I Tasted 187 Teas In One Day.

From the day I opened The Tea Crane, tasting tea has been on my list of daily activities. In search of the most pleasurable naturally produced teas I continuously seek to discover new products and producers. Luckily I am right at the source and have easy access to a wide variety of Japanese tea. Some days I only assess one new tea, and on others I may inspect between 5 and 10 products. But an opportunity as the one I was presented with on September 9th is absolutely rare.

Since 4 years ago, the Nihoncha (Japanese tea) Instructor Association has developed a new kind of competition for producers of tea in Japan. The Association believes that the tea auction as it is conducted yearly after the spring harvest, has become outdated. Due to its exclusivity to members of the tea industry only, the assessments have become terribly biased by the preferences of members of this select group. This unfortunately pushes the production of tea in one single direction, rendering it a monotonous product, excluding possibility for variation and innovation.

The Association exclaims that the industry needs more input from the consumer side in order to identify what the consumer prefers as to taste, in contrast to what members of the industry believe the consumer should like. The competition is therefore devised to reflect those beliefs. At first, the judges of the contest are selected from people with a varied background, with the only requirement that they should have at least obtained the ‘Nichoncha Instructor’ license as an indication of their acquisition of at least a basic understanding of Japanese tea. Their varying backgrounds and preferences are considered as a representation of the likes of the consumer. The tea thereby receiving the highest scores is thus a tea that can be appreciated by a variety of people.

Secondly, the competition is open to the public, whereas the auction is closed to non-members. And, third, the teas selected for assessment are divided into categories that represent the wide variety of tea that Japan has to offer. Also, since the production of sencha is currently inclining towards production methods whereby the bushes are covered with black sheets for a period of days in order to render the color of the leaf darker and its taste sweeter, the Association has divided the selection of sencha in two categories. The first category only accepts entries of sencha teas that have been grown without shading in representation of ‘how sencha should be.’ The second category allows anything, including shaded production and blends.

For the past three editions of the competition, selections were exclusively held in Shizuoka. This year, however, for the first time Kyoto was taken as the venue for the selection of half the teas for the first round, thereby allowing members from the Kansai area to participate in the selection process. On this day, the selections for both sencha categories, gyokuro, oxidized teas, and other oxidized and fermented teas was held in Kyoto, and I was invited as one of the 10 judges.

The task I was presented with however exceeded my imagination. From 9am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon I tasted 98 different kinds of sencha, 14 types of Gyokuro, and 75 variations of oxidized and fermented teas. In total, I tasted 187 teas in about 7 hours, more than I have ever tasted, and more than I ever believed I was capable of doing in the span of just one day.

I have postponed writing about this event since I was not allowed to expand on the contents of the contest until the results were made public. On September 19th, the results of the competition after the second selection were made public, and the final round will be held in December. From a personal perspective, I was astonished by the amount of oxidized and fermented, in other words ‘black-teas’ and related teas that were submitted to this selection. I have long believed that there is great potential for Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea, when produced with green tea cultivars. This produces a variety of black tea that is uniquely Japanese with traits that are light of taste and easy to drink, with a delicious fragrance, and a variety of aromas.

However, such teas are still few in number, and although I was glad to see such a number of entries in the competition, there were only few that truly appealed to my vision on black tea produced in Japan. In addition, I see great potential in Japanese produced lightly oxidized (oolong type) teas, and put a lot of effort in sharing the appeal of such teas with my audience. Although I know that only a handful of producers in Japan are currently experimenting with the type, and that there are even less products of the kind available on the market, I was disappointed to see how few entries of this kind had actually been submitted.

It was an honor to have been asked as judge to this competition, and thereby having been considered as a representative of the preferences of the consumer. The experience in itself was a great opportunity to see a wide variety of teas, and extend my own horizons. It also allowed me a better insight in what is currently being produced in Japan, and where improvements could be made. It also provided me with the opportunity to see how the production of oxidized tea is growing, and the potential that there in fact is for such teas of Japanese production.


A lesson on Bancha at a Prime Minister’s villa

Bancha is one of those categories of Japanese tea that brings about many questions among its drinkers. What is it? How is it different from the roasted type of tea that is called Hojicha? Why do we get a different type of tea when we ask for Bancha in varying areas in Japan? It cannot be denied that this class of Japanese tea is an ambiguous one, and that it in fact covers a wide range of different teas that share one specific similarity; they do not belong to one of the major classes in which Japanese tea is being divided. In short, Bancha is the ‘and other’ class.

