During a recent weekend visit with Peter and Caitlin we played in the hills and terraced rice paddies of Yoshikawa and Yasuzuka wards. After eating homemade noodles and tempura at a local mountain restaurant we set up an outdoor tea session next to the river in Yasuzuka. With grass leading down to the river banks and granite tables and stools perfectly supporting our stove and tea cups we couldn’t have found a better tea spot! Other than appeasing the waves of excited students who noticed Sune-Sensei drinking tea next to their river, we spent a relaxing afternoon enjoying the sweet, buttery brew of shin-cha 新茶, or new tea—leaves picked at the beginning of the tea season (late April to mid-June). Afterwards we wandered on the edge of rainstorm around some high mountain rice terraces and ate strawberries we found growing on the edge of the paddies. After ending the day with a proper soak in a local mountain hot spring we were thoroughly relaxed and happy to fall asleep by 9pm!
There is so much to be appreciated and explored in this season where Spring mingles with Summer. Known by many names, the one I prefer is tsuyu梅雨, the season of fine rain in Japan. While there are some storms, the season is predominated by misty days saturating the rice, the leaves, the rivers and the earth with the sweet smell of rain. This is the perfect season for tea, and while my knowledge of Japanese tea is middling to poor in comparison to my relationship with Chinese tea, I’m still eager to appreciate the tea culture here to the fullest of my ability!
All true tea is derived from the camellia sinensis plant which is believed to have originated in the mountains between the Chinese province of Yunnan and Burma. To this day tea trees (some that are believed to be 2,000 years old) grow wild and tall in this part of the world. What creates variety in tea is related to climate and the way in which tea is processed once it is picked. The simplest, lightest teas undergo minimal processing, while all oolong and black teas receive at least a partial fermentation process. The variety and scale of Chinese tea is reflected in the geography of China’s own diverse landscape. A dark, earthy pu’er cha from the wild tea mountains of southern Yunnan tastes like an entirely different beverage than a sweet, buttery, long jing cha from the properly manicured tea terraces of Hangzhou.
I am finding that this geographic analogy applies to Japan as well, for it seems that its not in the variety but in the subtle differences that one can appreciate the breadth of Japanese tea. The majority, if not all of the tea grown in Japan, is green tea. And in these early months of rain that prelude the heat of summer it is my opinion that shin-cha 新茶 is the tea of choice.
We’re nearing the end of shin-cha season, but you can still order some fresh, new leaves to try from ito-en (and probably some other sites that I don’t know about).
Shin-cha is so delicate that it should be brewed in warm, not hot water. To be extra safe I often rinse my leaves in cold water first and leave them in a small pool of cold water before adding the warm water. One of my favorite ways to enjoy this tea is to steep it in chilled water in the refrigerator overnight. Cold brewing tea brings out all the delicious flavors without any bitterness that can arise from accidentally scorching the leaves.
Steep the tea one or two times and enjoy it in a clear glass so that you can appreciate it’s bright, green color. It’s like drinking the rainy season!