Some people think of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, is more about the ritual and not about tea at all. As a student and teacher of the Japanese way of tea, it is sometimes hard to explain that the taste of tea is every bit as essential to the tea ceremony as it is to those who gather for leaf tea tasting. Many years of study and practice go into holding a formal tea gathering, but in the end, the taste of the tea is what it is all about.
We use matcha, powdered green tea in Chanoyu. The tea plants are grown under shade and only the tenderest new leaves are handpicked. Within minutes the leaves are steamed to stop oxidation and carefully dried. Then the stems and veins are removed before the resulting flakes are ground with special stones to a very fine powder. It takes as long as an hour to grind 40 grams of tea. Moving the stones faster causes too much friction and changes the taste of the tea. The tea is stored in the flake form and ground when ordered from Japan.
Keeping matcha fresh is more difficult than with other teas. Because it is ground very fine, it oxidizes very quickly. When it comes in a vacuum packed can, I keep mine in the freezer for up to three months. Once it is opened, though, it can keep in the refrigerator for about 30 days. I double bag mine so that the matcha doesn’t pick up off flavors from other foods in the refrigerator. You will know that the matcha is fresh by its brilliant green color. If it is dull, or olive color or turning to brown, it has oxidized and is better put into cooking than for drinking. And I always sift it before whisking it to eliminate graininess and lumps.
What some people don’t know is that matcha comes in different grades. The lower grades of matcha are used for cooking and as ingredients in baking and flavorings. Ceremonial drinking matcha are higher grades.
There are two kinds of matcha tea in Chanoyu, usucha or thin tea and koicha, thick tea. Usucha is matcha whisked to foam in individual bowls. Koicha uses more tea powder and less water and is drunk from a communal bowl. The consistency of koicha is like that of heavy cream. Because the tea is more concentrated in koicha, the flavor is more intense, and koicha is a higher grade of tea being somewhat sweeter and more complex.
Historical perspective in tea tasting
When tea first came to Japan from China, it was a beverage viewed as medicine for a number of ailments. The preparation of matcha, powdered tea, was in use in China at the time. The priest Eisai (1141- 1215) founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, brought the first tea seeds to Japan and gave them to the priest My?e, who planted them at Tagano’o. These were the first tea seeds to be cultivated in Japan. He wrote the Kissa Yojoki, to promote the spread of drinking tea. Monks began to cultivate and drink tea as a way to stay awake during long periods of meditation. It is from this period of time that much of the ritual of tea drinking comes.
By the early Muromachi (1336-1573) tea drinking had become widespread among Buddhist priests and military aristocrats who had developed a game or contest called t?cha. The host would prepare several types of tea and the guests would compete to see which types of tea were being presented. One specific contest was if the guests could determine which was the true tea (honcha) that is, the tea grown in Tagano’o. These contests were quite lavish affairs with Chinese luxury items on display and costly and fantastic prizes for the contestants.
Today we have a group exercise related to these contests called chakabuki, where 5 bowls of koicha are made. The first two are named teas, and the remaining 3 are the same two mixed with another tea. The guests try to guess which are the two named teas and which is the mystery tea. All of the answers are recorded and the one who comes closest wins the record of the contest.
Cha Zen ichi mi
In reaction to the lavish displays of the aristocrats, Sen no Rikyu and others tried to move tea drinking back to the realm of Zen Buddhism. Rikyu in particular became very influential as tea master to the Shogun Hideyoshi (1536-1598) who unified Japan. The famous phrase “Cha Zen ichi mi” is attributed to his grandson Sen Sotan (1522-1591). The phrase means “Tea and Zen have One Taste.”
The aesthetics of the tea ceremony are Zen aethstetics. The epitome of Chanoyu is wabi, the concept of rustic, austere and simple beauty. Zen phrases are displayed in the tokonoma (alcove) and the kaiseki meal is based on Zen food preparation. There are many other instances you will find Zen in the ritual of Chanoyu.
