Tag Archives: Vision

Comparing Japanese Oolong

The Koshun Organic Oolong, produced in the Shimada region in Shizuoka, has since the opening of my store been one of the favorites. It has proven to be popular with our customers, and it served as one among 5 different teas featured in the many tea sampler packages I have delivered the previous year. In its description, I have described it as a tea with a milky savor that has an especial appeal for young women, and this description has not yet been proven misplaced.

Unfortunately, we have run out of stock from the current batch of the 2015 harvest, and the time has come to move on to a new batch. However, unlike with the more current types and blends of tea available in Japan, the production of slightly oxidized teas is still pretty new to most contemporary producers. In effect, manufacturing methods have not yet been set in stone, and are continuously altered and improved. With the manufacturing of green tea however – even though the quality of the crop may differ from year to year – fertilization and manufacturing methods, in addition to blending practices have enabled contemporary tea vendors to obtain a somewhat steady product all year through.

With the manufacturing of naturally and organically produced teas on the other hand, most of such practices are omitted, and quality and specifications of the crop will vary every year. From my personal perspective, this allows for a pleasant variation and healthy diversity depending on what nature and our surroundings is willing to provide. But, in the case of lightly – and fully – oxidized teas produced in Japan, this variation doesn’t only occur through natural influences.

Since the manufacturing of oxidized tea is still very new, and has seen a gradual increase in the past 3 to 5 years, most producers are yet in the course of developing best practices and solidifying their approach to making a truly delicious tea with authentic specifications exclusive to the region they are produced in or to the vision of the producer himself.

Therefore, when enlisting a new batch of our Koshun Oolong, I feel it is necessary to indicate some of the improvements that have been made to the product, and in effect point out several changes in character of the tea. I have taken a sample of the 2016 harvest and compared it to the 2015 batch, which was current at The Tea Crane.

Tasting notes:

Judging from the color of the leaf alone, it becomes clear that the 2015 tea underwent a longer process of withering. The 2016 tea maintains a greener hue, whereas the previous tea is darker and bluer in tint. This is an understandable alteration since the manufacturing of slightly oxidized teas in Japan currently is leaning towards lighter oxidation in order to maintain and include more traits of green tea. In effect, the final product will be closer to a slightly oxidized green tea, enhanced with a scheme of aromas instilled by the process of withering, than it may actually compare to for example a Taiwanese oolong. Manufacturers believe that it is this character that will distinguish ‘oolong’ – and likewise fully oxidized black tea – produced in Japan, from other regions in the world. But this topic I will save for a later post.

Since the oxidization of the newest batch is less deep, the flavor of the tea maintains a lighter, sweeter, more flowery aroma. Also the flavor reveals more traits of green tea, such as a slight stimulus on the tongue with a younger and slightly greener expression, which becomes apparent in a higher amount of tannins exciting the inner cheeks. This is less the case with its predecessor. The 2015 tea has a more velvety feel and creaminess to it, making it an agreeable tea to drink. On the other hand, however, it wasn’t as outspoken aromatic and flowery as its successor, which brings more diversity in fragrance and flavor to the table.

Overall, where the 2015 tea was softer, creamier and smoother, the 2016 tea is a little more robust and thrilling. The foremost benefit of the new batch is that it has a stronger and more diverse aroma, but this had to come at the cost of a little bit of the creaminess. Of course, this didn’t happen to the extent that the trait has been totally eliminated. Summarizing the comparison in one sentence, I would say that the velvety 2015 tea has made place for a slightly more exciting tea in 2016. I wonder what improvements will be made when this year’s batch becomes available.

I expect the 2016 Koshun Organic Oolong to be available on the store very soon. Please be patient while I update our stock.

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The power of acceptance – Dealing with difficult situations

We are continuously being informed that building a business takes time. It requires patience and we mustn’t rush ahead, but what does this actually mean? How doe we become patient if we aren’t yet? And how can we recognise whether or not we are acting impatiently?

I haven’t been too patient myself and I have always rushed ahead. Of anything that I have done, I have always been able to clearly see the desired outcome; the goal I am eagerly seeking to achieve, but have constantly been oblivious to the path that leads toward that image. When I want something, I want it now, and that is how we somewhat have become conditioned in our current society. When we want something, we buy it. Do you feel sick? Take a pill and the symptoms will go away. Want to talk to a friend? Pick up the phone or send a text message.

