What is Japanese tea to me?

Already over a decade has passed since I first fell in love with Japanese tea. At the start, I was still studying at the Japanese Studies Department of Leuven University in Belgium, and continuously looked to obtain anything that was even remotely ‘Japanese’. Tea was, off course, one of those dearly obtained and treasured items.

It was sencha – the most common variation of Japanese leaf tea – that I first collected. It instantly changed my perception of this Eastern beverage. Sencha served both as my daily refreshment after long hours of class, and as a boost during extensive periods of study. It was the perfect drink for a Japanophile like me, who didn’t want to become dependent on coffee or energy drinks to stay awake during examination terms for example.

My passion grew with each cup of tea I consumed. At one point I even aspired to write my bachelor thesis on Japanese tea, and proposed to focus on the consumption habits of contemporary Japanese people. I was however advised against, and inevitably changed my topic.

Now I look back at this occurrence, I gladly agree with my advisor that it would indeed have been a difficult – if not impossible a task – to find sufficient material for the compilation of this work at that time. Even now, after approximately ten years of enduring study I am still uncertain whether I could be able to write a covering paper on such a comprehensive topic.

While I have continued to learn and practice the rite of tea during my life in Japan, I only recommenced to actively study Japanese leaf tea a few months before I was accepted in a sales staff position at a traditional Japanese teahouse in Uji. From a cultural point of view, the rite of tea is revered as one of Japan’s highest forms of cultural heritage. When we speak of Japanese tea, we tend to first think of ‘tea ceremony’ and picture a bowl of frothy matcha.

Probably because my first encounter with Japanese tea was the leaf variation sencha, I have continuously found it peculiar that only powdered tea, or matcha has become this prestigious, while there are so many other perfectly delicious teas of Japanese produce available otherwise. It was this interest that inspired me to study more on what Japanese leaf tea actually is and how it is commonly perceived.

Study to obtain a certification as Japanese Tea Instructor (‘Nihoncha Instructor’ [日本茶インストラクター]) was one method I took. The other approach was to actually gain first-hand experience at a traditional tea vendor. And, although I gained plenty of knowledge on how tea is observed, produced and treated today; on the reverse side, it raised more questions as to what a traditional tea actually is.

My decision to study more about regular tea was founded in its function in opposition to the culturally elevated position of matcha, and its standing in the rite of tea, and therefore it couldn’t have been that unexpected that I also began to question the tradition of leaf tea. My foremost concern is whether or not what we are drinking today can actually be understood as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’.

What I learned was that the landscape of tea production and manufacturing has largely changed. Simultaneously, this also affected the preferences of contemporary consumers, and in the last 30 to 50 years, not only the way tea is produced has become altered; also the expectations of its drinkers have become considerably transformed.

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