I returned a few weeks ago from a three-week study abroad program to China and Japan. I had never been to either country before, and this trip was amazing for me. I am learning Mandarin, so although I still need a few more years to become fluent, I was able to get around China okay. But I don't know a lick of Japanese so I felt intimidated just to go out to lunch there, especially as there is much less English in Japan than China. Anyway, I'll spare you the details of my trip, and instead share with you my small tea adventures abroad.
Having never been to Asia (or outside of North America, really), I had no idea just how huge the tea culture is. In the States, none of my friends know the names of common teas such as tieguanyin, longjing, matcha, or sencha. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that these are household words in Asia. It made me feel a little less like the "crazy tea person" that my friends sometimes think I am. Everywhere we went in China and Japan, we found that the tea culture was slightly different. I'll go in chronological order. Although we started the trip in Hong Kong, I felt that I got the first big whiff of tea culture in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
Although Chengdu is a bustling, crowded metropolis, it's known for being laid-back. There are, apparently, more tea houses per capita in Chengdu than in any other Chinese city. As our school program toured Daoist and Buddhist temples, we noticed that most of them had tea houses. We sat down for some afternoon tea in one of the temples located in central Chengdu, near the Sichuan University campus. Although the temple was a silent, reverent place, full of incense smoke and monks telling us not to take pictures, the adjacent tea house was jam-packed with people. At least a couple hundred Chinese, plus us 16 Americans, had come to the tea house that afternoon. Many played cards or xiangqi (Chinese Chess). Others fanned themselves and gossiped. But everybody was drinking tea. Every patron had their own large gaiwan, from which they sipped tea "grandpa-style." A few monks wandered the tea house, dispensing hot water from enormous kettles to those who needed refills. Judging from the menu, which I couldn't actually read, bi luo chun and jasmine green tea were the preferred teas here. All the options were green teas of some kind or another. I thought I took some pictures of this tea house and the gaiwans, but I can't find them on my computer. Oh well.
Elsewhere in Chengdu, people carried tea tumblers everywhere, much in the same way as Americans carry coffee thermoses. This excited me, so I went to a supermarket and picked up this excellent tea tumbler:
This one is a double-walled, stainless-steel tumbler with a rubber grip and plastic trim. It's very solidly built and the grip is cool even after holding hot water for hours. However, I didn't see many Chinese carrying around this type of tea tumbler; they seemed to prefer glass, and I quickly figured out why: a double-walled, stainless steel vessel holds heat like nothing else. I burned my lips a little bit the first time I tried to use it, and it burned my tea too. So I picked up a double-walled glass tea tumbler as well. This one cost 10RMB, or a little bit over $1US!
Next we went to Nanjing, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. Hangzhou, located on the scenic West Lake, is the home of Longjing. Our program was scheduled to go visit the National Tea Museum, located in the tea plantations outside Hangzhou. As the tour bus wound up Longjing Lu, the road leading to the tea museum, I caught glimpses of the tea plantations outside the window. However, it was raining, and I struggled to get any decent pictures.
When we got to the museum, we stopped by a tea bush to pick some leaves. Since we arrived in May, the bushes were stripped bare following the April harvests. However, we managed to find a few young leaves:
After that, we walked up to the museum entrance, only to find that it was closed! I was very let down, since this was the only chance I had to visit the museum. However, we decided not to let this day go to waste. The tea house was still open, so we went to be served tea.
I was legitimately expecting that they would serve gongfu style tea. However, none of our group save the professors and a couple of us students knew what "yixing" and "gongfu" are, so I think our server elected to "dumb down" the drinks she served us. We tasted longjing since we were in Hangzhou, and also a flowering jasmine, lychee-flavored red tea, and a ginseng-coated oolong. Though the teas were not bad, I thought they were a little uninteresting. I hoped to taste at least a TGY, Da Hong Pao, or Pu of some sort. Oh well. Off to the National Tea museum gift shop!
The tea museum was the first place in China I saw real, well-made yixing pots. They had some nice ones on display.
This one was 880RMB, or roughly $130US. Tai gui le!
I'd rather order an yixing online. However, I did find this medium-sized gaiwan. Though the porcelain is thick, it fits in my hand well. It has a dragon applique which changes color when the porcelain is heated. I think I'll use it for grandpa-style drinking, like they did in Chengdu.
While I was in Hangzhou, I also picked up a little bi luo chun to try in the gaiwan. Though my mandarin is quite poor, I was pretty proud of myself for walking into a tea shop, asking for bi luo chun, and buying 50 grams. I didn't buy any more than that, since it's cheaper and easier to import from an online source than buy tea in China.
In every restaurant in China, we were served tea. Usually it tasted pretty awful, and I wouldn't have known it was tea were I served it in another country. Often it was flavored with jasmine. Rarely was restaurant tea worthwhile. But it is nonetheless amazing how much tea the Chinese consume. Because many Chinese believe, according to feng shui, that it is bad to ingest cold things, and also because the tap water is not safe due to crowded living conditions, water is almost always boiled before drinking. So why not flavor that water with a little tea? We have these philosophies to thank for shaping Chinese tea culture.