Everything has become instantly available, and we are slowly forgetting what it means to be patient. But, even in this rapid paced world of today where everything is readily available, there still are things that can’t be obtained immediately. Human relationships and love are things that take time and patience to build, acquiring a skill takes time to learn, and building a business is just as much one of those elements.

The Internet is flooded with guides on creating an online business, or courses and books on starting your own entrepreneurial undertaking. Entrepreneurship has become so prominent a concept in our lives that our younger generation can start a business of their own just as easily as they would take up a new hobby. We don’t want to work for an employer anymore because it limits us in our doing, but we still need the money to sustain our living expenses. Starting a business is in this light a very viable and appealing option.

Nevertheless, what we tend to forget is that it takes time and effort to build a successful business, and it requires the patience and persistence to make such an undertaking profitable. Not understanding this sufficiently means that when things don’t look as good as you had initially anticipated, or sales are insufficient and there is a shortage of cash flow, you may quickly loose faith and confidence, and quit. But, it is in dealing successfully with these down times, that we may find the key to success.

But, how can you stay calm on such an occasion? I believe that since we have become too used to being able to get what we want instantly, that we have lost our patience and willpower. To be patient means to accept the situation and to be satisfied with what we have at that current moment. Willpower drives us to continue striving for our goal no matter what the difficulties we encounter. Acceptance is an important factor here, because it is only in being able to accept the current situation, that it is possible to take steps in the right direction. When things don’t go well, I often use the phrase ‘I accept that things aren’t going as I would want them to. What do I do to make things better?’ Realizing what the situation is you are in, and accepting the fact that it is what it is, provides you with the strongest steppingstone to start moving forward.

But how do you maintain this tranquility of mind when your world appears as if it is about to fall on your head and squash you underneath its weight? I find meditation to be extremely powerful. Meditation is the art of acceptance. As you sit, and focus on your breath, you let your thoughts flow, let everyday activities rest, and take time for relaxation. In this moment, you take your mind off the thoughts that circle you deeper and deeper into the difficulty of the situation, and may even lead to extremely harmful doom thinking. You practically distance yourself from what is troubling you, and in effect get a broader view on the situation, making room in your mind for new ideas or solutions to enter.

As Einstein said it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Abraham Lincoln adds to this “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, wise people have advised us not to jump onto the problem at once. I meditate to sharpen my mind before attacking the problem, and simultaneously devise a different mindset from which to approach the problem. Meditational practice is a powerful tool to prepare us to stay calm in any situation, but I am not urging you to start practicing the art of zazen, or tea ceremony, or yoga as I do. Similar results can be achieved through going for a swim or a run, or engage in another physical activity, go on a short holiday or short break, read a book, etc. Do something relaxing.

The first step in dealing with a difficult situation is to temporarily let go of it and accept that it exists. As a wise Zen master once said when a pupil entered his quarters with a million questions, “Sit. Let’s have tea in silence first!

Meditation in Hospitality; Hospitality in Meditation

What is the rite of tea? Some refer to it as a meditational practice, others point to the considerate alertness it nurtures within the practitioner to the needs, comfort and delight of others; in short, the hospitable face of this praxis. Although these two sides are seemingly opposite to one another, it is my belief that the true value of what we can learn from the praxis of tea is hidden in the paradoxical combination of simultaneously the meditational aspect, which works on the individual, and the hospitable side, which nurtures mutual respect and consideration for others.

Both items indeed seem to work against each other. When we are in meditation, then how can we be considerate of others? And when we are working to serve others, how can we also be in meditation? I believe that it is exactly this paradoxical combination – of unbroken meditation with considerate alertness to the needs, comfort and delight of others – that characterizes this rite as something of which I feel contemporary society is in sore need.

The point in the seeming impossibility of combining meditation, and consideration for others in one and the same praxis, lies in how we perceive meditation. Meditation is most commonly seen from a Zen perspective, in which an adept sits cross-legged for an extended period of time. We see this exercise as a means to ‘distance‘ ourselves from what is current, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Through meditation, the learner practices ‘being present’ in his current environment. The exercise gives means to train his/her mind to become free from conceptions, and to focus on exactly what is actual in our direct environment, seeing it for what it in essence is without distinguishing between right and wrong.