Poetic naming of matcha
Matcha used in Chanoyu usually has a poetic name. Part of the prescribed dialog in the drinking of koicha, the guest asks the host the name of the tea and where it is from. Some examples of poetic names are: Kinrin (golden wheel), y?gen (profound grace and subtlety), kirisame (misty rain).
Usually, but not always, if the words “no mukashi” are added to the name it is koicha, and if “no shiro” is added, it is usucha. Thus, “tama no shiro” (jewels) is a thin tea, and “shoka no mukashi” (pine flower) is koicha. There is also designation called “okonomi” or favored style. For example, “shoka no mukashi” is okonomi, or favorite of Zabosai, the current grand tea master of the Urasenke school.
Like spirits or wine, matcha can be blended from several sources or come from a single estate. Different producers have different reputations, tastes and flavors. That is why asking where it is from is important. My sensei loved Ippodo tea. It has more of a sharp astringent taste. Some others, such as Koyamaen have a milder, sweeter taste. Some matcha has more of a seaweed flavor, some more grassy or leafy taste. With experience, one can discern these tastes.
The ritual of making tea
I have been drinking matcha for more than 30 years. I drink matcha in the morning rather than coffee and I always make it the same way — you could say it is a ritual. I line up all of my tea making equipment the same way, wait for the water to come to the right temperature, warm the bowl, add the tea and whisk it. I have my sweet and I drink the tea sitting down, never standing up. And tea whisked for me by someone else always tastes better than when I do it myself.
In the tea room for Chanoyu, there are hundreds of procedures for making tea, but the basic elements are bringing in the tea utensils you will need to make tea, purification of the utensils, making and drinking tea, and the closing — removing the utensils from the room.
These procedures have been refined since Rikyu’s time. Over the last 400 years it has evolved and refined into making tea in the most beautiful and efficient way, taking in the principles of Zen, and creating the most tranquil atmosphere.
Many people ask if the host ever drinks tea with his guests. The answer is very seldom. And the reason is that the host and the guests have distinct roles. The host role is to serve, to make the very best tea possible for the guest. The guest role is to receive and appreciate everything the host has done to make the moment of drinking tea possible. When each person plays his role the experience that is created can be moving and emotional.
Chanoyu and modern life
I have been asked many times why I study Chanoyu. This ancient ritual has many relevant things to teach me about myself and my place in the world. One example: multitasking is not a virtue in Chanoyu. Making tea is a complicated procedure and sensei says, “Complete this moment before going on to the next.” My own poor brain begins to shut down if I try to multitask while making tea. Even talking and making tea makes me freeze up. Either I stop making tea, or I stop talking. It is difficult to do both at once. There is another reason multitasking is not held in high esteem in the tea room. It prevents you from being in the present. It prevents you from concentrating on making the very best tea for your guests. “When you make tea, make tea. When you are drinking tea, drink tea – nothing more.”
Twists on matcha
Once matcha was only known outside of Japan to practicioners of Chanoyu. Matcha today is becoming more available and accessible. It has capitalized on the health benefits of green tea and you can purchase matcha at health food stores and over the internet.
Besides matcha in ice cream, you now see matcha lattes (matcha with sweetened milk), matcha ice, matcha parfait, and matcha in any number of baked goods. You can even buy a melon flavored matcha latte at ubiquitous coffee shops. Matcha seems to be catching on.
The taste of tea
“Probably the most important thing that the host does to affect the taste of the tea is simply to create an atmosphere of tranquility in the room. One of the purposes (maybe the main purpose, depending on your point of view) of all the ritual surrounding the preparation of tea in chanoyu is to encourage the guests to relax and open their senses. Matcha tastes completely different in a tearoom than it does if you just whisk a bowl in your kitchen; the atmosphere, the sensory impressions, the person’s state of mind, everything about chanoyu contributes to the main event, which is the moment that the first sip passes your lips. When we talk about the taste of tea, usually we’re talking about the literal flavor, but I think that any tea person would agree that the real taste of tea is in the heart, and not on the tongue.”
*NOTE: I wrote this article for publication a few years ago, but it was never published.