The home town of our Tamaryokucha, Kamairicha and Japanese Black tea, Ureshino is a proud owner of the oldest Japanese tea plant (Camelia Sinensis) which has, in its 400-year history, gone beyond the confines of a tea bush and grown into an actual tree. It is a beautiful sight. We were really happy to come back to this lovely town, surrounded by green mountains and tea plantations.
Staying at a traditional Japanese accommodation called Ryokan, we slept on futons upon tatami mats in our rather spacious room - if a little low ceiling for tall Europeans :o) Ryokan's own onsen (traditional public bath in Japan) replaced the en-suite which seems to be the common practice. Not a problem, we love onsens. And we love the simplicity and comfort of tatami mats! If you travel to Japan you will see for yourself :-)
We spent our days visiting tea fields and tea factories where Tamaryokucha and Kamairicha are processed. We also filmed a video with tea master Kazu on how to prepare a perfect cup of Tamaryokucha. Check out our YouTube channel (Momo Cha Fine Teas) where we'll upload it within a couple of weeks.
If you are yet unfamiliar with Tamaryokucha and Kamairicha, they are both unique and incredibly delicious. Tamaryokucha is a type of Sencha tea but its leaves are not rolled into long thin needles as is typical for Sencha. Instead they are left curly, which is what the name (Tamaryoku) means.
Kamairicha on the other hand is processed following a Chinese method of pan roasting the leaves after picking, unlike other Japanese green teas that are steamed. This process produces an intriguing silvery green colour of the dry leaves and a most delicious, warm, slightly nutty flavour.
Besides enjoying excellent teas we were also feasting on
some of the most amazing food we've had so far in Japan. Especially the
last night's dinner completely blew us away with its many courses,
served in perfect sequence, each flavour complementing the previous.
Our hosts were wonderful, the kind and hospitable Vera and Kazu, owners of a beautiful tea shop where they kindly assisted us in filming the video. We will be very happy to come back here!
After a brief stop in Tokyo we went West to visit the beautiful coastal town of Kanazawa. Otherwise very modern, centre of Kanazawa features an old castle surrounded by beautiful gardens. Sadly the rain thwarted our plans so we didn't get to visit them. (but this way we have left something for next time!)
What we didn't miss though was the truly amazing tea house Issyo, located in the historic part of town called Chayagai which used to be the area that offered Geisha entertainment. The tea house was recommended to us by a tea master so our expectations were high. And god were they exceeded! We were transported into tea heaven once more.
You wouldn't think much of it when you see it from the outside though as it was located in a historic street where all houses look the same - very discreet, the exterior classy but sort of plain, covered in dark wood. Nowadays these restored original houses are a space for small crafts vendors, tea houses and confectionery salons that line the street and make for a great place to stroll and shop.
Once inside Issyo the tea house firstly impressed with its striking modern and unmistakeably Japanese design. Everything was done to perfection, from the décor to handling tea utensils, to the tea itself of course. We ordered a Gyokuro and a Sencha to start with and both came accompanied by traditional Japanese sweets. The flavours were noting short of exquisite, the presentation immaculate and service outstanding.
We can't find enough praise for this experience, it is everything you would wish for in a Japanese tea house. We liked it so much, we just had to order a second round of teas. This time a Matcha and another variety of Sencha.
We probably could have spend the rest of our trip in this place, but we had to leave at some point for our appointment in the "Musee de la H". (yes it's French, Kanazawa seems to have a strong affinity with the French culture as you spot French names in various places around town....)
At Le Musee we met Miss Nakajima for a Gyokuro tea ceremony in the so called G Corner (G for Gyokuro). After the standards set by Issyo we could hardly believe that Museum's tea room was able to push our excitement to yet to another level. The Gyokuro's first and second brew were served in minute quantities, a few drops really, however each drop was so intense that it filled your whole mouth and lingered until the next infusion. Each serving of Gyokuro was followed by a serving of freshly made sweets (finished as the ceremony went by) and words fail to describe the artistry that went into the preparation. What won it for us both must have been the grand finale with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a soft biscuit that sat in a ball of white chocolate, only to be revealed after you poured hot orange juice over it to melt the chocolate ball. You can't help but smile when you see it. We filmed the whole event and will upload the video to YouTube soon. You can subscribe to our YouTube channel (Momo Cha Fine Teas) for many videos from this trip and others.
The morning was spent preparing dishes with Amacha. Kayo the head chef designed the following menu: Amacha cheesecake, Mixed green salad with Amacha dressing, Amacha potato curry and a similar dish in a noodle variety. We were in charge of the tea station where we served samples to the visitors. There was cold pure Amacha on offer (steeped for several hours in cold water) which we never tried before and were quite impressed! Since Amacha is such a perfect addition to almost any drink, we also created and served various blends: Kyo-Bancha+Amacha, Cherry Tea+Amacha, Hibiscus+Mint+Amacha. They were all individual and very delicious.
Symposium started in the afternoon and was attended by the Amacha farmers and village people, as well as the mayor and people from the cooperative that is involved in the Amacha production. The whole affair was rather official which surprised us a bit at first, but it actually made sense when put into context - promotion of Amacha to the world. Everybody was very proud of the tea and very happy that we made it all the way from London to their village. It is a lovely little place in the country side.
Local officials held their speeches and so did we, explaining the Great Taste Awards and the tea market in the UK which seemed to be of great interest to them. Afterwards we happily served tea samples and were excited to see how crazy people were for the teas - this kept us busy throughout the event. The fact that we couldn't really speak Japanese and our audience didn't speak much English was no problem at all. A smile from us and a happy face after tasting the tea was all that was needed. Our aforementioned speech was translated of course! :-)
To our delight the Japanese use Amacha in other ways besides tea. It comes in 4 different forms: full leaves, smaller partially broken leaves, small chippings of the leaves (called Amacha chips) and a finely ground powder. The first two are used to make tea and the latter two for cooking. The powder is the most intensely sweet and is perfect to substitute sugar in baking. However it tends to change the colour of the baked goods to brownish, so it is not the most popular with bright cakes etc. For those, chippings are more used as they give the sweetness but retain the original colour of the food. The Amacha cheesecake that was made by Kayo-San for example was made with Amacha chips and it tasted and looked great! We will post the recipe for this cake on our website as soon as we're back to London and can bake one ourselves too. We are lso looking to stock the Amacha powder and chippings in future, so you can try using this amazing sweetener in your cooking and baking too.
After the event was over and our feet hurt from slippers too small for Western feet, we ended the day with all organizers at a large table in our hotel, feasting and drinking the evening away. We have to say the warmth and friendliness of Japanese people is truly amazing and we are impressed time and again as we come here. A big thank you goes to Paul, a Scottish volunteer that is spending half a year working there and was of great help with translations during our time in this charming mountain village.