Hello everyone. I'm new to the forum, but I love that there are so many people who appreciate fine tea who get together here.
I just got back from Japan, and I brought back a lot of tea with me - I drank many more while I was there - and wanted to tell you about them.
If you don't already know, Japan is a tea lovers' paradise, with vending machines dotting nearly every street corner full of twenty varieties of bottled iced tea, none of it sweetened. Lots of multicolored plastic bottles of Jasmine, Jasmine-oolong, green tea, breakfast tea, even wheat teas now and then. So as you walk across the rolling countryside (I've never been to Tokyo so I can't pretend to say how it is there) you can just drop a few coins in any of a thousand vending machines and get a good tea. Ironically, some of the best were bottled by the Coca-Cola company - in particular an oolong-orange peel blend that I would LOVE to find here in New York. These little bottles run about 150 yen each, or about $1.30. These machines are outside, also, so you have 24-hour access.
I bought a bag of iced-wheat tea bags at a Jasco for 200yen, super cheap, and this stuff kicks serious butt. It's malty, without much lingering aftertaste, very crisp and clear finishing. Apparently it's a traditional kansai-region summertime drink. I've never seen it outside of Japan, which seems strange since it's so cheap. On the package it says "Mugi-cha" which actually translates to "barley tea", and I can say that if you enjoy tea, this is something you should try once, although it has a very different body than more 'usual' tea blends. It's a clear, light amber brew. I'm getting another batch flown in at the end of the month.
I was able to score a box of 'sanken-cha' iced tea bags, which are only available to Japanese pharmacists via catalog. This stuff is AWESOME - a much darker, very complex tea, definitely an oolong base - honestly, I can't describe it except to say it's very close in character to the Japanese bottled tea with the blue label covered with kanji that you find at any convenience shop there (I don't even remember the name of that), best brewed in a quart of spring water and then diluted about 1:2 before chilling. This is some sort of 'health' tea, and I see on the box it says "iced or hot", although I've never had it hot. Very earthy flavor, extremely brisk, very crisp, with an almost wood-like character. Sorry, it's so tough to describe, but believe me when I say it's one of the best I've ever had. I will contact my doctor-friend again to see if I can get more.
And now, of course, the greens:
In Ise I bought a HUGE bag (about 1kg) of locally grown green, the bag just said "Ise-cha". I found it on a side street down from the Grand Shrine, just across from a hakufuku-mochi (maple candy) shop, on a table being sold by a smiling woman who explained it was a family tea grown on a nearby mountain. It's very, very good. It was a little moist out of the bag, and it does have a grassy taste, but not too strong, and a very nice linger. It's best, I've found, with a few loose leaves floating in the cup, iced or hot. It serves extremely well at room temperature, also, and it's a great cooking ingredient when tea is called for. Apparently Ise teas are famous there, and this woman did explain that her tea had been generational for a few hundred years.
If you go in the mountains outside Nara, if you find the small shinto shrines there, you will see unattended tables with small bags of vegetables and hand-picked teas there (you have to go far up the mountains for this). These are the priests and monks who offer crops for whatever you can spare, although it should be at least 100yen. You drop a few coins in a wooden box, then choose a bag. There's nobody there, you do it all yourself, maybe clap twice or bow your head to show your thanks. Well, these monks bag some of the rockingest green tea I've ever had. The bags are almost full leaf, as fresh as you can get, right off the tea farm on that mountain (whichever mountain you may be on). Less than a dollar for a bag of fresh farmed high-mountain tea? Yes, yes, yes. These are strong teas, best diluted, and brewed for no longer than two minutes or so. A very strong flavor with these, but extremely satisfying. I guess it's pretty remote, but if you're in Nara and can find a local, get them to take you to the mountain shrines outside the city, and look for the tea posted on pathside boards. You have to just know it when you see it, though, because there's nobody at the table and everything is just plastic-bagged with no labels. And, of course, this tea has just been pulled from the farm.
Sorry for the long post, but I thought it was really kind of an adventure. I'll be going back in December and wil be looking for more tea... I just hope these goofy airport security measures won't stop me from carrying a suitcase full of nothing but tea back home (I ran into trouble with that last time around).