Meditation is an activity that trains us to nurture inner peace and to accept. And I have consciously chosen to call it an ‘activity’ for two reasons. 1) Obtaining peace requires an effort. 2) Meditation is not limited to only sitting quietly. The practice of sitting was originally selected from a wide range of Yoga exercises by Zen monks, from the belief that it was the most effective practice to nurture inner peace and train in the objective observation of our surroundings. But this practice can in fact come in various forms, ranging from being focused and present in the most difficult of Yoga poses, to sneaking out of the office for a 30-minute swim during lunchtime.

The rite of tea is meditation in practice. It is only through the exercise in hospitality that this rite becomes meditational, and it is meditational because the activity and environment demands the practitioner’s full attention and focus. Through meditation, an adept trains in 1) introspection to understand and accept his/her true nature, and 2) selflessness to take peace with who he/she in essence is to enable oneself to fully commit to love and give to others. It is this component of meditation that is essential to the rite of tea, for without the ability to unconditionally love and give to others, a service of tea cannot come about.

The hidden minstrel in a cup of tea

Tea is more than just a heap of dried and/or oxidised leaves. Tea is associated with relaxation; taking time to distance ourselves from everyday activity and to allow our mind a moment of peace. Recent research has pointed out that tea contains certain components that actually help us to relax and relieve stress. And more than coffee – which is mostly consumed for its stimulating effects – tea has become identified as the tool to obtain that what we lack most in our contemporary lives.

But tea is not a medicine; and stress is not a sickness. Tea cannot be relied upon the way we do with contemporary medicaments. Whereas with coffee for example, we can drink a mug of black to get an instant boost, tea doesn’t ‘work’ in this magnificent manner. A cup of green won’t give us instant relaxation. It isn’t the wonder potion we sometimes believe it is. But then how does it work?

Tea, as I indicated above, is but the ‘tool’ that can aid us in finding a rare moment of peace and tranquility. It provides us with the means and the opportunity to create such a moment for ourselves, but unfortunately it isn’t going to do it for us. Running to the kitchen to pour some hot water in a mug in which to dip a low quality tea bag, just to hurry back to the computer to continue work won’t do anything more than just quench our thirst. Tranquility is not obtained that easily and, contradictory it may seem, in fact requires a little effort.

It is not the tea that relaxes us, it is the moment; that instant with tea, that provides that well needed break to reset. Now, how does tea actually help us to obtain such a treasured moment? Since we have all become too used to teabags, instant coffee and vending machines, tea does seem tedious to prepare. But it is exactly the time taken in carefully brewing a cup of tea that focuses our attention on doing just that. The care and caution taken in the preparation, simultaneously enhances our drinking experience, because our taste is not just limited to ‘strong or weak’, ‘sweet or bitter’. We can start to recognize less outspoken flavors and scents that – even with the same tea – change with each brewing. It is the understanding of how we brew our tea that allows us to recognize in greater depth what it as a beverage comes to express.

This being said, it isn’t only our understanding of the brewing process that adds to our experience of the tea. It is ‘understanding’ in general that widens our pallet, and the way we get to enjoy our brew. The more we understand, the more we start to recognize the true taste of tea.

It is my experience that – having sampled a great variety of tea – it is not the one that said ‘premium’ on the package that was most delicious; it was the tea that I understood best that appealed most to my taste. If we allow ourselves to fully emerge in that tranquil moment with tea, and open ourselves to listen to it carefully, we may discover that tea can tell us many stories. Some teas tell stories of blood, sweat and tears; the effort that went into their production. Others bring tales from the times of old. Each tea has a story to tell, and listening to this story while savoring the moment in the company of tea is what I believe to be the strongest tool to momentarily forget our daily worries and find that moment of peace that we so strongly crave.

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.

rikyu-plum-design

Thoughts on taking pictures

Photography allows us to do a whole lot more than what we were able to before its invention. Taking pictures allows us to recount moments in the past of which we would otherwise only have a faint memory. Taking pictures of children when they grow up for instance helps us to at a later stage in their lives remember how they looked, and what they were like. It also enables us to show other people an image of what we have seen or done. One example of this is our travel photography, which we use as an illustrative tool when we tell our stories to those that stayed home.

