Friday, June 4, 2010

Japan Trip

My trip to Japan was a success! I'm still catching up, both from the two weeks away from my usual tea work and with writing about what I learned during the trip. For now, here are a few tea highlights from the trip:

* Learned to brew super-premium gyokuro & sencha the old-school way.
* Hung out with organic tea farmers who market directly to clients (a rare thing in the Japanese world of tea agents, wholesalers, retailers, etc.). Harvested bamboo shoots, wild mountain herbs and tea with them.
* Tasted Japanese kocha (black tea, also very rare).
* Went to a tea museum in Shizuoka. It left me far more impressed than my visit to London's tea museum.
* Tasted more tea-based foods than I can even remember. Learned that if it's a greenish pastry, it probably has matcha in it.
* Saw what I'm gonna go ahead and call the most beautiful tea shop in the world. Three floors of dizzying caffeine highs and absurd attention to design detail. Drank delicious koicha (thick matcha), usucha (thin matcha) and ocha-presso (sencha brewed like espresso) amongst the gorgeous sights there.
* Interviewed a tea researcher whose institution discovered theanine, an amazing sado (Japanese tea ceremony) specialist from one of the revered (but lesser-known outside Japan) tea families, multiple tea farmers (one of whom started a collective to fight for fair tea prices and increase organic production), a chanoyu museum curator, a famous tea production expert, people from one of Kyoto's most famous tea shops and other amazing tea people.
* Got my mind blown on multiple occasions, including a visit to a tiny tea shop in Kyoto (it looks humble, but was amazing enough to be featured in the French Michellin Guide) and a chic Tokyo tea cafe (where the tea sommelier is perhaps geekier than me about tea -- he even designed a custom tea brewing vessel for his cafe that's unlike any I've ever seen).

And here are a few non-tea-related highlights:

* Visited "Okonomiyaki Street," where most of the restaurants serve pizza-like okonomiyaki or its gooier relative munja. My friend Yuka (who works for one of Japan's top restauranteurs) and I ate at one of those you-make-it kinds of restaurants. She brought her okonomiyaki-making skills on in full force. Sooo good...
* Made new friends and reconnected with old ones. Had a great time hanging out with a long-time tea penpal (who makes an iced tea that tastes like a gin gimlet) and with several close friends from high school/college.
* Saw a massive protest in the yakuza part of Tokyo. Apparently this kind of thing is quite rare in Japan, so it's unusual that I saw it during such a brief trip there.
* Ate raw egg, natto and other crazy (and often slimy) foods.
* Talked food politics with farmers, tea retailers, a bottled drink blender, tea auction buyers and various restaurant industry people.

One of the things that struck me the most about this trip wasn't actually the trip itself. It's the uniformity of the response from almost everyone I've mentioned it to. Almost every person said something along the lines of, "I'm so envious!" To that, my response is this:

Japan is not that difficult of a travel destination. Most signs are in English. It's very safe and clean. If you're connected in the tea industry, you can meet enough people to make the trip very educational and enjoyable, and relatively inexpensive. If not, you can still have a great time. Also, if you live on the West coast, there are some very reasonable deals for flights. (I got a direct flight to and from Portland for about $800.) And, if money is an issue, there are deals to be had through youth hostels, work-live experiences, sales and the like. Honestly, the most difficult thing for me was the jet lag, and even that was OK on the way there. So if you really want to go to Japan, stop wishing you could do it and make it happen!

Side note -- You can see some of the treats I picked up on my About Coffee/Tea blog. I've posted about green tea caramels, green tea yokan (a gift from my tea penpal friend), green tea bath salts (which I gave to my mom) and three kinds of tea toothpaste. Other tea finds included all kinds of wagashi, green tea Kit Kats (which I'll review on About) and some new crop green teas that were harvested during my visit.

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