Friday, October 30, 2009

Drinking Tea in Japan

Okay – enough about coffee. Tea comes in three basic forms here. There is brown tea, which is probably the equivalent of our orange pekoe – your basic everyday stuff. There is green tea. And there is Green Tea! The green tea is pale green in colour and doesn’t, to my uneducated palate, taste too different from the brown stuff.

Green Tea! is the stuff of the famous tea ceremony. In the interest of maintaining international relations I will not use words like – algae, or pond scum or, well you get the idea. Let’s just say that it must be an acquired taste.

Now, we did not partake in a classic tea ceremony. While we were in Kyoto we were visiting various shrines and temples (and they sure have a lot of them). We went to the Golden Temple, which is one of the very important ones. And it is beautiful. The gardens are exquisite. The temple itself is lovely, and then being gilded it is magical, perched the edge of its lake. Well, here:



There is a lovely path through the garden, and lanterns and out buildings to admire. It is also one of the most popular sites in Kyoto, and it tends to look like this:


There were school kids in uniform, school kids in matching hats, women in saris from India, a group of Russians in business suits with interpreters and guides. People, people, every where. We came to a little tea spot amongst the trees right about when we needed a little sit down, so in we went.IMG_0559

We’ve learned that when you see red felt coverings on benches that there is food or a place to rest at hand. We each received a bowl of green tea and a small  - cookie? sweet? pastry?, along with instructions to eat the sweet first.


I’m not sure if you can tell, but pressed into the surface is the temple (lower right corner), a phoenix (upper right corner) and two little squares of gold leaf.  Like many Japanese sweets this is a bean concoction, with an oddly sweet taste and a strange texture – a bit gritty. Not bad, but not what we were expecting. The tea has been beaten with a whisk, so there is a layer of foam on top, with the bitter green tea underneath. You are supposed to pick it up the bowl with both hands, hold it in your right hand, turn it 180 degrees with your left and then drink it in three gulps. I must admit I saved a bit of the sweet for after cause I thought I might want to get the taste of the tea out of my mouth. So – interesting, but not exactly a refreshing cuppa!

Towards the exit of the temple there was a a souvenir area that had all kinds of boxed candy and treats. We’ve seen them everywhere, but haven’t bought any because we have no idea what they are and just because they look pretty doesn’t mean they are nice (may I remind you – bean paste?) But they were giving samples, so we decided to man up and try them. Not the best idea we’ve had. We take a little sample, taste it, then try to keep a straight face and get away from the vendor as politely as possible. I have to keep remembering that just because I don’t understand what the people around me are saying doesn’t mean that they don’t understand me – no shouting ‘Oh my God that’s terrible!’ Wilf took one last bite – something that looked like a grape jelly candy. He reeled to one side, looked stricken and muttered to me ‘That was the worst one EVER’. So there we were, trying to maintain some decorum, giggling hysterically…… The good news is that we did find a box of something called chocolates – they have the word chocolate, the word milk and the word chestnut on the packaging. They taste good, and that’s the main thing…

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