You know how many hotels have a coffee machine and bagged tea in the room? I was quite pleased to find out that our hotel in Hangzhou gave us loose-leaf longjing and keemun tea in our rooms! The tea was not bad, though not quite fresh. I stole as many bags as I could, but I consumed most of them before I got back to the states - oops. I still have one of each left.
Before moving on to Japan, I picked up these cups in Shanghai. Even though they are all mass-produced, I rather like them. This first one has a glaze with unbelievable depth and texture:
I'm pretty sure this next one is the same as the "serpent's eye" cup sold on Yunnan Sourcing
. The glaze is beautiful. It sparkles and changes color when held up to the light.
I also got a celadon cup. Though it's not the best celadon, I like it. I think the six-sided style is pretty.
Finally, I picked up a pair of larger porcelain cups.
However, nowhere had I found a place that sold inexpensive clay tea pets. Many tea shops sold tea pets, but I never found any, even small ones, cheaper than 180RMB, or approximately $25. I felt this was too expensive, so just before leaving Shanghai for Osaka I stopped into a 2RMB store (you know dollar stores in the US? This was even better - a 30 cent store!) and picked up three acrylic tea friends: A dragon, to protect my tea from evil spirits (or funny tasting water), a laughing buddha, to bring good spirits, and a horse, since I am a horse by the Chinese zodiac.
Time to go to Japan!
Japan was wild for me, since I knew very little about its language or culture before visiting. I figured out a couple things pretty quickly. First, though bottled iced tea is popular in both China and Japan, it tastes very different in Japan. The Chinese prefer sweeter tea, often flavored with flowers or fruits. But the Japanese like their iced tea like they like their hot tea - roasted and often bitter. Second, I learned that things in Japan are expensive! Though Japan is not very Westernized, it is quite modernized, and the cost of food and drink is correspondingly high.
My first Japanese tea experience was in Kyoto. Our professors had scheduled us to go to witness Chanoyu - the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. However, there were sixteen of us - approximately twelve too many to fit into a traditional tea room - and Chanoyu traditionally lasts for an entire evening, so we just cut to the chase and watched our host prepare matcha for us.
The ceremony is kind of mesmerizing. There are so many rules and protocol to follow. For instance, you must turn your bowl before you drink from it so that the "front" faces the host as you drink, and you can only turn the bowl a certain direction. You must slurp - not sip - your matcha three times. The utensils are to be appreciated after everybody drinks. There are many things you must say and certain times to bow, and I knew none of them.
I had never drank matcha - or any Japanese tea for that matter - until this moment. I liked it very much, but not enough to persuade me to buy a matcha beginner's kit including a chawan, whisk, scoop, and matcha, though the offer was tempting. Instead, I wandered around an arcade in Kyoto and picked up this kyusu and cup.
The kyusu, I feel, makes a good first piece of Japanese teaware. Though it is clearly slip-cast, it is well-made. The lid fits tightly. The handle and topknot do not get hot. Furthermore, the famous Japanese zen/tea phrase ichigo ichie
is carved into the side. Also, it was only 1100 yen, or less than $15. I've been using it a ton to brew sencha and I really enjoy it.
I liked the glaze on this cup, so I got it too.
I also picked up some fresh but relatively inexpensive sencha, since I have never had sencha before. I have been ploughing through this bag! It is delicious. Of all the Japanese teas I tried in Japan, sencha, to me, tastes the most like Chinese teas.
Like in China, most restaurants in Japan also served tea. Though the restaurant tea in China was often so diluted that it could barely be called tea, Japanese restaurant tea was usually pretty strong. Almost always it was roasted tea. I had never had roasted green tea, so I didn't recognize the drink as tea at first. But it slowly grew on me.
Also, like in China, every room came with a little bit of tea. Usually it was generic bagged tea. However, what was a little unusual was that the hotels supplied teacups in addition to coffee cups. All the teacups were a little different. This one was in Hiroshima:
We also visited Kurashiki, home of bizen-yaki. I did not know that Kurashiki was famous for its wonderful pottery. But by the time we arrived in Kurashiki, I was nearly out of money, caught unaware by high food prices in Japan, and unprepared to see the most beautiful teaware yet. Bizen-yaki practically littered the streets in Kurashiki, and I regret that I did not save the money to buy at least one cup. These cups, bowls, and kyusu are nearly worth a visit to Japan by themselves.
So ends my tea adventure in China and Japan. It was absolutely amazing. The study abroad program was pretty excellent too, and I was glad that they scheduled a couple structured tea adventures in each country for us students. Inspired by my trip, I picked up a little light reading from the library:
I don't think the book about Rikyu is quite as good as Okakura's famous Book of Tea, but I've been enjoying it.
And now it is tea time. Thanks for reading