April 11, 2010

On Friday afternoon I visited the famous Kaboku tearoom run by the Ippodo Tea Company on Teramachi-dori in Kyoto. I had to wait for about 20 minutes just to be seated as it is peak season in Japan at the moment. Ippodo has been around for about three centuries so I decided it must be worth the wait. Most foreign visitors won’t be able to experience true tea ceremony in Japan as it requires many years of study, but there are some options that give a glimpse of chado (the way of tea). Some temples and gardens serve tea in a tea ceremony style. Teashops offer a more relaxed way to experience Japanese tea.

I decided to order koicha as it was listed under matcha (green tea made of powdered tea leaves) on the menu. The young waitress, Sakata-san, asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to order koicha?’ Her question made me nervous so I asked for her recommendation. She said, ‘After you have koicha, we will serve you usucha. Would you like me to make it for you?’ I nodded vigorously.

Sakata-san brought a tray with a tea bowl, tea whisk, wagashi (a sweet), hot towel, and a thermos with hot water. She used a small porcelain bowl to add water to the matcha powder, explaining, ‘Koicha uses 4 grams of matcha powder. Usual matcha uses 2 grams.’

I’d always thought matcha was fairly strong but koicha (literally ‘thick tea’) turns out to be the espresso-version of matcha. I noticed that the whisk is used just to stir rather than whisk the koicha because it is so thick. Sakata-san expertly picked up the bowl and rolled it around so the bright grass-green tea coated the sides of the bowl. It was then ready to drink. The day’s wagashi was sakura-mochi (a cherry blossom sweet), as is fitting for the season. As is usual with green tea, the wagashi serves to complement the bitterness of the tea. However, the more expensive the tea, the less bitter it is. Koicha is so thick that you can’t actually drink it all because it sticks to the bowl, which is why they make usucha (literally ‘thin tea’) from the remaining tea. By adding more water, Sakata-san whisked it into the usual matcha froth. I asked her if most Japanese people know about koicha and she said no, that really only the people with an interest in tea know how to make it.


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