The Art of Japanese Tea

April 12, 2018
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In Japan, tea is a huge part of the culture.  Not only is it served by hosts as a polite gesture to welcome guests into the home, but there are entire ceremonies surrounding the art of Japanese tea and entire families that pass on the art of the traditional tea ceremonies just as any other family might pass on a family shop or, on a smaller scale, an antique vase from generation to generation.  It is not common for an average person to know much about these traditional ceremonies unless the individual is a member of a very traditional family or have ties to certain subcultures in Japan or in other parts of the world, but any Japanese citizen with the ingrained sense of responsibility for guests and common manners knows the proper way to go about choosing, brewing, pouring, and serving tea as a polite host.
   

The task of knowing the proper selection of tea to choose when serving tea in Japan to guests is not as simple a task as it may sound.  Traditionally, varieties of green tea are served; the key is knowing which green tea to serve for the guests visiting the home so as not to offend them and make a good impression.  Impressions are exceedingly important in Japan as they not only reflect on the individual, but also on the family that raised the individual; something as simple as a tea selection can be a pretty big deal.
   

There are two main varieties of green tea popularly served in Japanese homes: shade grown and sun grown.  Teas grown in the shade tend to have a mellow, sweet flavor with a mellow smell and are known for their notably green pigments.  These teas are favorable for more important guests that are expecting to be impressed or those who have sensitive palates.  Teas grown in the sun have a more refreshing aroma, notably bitter taste, and a more yellow pigment; teas that are grown in such conditions are more acceptable for polite thank-yous to strangers for returning something delivered to the wrong address or for homeowners to drink on their own.  There are still more teas of more exotic varieties that might be served to impress certain guests, be served to friends or family that enjoy the tea, or simply be kept in the home for the homeowner to enjoy.
   

If the guest is more familiar, such as a friend or close family member (a younger brother or sister, older siblings and parents should receive slightly higher grade teas unless there are budgetary concerns or the relationship is especially close), serving a lower grade matcha like gyokuro karigane, a shade grown variety with a mellow yet sweet taste but low cost, would be perfectly acceptable.  If a parent, older sibling, respected colleague or superior, etc. were to come to the home to visit, a shade grown tea would still be the correct variety to choose, but instead it might be more acceptable to select a more pricey but smoother bright green matcha.  To ensure the correct tea is being served in this case, be sure to serve a bright green matcha as the brighter the green, the higher the quality.  Now, if the guest were simply dropping by the home to deliver something and, to be polite, were to be offered some tea as a thank-you, any common household sun grown tea would be acceptable.  Common selections to serve in this case might include: sencha, known for a balanced taste between its mellow flavor and bitter taste with a golden yellow pigment; sencha fukamushi, known for a stronger but more mellow flavor and cloudy green color; sencha karigane, known for a sweet and mellow flavor, yellow-green color, and low price.
   

Teas can also be used to set a mood.  A tea of the matcha variety might also be suitable when a host is trying to create a relaxing environment as the mellow flavor and light aroma can be soothing to those enjoying it.  On the other hand, if a host were trying to energize guests, a tea of the sencha variety might be a great choice because of it’s refreshing aroma and bitter flavor.  It can also be noted that when serving food, a sencha tea is best suited to compliment most consumables and is the most widely enjoyed variety in Japan.
   

After selecting a tea, brewing the tea is obviously the next step.  Most Japanese homes have a teapot for boiling water and one or more teapots (some more ornate than others for certain occasions) meant to steep the water and tea together.  Boiling the water is the easiest step in the brewing process, so really choosing out the correct pot and then knowing exactly how to brew the selection of tea chosen for the guest.
   

An ornate pot for the steeping process should be reserved for only the most important of guests: superiors, officials, and special family ceremonies.  If the pot has any imperfections (knicks on the paint or in the pot itself), it might be wise to use another unless it is a flaw so miniscule that one would have to be looking for it to find it; this will ensure that the guests will not find any reason to be insulted because they were served from a flawed or broken vessel.  If the guest is a family or friend, a less ornate pot is needed, therefore a flaw is not needed.  Please note that traditional Japanese tea sets include four small teacups that do not have handles: “too hot to hold, too hot to drink,” as they say.
   

Where steeping is concerned, most traditional pots are made specifically for this purpose.  All that is required is the knowledge of how long is required to let the tea and water sit before pouring for guests to enjoy.  Teas such as gyokuro are best brewed for longer periods to bring out its flavor and make it stronger.  For stronger teas such as sencha fukamushi, brewing for a slightly shorter amount of time might be recommended so as not to overwhelm guests.  This may also be left up to the host and guests as some may prefer a lighter or stronger flavor, which can easily be adjusted by allowing more time for the tea to steep.
   

Pouring and serving the tea is the last portion of knowledge, but most likely the most important.  Almost as important as knowing how to present good flavors and pots to guests is ensuring that the host does not embarrass himself/herself as they are pouring the tea when it is ready.  To ensure that no spills occur, position one hand atop the pot’s lid while the other holds the handle; hold the pot approximately three inches above a cup and tilt the pot until the tea comes out, but be sure to leave room so that guests are not embarrassed by spilling the tea when they go to drink it.  After finally pouring all of the tea, a host must be sure that they have not taken any tea from their cup until he/she has all had some unless completely necessary.






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