Most commonly Bancha is considered as tea that is drunk on a daily basis, and is thus therefore supposed to be ‘inexpensive’. The most widely available types of Bancha are produced from a leaf that is obtained in intermediary seasons when the bushes are pruned in between actual harvests. These leaves cannot be employed for the production of sencha or gyokuro because they are too large and coarse, and thus cannot function as material for high-quality tea products. Manufacturing them into Bancha is a way to repurpose those otherwise useless leaves.

These products become available amass, because the leaf is obtained in large numbers from a variety of fields. To produce Bancha leaves are hardly ever sorted out, and very often no consideration at all is given to which cultivar or which field they have been obtained from. They are a heap of useless leaves from a variety of gardens, and therefore become available in rather large numbers at comparatively low prices.

But this is not the case for all kinds of Bancha. A wide range of teas available under the Bancha label are not necessarily obtained from in-between harvests, but from bushes grown for the sole purpose of producing Bancha. These teas have traditionally been manufactured by local families for in-house consumption only, and hardly ever became obtainable outside of the village. Bushes were cultivated on the road-side or at the back of the house in a natural manner, and leaf was, and still is, obtained and manufactured solely through hand-processing.

Some of you may have already gathered that produce of such a tea is scarce, and contemporarily, since fewer and fewer young people reside in the countryside and partake in farming activities, such traditions are maintained at only a handful of households per region. Nevertheless, Bancha is a term that is very common in Japanese speech and has unmistakably the connotation of an inexpensive light tea. But from the perspective of someone with a profound interest in tea, such teas are not in the least invaluable due to the insight and information they provide in traditional practices and flavors.

Japanese Banchas are indicative of local culture varying for each and every region in which they are being produced. Most teas are still hand-processed according to strictly traditional manufacturing methods and are grown for purposes that not at all focus on mass-production or the aspect of financial gain. They are obtained through natural growing methods, and for the pleasure and consumption of the growers themselves and their relatives.

I believe that if we wish to understand tea production and consumption in Japan from a traditional and historical perspective, it is these Bancha teas that provide most insight in, initially local tradition, and in extension in the development of tea production in Japan as a whole. But, since the manufacturing population is aging and gradually shrinking, these traditions could soon go extinct. It is for this reason, and because I feel that we don’t yet understand Bancha enough, that I for the first time hosted a Bancha tasting during my most recent tea lesson at Murinan (the villa and garden constructed by Japan’s 3rd prime minister) in Kyoto.

I presented eight Bancha teas from different regions, all with different specifications. Some were fermented and others were roasted; some were simply steamed and dried; and another type was compressed in square cubes. The idea was to provide a wide range of teas to taste in order to indicate the diversity of Bancha available, and to break with common perceptions. With each tea, I provided background information, revealed manufacturing methods, discussed contemporary issues with production, and narrated brief historical backgrounds.

Bancha is a truly varied and interesting area to study. But, the teas I presented were not in the least easy to obtain. It in fact took quite some effort, not only because production is declining, but also because the demand is growing. In Japan, these teas are gradually being discovered by tea connoisseurs, and have come to be referred to as ‘maboroshi’, which can be translated as ‘the chimera of tea’ (for lack of better understanding of the English language), alluding to its scarcity and rarity. I will be studying these teas further and will continue sharing information on the subject in various forms, through tastings, writings, etc.

Raising the Bowl of Tea

The rite of tea is a condensed form of daily life. It comprises the vital values that make human existence meaningful and allows us to maintain and remember the old values that in contemporary society have been rendered seemingly trivial or have been forgotten. A great deal of what has been of great importance in the past has become common sense today, which only brings us further from the true core of our existence.

By remembering and practicing this tradition, we re-align ourselves with those values and bring true meaning back into our current situation. The one practice that embodies this elementary knowledge most significantly is when we raise the bowl of tea before drinking from it. What this gesture signifies is commonly described as thanking the gods and Buddha’s, or the one god, or the universe for providing it. But this religiously sounding connotation does not resonate with us any longer since over time we have distanced ourselves from religion in today’s secular political environment.

We do however realize that gratitude and being grateful for the things that are bestowed on us is important, but most often we don’t remember what it is we should be grateful towards. Is it the labors of the people who contributed to farming and producing the tea? Is it the environment in which the tea grew? Is it the host who prepared the tea? Yes, it is all of them, including the religious precedent we believe (or don’t believe) in.

