to the head of the table and motioned to sit.  First off, I simply could not drop to my knees as they did and gracefully sit back until I felt my heels dig into my bum cheeks. If you’ve got a visual on that, give it a try now, won’t you?  You can only appreciate my words by giving it a try. Go ahead.  So, impossible, yes!?  How did I do it?  Well, again picture this. I sort of slithered to the floor somehow, listing to the left until my hand made contact with the tatami mat.  Then I inched along until my folded legs were in full view on the right of my body.  So far so good but how could I possibly eat in this position? Once again, give this a try and see what I mean!

After much effort I was able to find a reasonably comfortable position that lasted, oh, say 5 minutes. Then it was time to shift.  This went on for hours.  At the end of the evening when I tried to rise…oh, God it was painful and very unladylike.  Honestly, I felt like a bull in a china shop.  For the rest of my years living in Japan I made sure to let my students know that when it came to dining out, this woman required a chair.


  1. Dru Pearson

    Being 5’10” myself, I can only imagine how uncomfortable that first tea ceremony was for you! Thanks for sharing the memory, though, as it increased, as your site always does, my knowledge of Japan.


  2. Jacquie

    I can definately relate to your pain! After the discomfort of my first visit to Japan (I have four metal pins in one hip and couldn’t sustain one kneeling/sitting position for more than a few minutes at a time), I tried building up my kneeling stamina before my second visit –without success. I have never felt more large and awkward than I did kneeling on tatami sharing tea with a group of petite and graceful Japanese women. The wonderful hospitality, culture and food made it all worthwhile, of course!

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