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Tour leader, Mark Fujishige looks beyond matcha’s starring role on social media to discover the history and cultivation of this tasty tea.
Matcha (health food and Instagram darling) has been part of the global gastronomic consciousness for many years now. Perhaps you’ve encountered it in a smoothie or latte? Or even combined with salt on a savoury dish. In addition to being good for your social media “likes”, matcha is good for you too. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and a nice touch of caffeine, it will lift your mind, body, and spirit.
History of tea in Japan
Tea came to Japan from China, and one of its earliest mentions as a drink is in the Nihon Koki (“Notes on Japan”), written in the early 9th century. However, it took about four centuries to move from the realm of medicine, ritual, and nobility, to the world of the ordinary Japanese person.
If you’ve ever been to Kyoto, you may have found yourself in Gion. As well as a district home to many geiko and maiko, it also has Kennin-ji; a temple founded by someone named Eisai (possibly pronounced “Yosai”) in the late 12th century. Not only did Eisai bring Zen Buddhism back to Japan after his travels in China, he also brought back tea and a new way of consuming it: as matcha.
Where does matcha come from?
Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a quick look at matcha’s family tree. Let’s start with the tea bush: Camellia sinensis, of which there are many cultivars.
What the tea producer does to the bush before harvesting, and to the leaves after harvest, determines what kind of tea the end product is. Green, black, white, oolong, matcha etc., they can all come from the same bush. Unlike other teas, the bushes that make matcha are deprived of sunlight by black covers. This prevents theanine (the rich, savory, umami flavor) from turning into tannin (the bitter flavor).
Another distinguishing step is in the production process, where the harvested leaves are steamed and then dried. This preserves the luxurious green color and the vitamins and antioxidants in the leaves. Others, such as black tea, would be oxidised, affecting the flavour and other characteristics.
However, the truly defining element is milling. Before consumption, the tea leaves are ground between two mill stones with carefully and exactingly carved grooves. With other tea preparations, there’s an infusion of tea leaves in hot water. In the case of matcha, we’re enjoying the consumption of the ground leaves themselves, suspended in warm water.
Nishio – home of matcha
In January I visited the city of Nishio in Aichi Prefecture, which currently claims 30% of Japan’s matcha production, not bad as a latecomer to the market!
I visited AIYA, a tea producer with a history that spans over a century, and their newly opened museum: WakuWaku. Here, visitors learn about the production of tea in Nishio and taste the characteristics between different types. They can even mill their own unique matcha blend, later enjoying (or suffering) the fruits of their labor and consequences of their choices. I realised that I’d never become a tea-blender…
If you don’t have time to make the trip to Nishio, or cannot secure a reservation for the WakuWaku museum (yes, it’s a reservation-only establishment), you can still enjoy superb, Nishio matcha in Nagoya.
Where to taste Nishio matcha
Saijyoen Cafe, Global Gate shop: located an invigorating 15-minute walk from JR Nagoya Station.
Saijyoen Cafe, Makers Pier shop: located just a couple of minutes walk from Legoland Japan and the JR SC Maglev & Railway Park.
Often overlooked and looked down upon, Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture are worth consideration as destinations on your holiday itinerary. I think a matcha cream puff or parfait could help make it a sweet deal!
To see the best of Japanese culture (and try a cup or two of the green stuff), get in touch with our team.