Nevertheless, none of them actually captures truly what it is in essence we should be thanking for. Receiving a bowl of tea is receiving life. By consuming a bowl of tea we consume the life of another living organism in order to support our own. It is because we recognize this that in order to sustain our own lives we are dependent on the life that resides in other organisms, and therefore we express gratitude, but also respect for that organism, by lifting the bowl up before consuming. This action also expresses our humility, because we place our own being second to another.

It is this notion that life resides in every being present in nature that is strongest in Japan’s tradition. In pre-modern Japan it was common practice to raise a bowl or plate before receiving something, because this understanding was strong, and life and co-existence was ever valued. The Shinto tradition, most often referred to as Japan’s indigenous belief-system makes mention of eight million gods, which is interpreted as a number equal to infinity, in fact stating that every organism in nature is of god-like status, and should be treated as such. And when we take the life of such a being in support of our own life, we should be aware of our interdependence while being grateful, respectful and humble in receipt.

Nature has always played a tremendous role in Japan where earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and similar natural disasters are not uncommon, and certainly not only something contemporary. The Japanese people have always lived with the knowledge that someday nature may have a destroying effect on life, and while we cannot avoid it, we can only be prepared. Our lives are affected by nature and sometimes we fully depend on it in support of our existence. But nature also depends on us to observe the natural laws and treat it with respect. The co-existence between man and nature is a matter of give and take and should be conducted in harmony with each other. This harmony originates in us by respecting nature and being grateful for what we take from it, and through being humble in doing so, not being wasteful, but only take what we need.

Practice in the rite of tea allows us to remember this co-existence, and provides training-ground for us to reconsider our vulnerable yet valuable position on this earth. Raising the bowl before we consume tea may seem as a trivial gesture, but in essence it engraves in our hearts the knowledge we need to gratefully and respectfully build our interdependent relationship with mother earth.

Three Faces of Nature

The temperatures in Kyoto are at a rise. June, extending into July, is typically the rainy-season. The continuous downpours raise the humidity in the country, adding to the allover heat. This year, for a change, June hasn’t been very wet, and temperatures have been at an average of about 30 degrees Celsius in the Kansai region, which is still manageable. It is only since the past few weeks that weather conditions have begun to transition into a standard ‘tsuyu’- season.

Murinan is a traditional Japanese garden in Kyoto, selected as one of the few registered cultural landscape heritages by the city. The garden was constructed in the 19th Century by an elite government official, and today the care-taking company of the garden is endeavoring to not only open the garden for sightseeing, but also to allow visitors to partake in cultural activities, in a similar way as was envisioned by its original founders. As one of the first activities held in this fashion, I was invited to teach a 5-section course on Japanese tea, which is held in the main building, gazing out over the garden itself.

Not only is it an honor to share my knowledge and vision on Japanese tea in such a traditional environment, it is also the most suitable atmosphere to speak about one of Japan’s oldest cultural heritages, tea, while in a relaxed way savoring tea and a moment with different people in a way that is likely to be similar to how the facilities were used after their initial construction.

When yesterday’s session commenced, the mid-day sun was strong. The previous days too had been dry, and the moss in the garden was about to turn crisp showing signs of dehydration. It was indicative of the heat that we all had to endure, and thus the perfect atmosphere to begin the lesson with a cup of cold-brew Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea. The session was themed around Japanese ‘fragrant’ teas with a focus on Oolong-type and black teas manufactured in Japan. By the time we had reached a second kind of oolong, suddenly lightning and thunder struck, followed by a long awaited intense squall.

The rain was a gift from the heavens. For an instant, it cooled the air, but what was more important, was that it provided the nourishment that the garden was in sore need of. With all participants standing perplexed at the mystical appearance of the garden in this heavy summer rain, we paused the lesson briefly to gaze out. The care-keepers of the garden complementarily explained that the originator of the garden, Yamagata Aritomo, too enjoyed looking at his garden most when it was raining. In this sense, it was one of the most unique experiences, and a valuable addition to our cultured afternoon.

After approximately an hour, the air had cleared. The garden, bathing in a revitalized green with thick raindrops on the surface of the leaves, sent a scent of wet but warm plants upward into our classroom; a pleasant addition to the delicious aromas of the teas we at the time tasted. This made me realize that the aromas and flavors we experience with a cup of tea are not always strictly from the brew itself. The scents of the surroundings do too play a large role in how we taste an experience a tea, and in addition, make it only possible to have the same cup of tea once.