But sometimes we take so many pictures, or become so preoccupied with making photographs that we forget to also register our impressions and emotions at a given site or occasion. When I return home to Belgium, I very often hear people make reference to the stereotype of the Asian tourist who has visited every European capital in just one week. This stereotype traveler is usually so busy with taking pictures that he/she has merely seen these cities through the eye of their camera lens, and that memories of this visit are likely to be only made upon return to their home country during a review of the photos collected.

I believe that taking pictures is a nice to have, but should not go at the cost of first having had a genuine experience of what is going to be registered for later use. At our tea ceremony workshops we have at almost every occasion received the question whether or not our visitors are allowed to take pictures. And while I believe that taking a photograph or two may be useful to later on recount the experience, we have been kindly requesting our visitors to take pictures with their ‘camera of the heart’.

Gradually we have changed our policy however and now more often do allow guests to take a few pictures in the course of a service, and afterward. And, interestingly enough, the majority of participants did take a few shots, but eventually forgot to take pictures of the parts they actually were looking forward to capture, as they naturally became engaged in our activities.

Now, we give the opportunity to take pictures, but at certain times request to place cameras aside and focus on what is going on. Especially during the progression of a service of tea, it is more important to become part of the service and to actually feel and experience what the atmosphere of such an occasion is like. You can find several demonstrations of traditional Tea services on Youtube — we have even uploaded our own. But, you will never be able to gain the same understanding by just watching it, as opposed to actually having been part of one such moment.

That is why we feel that rather than taking images of every motion we make, it is more important to register the atmosphere, the sounds, and the feelings you have during such a service. Two or three pictures may help you recall these emotions, but they will never be a genuine replacement for this once-in-a-lifetime-only experience.

I don’t think that this is only the case with similar experiences, but also with taking pictures of children or sites you visit during travel. An image can only be an aid in recounting an experience if you have actually had that experience. This is why we encourage our guests to occupy themselves with engaging in our activity, and only make pictures occasionally.

tea-bowl-koetsu-honami

About Nostalgia

The future is what lies ahead of us. It is the only direction we can go. But what the future will become is not set in stone. It is what we do today that will affect the course we take in shaping the day of tomorrow. The past is what is done, and cannot be changed. But that does not mean that it isn’t valuable. The past is a resource we can rely upon for insight and information that will help us to create a brighter future.

If we look to the past, it allows us to discover what we like and what we don’t like. It gives opportunity to assess what we want for our own lives and what we prefer to avoid. In addition, history can tell us which actions lead to certain results, and in effect teach us which exercises we should eschew and which we must nurture to reach our desired destiny.

It is my feeling that our world today is not headed in a positive direction. Too much precedence is given to materialism and other things of a human nature, while we are forgetting about the natural environment that encapsulates us. We work hard for the accumulation of money and the ability to buy luxury items that temporarily soothe our personal needs, but in no way enhance our human existence. We pursue beauty to the extent that we change our appearance to become someone that other people will like, while we try to cover up who we in essence are. We not only try to control nature, we even attempt to change it.

Society has imposed values on us that stand in contradiction with our human nature, and instead of helping us for the better; it has created opportunity for new illnesses of a mental origin, with related side effects such as suicide and aversion to increase. We are made to believe in one approach, while we realize deep inside that this doesn’t stroke with our actual human convictions. This internal conflict is what makes us suffer, and what for some of us may prove to be ultimately fatal.

I look to the past, because to me it looks brighter than the future. I look to the past because I feel that as a human race we are headed in the wrong direction. I look to the past to learn from it what we can use to change course towards a brighter prospective.

To me, learning the rite of tea is an opportunity to re-learn our fundamental human values. It doesn’t only show us the fundamental beauty of things, regardless of whether items are seemingly perfect or imperfect, it also teaches us the way to appreciate and to be respectful of someone’s intentions, the course of an event, and what we have been presented with, before we make judgments about whether or not we like or dislike it.

We learn to take things as they come and to be grateful for exactly just that. We learn to respect people for who they are and not to be judgmental about their personality. And today, it are exactly those aspects of life that we struggle with most to maintain. In learning the art of tea, I wish to better understand the core of our human existence, and to become a better person myself. In the course of doing so, if my actions or beliefs may result to even inspire one person to do the same, I may never be able to fully repay my gratitude.