In just two hours, we had tasted 5 teas, and watched 3 different gardens. I couldn’t have thought of a more unique tea tasting myself. The taste of the teas we savored may never be the same again; and the occasion, shared with all attendees, will never return. This afternoon has turned into a treasure to be kept in our hearts forever.

How I Activated Lazy Me.

We are being told this same thing over and over. The internet is overflowing with blogs and content aiming to convey the exact same message. We have heard the phrase so many times that when it appears, we say “yea yeah, I know this already”. But in reality, we only understand its literal meaning, but not the idea behind it, and the impact that understanding this can have on our lives.

Do, act, get off your ass.

Only by doing something, you will achieve something.
By doing nothing, you will achieve nothing.

I am a lazy person, and rather sit back thinking about what I could do, rather than to actually go out and do it. But being self-employed, this unfortunately won’t get me very far. When I began selling tea, set up a tea ceremony classroom, started teaching and giving lectures about tea among various other freelance activities, I very soon realized that just thinking about what I should to, where to go or who to contact wasn’t going to get me very far, so I started looking for inspiration on how to activate my lazy self.

I found guides on how to improve my productivity, read books on entrepreneurship, sales, management, etc. but in the end, I still found myself doing everything that wasn’t going to lead to the collaborators and students I needed for my activities. I made a beautiful homepage, set myself up on every possible social network, spent a lot of time on selecting the teas for my store, and after a few months, I was still surprised that I hadn’t been selling much tea, nor wasn’t getting a lot of students for my classes. What I was in fact doing was painting the walls of my bedroom in the hope that someone on the outside would notice how beautiful it was.

Something had to be done, and the next step I took was to learn about setting goals. I made to do lists, set short-term goals, long-term goals, and began to take action little by little. The words on paper compelled me to get up and get out to actually do something, but this quickly started to feel as an obligation, rather than as a positive boost. Something was lacking, and it was Simon Sinek who helped me understand the importance of our beliefs. No matter how beautifully composed your to do lists are, or how large you have written your ultimate goals on the wall, if it doesn’t resonate with why you are doing it, you just won’t do it.

Setting goals can be a drive to get moving forward, but if it doesn’t stroke with the reason why we are doing what we are, interest is easily lost. For me, figuring out that the main reason why I do everything regarding tea and Japanese tradition is because it inspires me to live a simple and happy life, while it allows me to share with others what I have learned and feel passionate about, helped me attain a different mindset. Rather than pushing myself to send x emails to x existing and x new contacts, and to update my Facebook status x times a day, and so on and so on, in order to reach a goal of x total students in x years, I now began doing everything I felt was right, when it was right, because it was in line with my core belief. I actually started doing more because it was what I loved doing.

For some setting goals may work, for others clearly defining your beliefs may be more beneficial. Nevertheless, what I have learned is that we shouldn’t spend too much time on pondering on and polishing our goals or beliefs. Set a goal, write down your beliefs the way they appear to you now, and move on. Focusing on getting these things right for too long is impairing. In fact, even without having a goal written on your wall, or without a clear idea of your beliefs, it is far more important to get out and do what you love, rather than to spend hours at a desk trying to figure out why you are doing what you actually aren’t doing at all.

Get up, get out, do something and enjoy it. Make adjustments where necessary and move on. A clear view on the goals you want to achieve, or the core reason why you are doing what you are doing will become clear eventually. If you are doing what you feel is right, and resonates with who you are, then results will show. In the end, if you are doing what you love doing, people will recognize your passion and beliefs. Don’t forget to listen to them; because it is usually those persons that will tell you what you need to know about your own beliefs.

About ‘Buji’

Proverbs that originate in Zen Buddhism play a significant role in the rite of tea as well. Some of these proverbs have been adapted in secular circumstances, and in most cases their meaning has been altered to our immediate contemporary needs.

‘Buji’ [無事] for example is one such proverb. The word is formed of two characters of which the first (‘mu’ [無]) means ‘none’, and the second (‘ji’ or ‘koto’ [事]) means ‘thing’ or ‘matter’. In its secular meaning, the word ‘buji’ is most frequently used to indicate that everything is all right, or that nothing is untoward; ‘Nothing’ is amiss. But the spiritual meaning in relation to its origins in Zen Buddhism requires a bit more consideration to be understood.

The highest achievement for a Zen monk in training is to reach enlightenment. His spiritual journey guides him on the way to achieve this ultimate state. However, enlightenment must not be treated as a goal one has to work towards in order to be obtained. The practice of the monk is in the conduct of everyday affairs, maintaining a steady state of mind. He who pursues enlightenment is unlikely to ever reach it, but he who abandons this perception, and halts his pursuit of the ideal, will eventually obtain full comprehension.

It is this knowledge that is recognized in the above proverb. ‘Buji’ in its purest form means that there is ‘not a thing’ one can do to obtain enlightenment; Comprehension of our being cannot be forced, it will come when it comes.

This belief applies not only to Zen monks, but also to every aspect of our spiritual, private and professional lives. Whatever we pursue or attempt to master demands effort, patience and perseverance. When we take up a new hobby, commence learning a new skill, or even start a new business, we can’t expect to grasp the essence of whatever endeavor we engage with in a matter of mere months, or even years.

Every time we engage in our undertaking, we gain new insights. Every insight adds to our understanding of our pursuit, and eventually will contribute to mastery of the art. But it is only through continuous study and engagement that these insights can be obtained, and regardless of how strongly we wish to achieve something, it is only through ‘doing’, and by taking step by step that someday we will reach that level of full comprehension.

In addition, from my perspective as an adept and instructor in the art of tea, I have come to understand that ‘mastery’ is not something that is obtained after a certain amount of lessons, or a period of years, but that true mastery lies within engagement in the art for as long eternity lasts. Every occasion, every person we interact with is different, and continuously allows us access to new insights. Becoming able to perfectly execute an art is not where our realization of mastery ends, it is where the journey towards true mastery begins.

Visiting The Shapers Of The Japanese Tea Of The Future.

Last month, a tea expert from Belgium consulted me regarding a visit of the most renowned tea producing regions in the Kansai area. The three-day tour we put together was not what you’d call the most conventional visit of tea manufacturers the region has to offer. What we did was instead to see Japanese tea in a broader perspective, looking to what it has to offer in terms of future opportunity and progression on a global scale.

The way Japanese tea is contemporarily seen in Japan – and simultaneously how it is introduced in the West – is but a narrow focus on ‘green tea’ categorized in a handful major variations, while leaving a large group of products in the dark, or alienated as mere byproducts. While this focus on what tea in Japan has to offer today has allowed tea production to survive and expand on large scale, it is my belief that in this process the true tradition of Japanese tea has become disregarded.

Since approximately 60 years ago, machinery has accelerated and simplified the mass production of tea. Additionally, in order to maintain the production output and maximize the outcome, farming has become dependent on the use of artificial fertilization. And in effect, by means of protecting the crop from bugs and diseases, this demands from growers to rely on mostly chemical products. While this vicious circle of maintaining levels of produce has affected contemporary farming standards, it has also influenced our preference of taste. Nowadays, a green tea must contain high levels of umami flavor to be considered delicious, and any hint of fragrance due to withering or oxidization in the leaf is considered a fatal flaw to the quality of the crop.

But, considered that prior to the industrialization of tea production in Japan, unnatural fertilizer didn’t exist, and harvest and manufacturing was done by hand, and thus took much longer, it is difficult to accept that the tea we drink today is a righteous representation of Japan’s centuries old tea tradition. To me this is the main reason why I look to naturally produced tea products, and also seek out native cultivars for the teas I offer at The Tea Crane. Naturally produced teas rely on no unnatural fertilizers, and in effect obtain their flavor and aroma directly from their immediate precincts. In addition, native cultivars have grown in a particular region for decades, having thus become adapted to the specifications of the surroundings, which allow us insight in the qualities such an environment has to offer.

But what is most important, is that such a tea also allows us a glimpse of what it traditionally tasted like, and what it as a natural product has to offer. This is why the tour we designed mainly focused on young organic farmers, breaking with the status quo and through their vision and belief continue to offer a solution and an out from contemporary standards. It is this group of producers that is shaping the future of Japanese tea, and that will put it on the map as a diverse and culturally correct product, meeting the standards and interests of Westerner consumers.

I believe that tea is not suited for mass production. On the contrary, it must be savored and treasured with great care and compassion, as it is the life and energy of the bush that we are allowed to receive.