The Best Place to Drink Green Tea in Japan
What is the perfect tea?
If you are like my brother, finding the perfect balance in tea is quite the challenge. In fact, there are so many variables to consider: black tea, green tea, red tea, white tea. The even harder decision is where to find the best place to drink green tea in Japan. When you have a limited number of days you want to experience the best possible options. I will never claim to be a connoisseur but have had the opportunity to experience some amazing tea in the heartland of Tokyo, Japan, the neighborhood of Yanaka Ginza. And I believe it to be one of Japan's best kept secrets along with my favorite place to drink tea throughout Japan.
For some basics of tea brewing including making your own tea bags, heat for brewing specific teas, and even getting the right cup check out this blog post. However, she mostly focuses on black tea. Which makes sense since it's a rightful leader in many cultures. But green tea, including matcha, is in a world of its own. Teavana even teaches about 3 categories of tea, hot tea, ice tea, and matcha. That is how unique it is.
In Yanaka Ginza, I learned there are 3 rules one must bring together for the perfect tea. The best way to create the best cup of green tea, including matcha, rests in these 3 rules. And in perfect Japanese fashion, each rule was expressly important per the teacher but also very vague. So let me share these 3 rules and expound from my learning and my brother's passionate knowledge as well.
1. The right environment
Finding the right environment is like finding your own inner peace. Now let's move it out of the Japanese ambiguous world and make it actionable. The right environment to me is anywhere you are intentionally going to take the time to drink your tea. It doesn't have to be silent or sitting rigidly in seiza position. The most important part is that you are finding joy in your environment. I wholeheartedly agree that green tea is the worst possible choice for the quick run to get a drink and then forget about it 30 minutes later, toss it in the microwave, then forget about it again. Enjoy your tea. And you will definitely want to after these next steps.
2. The right teacher
Finding the right teacher is one of the more elusive options, but in Yanaka Ginza they make it your first step. Scattered between alleyways and under tiny awnings are tea shops of every color and size. In each of them, you'll be warmly greeted by Japanese men and women who have lived perfecting the art of green tea. Using them as your guide is key. But for those who can't make it to Yanaka Ginza, I will share several of the details I learned from these key tea shop owners.
- Introduction to Japanese Tea (from Yanaka Ginza Tea Shop)
- (Check out this blog for great descriptions)
- With its fresh scent and the exquisite balance of bitter and sweet flavor, SENCHA is the most popular Japanese tea. If you are new to the world of Japanese tea, we would recommend starting with SENCHA.
- KUKICHA is made up only with the tea stalks instead of tea leaves. It is characterized with its youthful green scent.
- The tea leaves for GYOKURO are grown under the special coverage which interrupts the direct ray of the sun. Only with this traditional method, the authentic flavor of GYOKURO is emphasized. Its elegant aroma and the unique sweet essence make GYOKURO an exceptional Japanese tea.
- Tea leaves are roasted in a pan, and that makes HOJICHA which is characterized with the unique aroma. Since it contains little caffeine and tanns it is appropriate to children and elders. It is also recommended to be served after the meals.
- Brown rice is roasted and then it is blended with the leaves to make GENMAICHA. It is rich in the tea leaves and deep flavor of the roasted rice.
- (not mentioned at the shop since they didn't sell it, so here is a description from a specialty matcha website) *hint: the type used in the classic tea ceremony
- MATCHA is the superior, processed, finely-ground, culinary-grade blend of the green tea leaf that meets the high standards of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The process – for turning the green leaf into the high-quality Matcha powder – could take more than a month.
- A key element of MATCHA tea leaf growth is keeping the bush in well-shaded conditions. A couple of weeks before harvesting, the tea bush will be covered to hide it from direct sunlight. This increases chlorophyll, which turns the tea leaves a darker green. It is similar to slowly simmering a turkey for Thanksgiving; this creating more “amino acid juices.”The tea leaf preparation process removes the stems and veins, grinding the remaining greenery into fine powder called Matcha.
- This herb powder’s quality is determined by the following elements:
- Stone Grinding
- Leaf Location
- The top leaves on the tea bush are the most soft. The ideal is to achieve a finely-ground, pure green powder with a deeper, sweeter flavor. Matcha can be either thick (koicha) or thin (usucha).
These are many of the details once can learn from finding the right teacher. You could also substitute the word teacher for resource. In this way you can research and learn a lot in the process, just make sure that your resources are credible. On to the last rule.
3. The right materials
The materials depend on the type of tea you choose to create. Your teacher/resource can help you identify which of the materials: cup and stirring mechanism you should choose. Unless you're are planning to do an authentic green tea ceremony then your list of materials should be rather simple. For matcha, you will need the tea powder, a green tea scoop, any non-plastic cup or mug. And for best results and proper surface of bubbles (which help balance the flavor of the tea) you can use a frother. For other green teas, you need the tea leaves, an infuser, and any non-plastic cup or mug.
5 Simple Steps to Fix Excellent Japanese Tea
- Boil the water and, according to the type of tea, adjust the water temperature as below:
- Gyokuro : 50-60C / 122-140F
- Sencha/Kukicha : 80-90C / 176-194F
- Hojicha/Genmaicha : 100C / 212F
- Put the tea leaves into a teapot/infuser and pour the hot water. 1-2 teaspoons is an adequate amount for 1 person.
- Place the lid onto the teapot/infuser and let it steam. (A lid to any teapot/infuser is very important to keep the flavor from steaming away)
- Gyokuro : steam for 2 minutes
- Sencha/Kukicha : steam for 1 minute
- Hojicha/Genmaicha : steam for 15 seconds
- Completed! Pour around the tea into the teacups little by little so that the flavor becomes equal in all of them. It is important not to leave the water in the teapot in order to enjoy the second round. Therefore: try to finish all the tea at once.
- Have a sip and feel the ubiquity of Japanese tea!
How to get to Yanaka Ginza?
The eastern end of Yanaka Ginza is accessed from Nippori Station down the Yuyake-dandan steps: 36 steps that descend a gentle 4.4 meters (14 feet). Yuuyaku-dandan means "Sunset steps" and was so named in 1990 as a result of a naming competition in a local community newspaper on the occasion of the steps' renovation. The view of Yanaka Ginza from the top of the steps is a typical one in TV programs and print articles featuring the area, and its elevation makes the top of the stairs as good a place as any near Nippori Station to view the sunset - no doubt with the right person.
The western end of Yanaka Ginza, towards Sendagi, ends in a T-junction with Yomise-dori: another old-style shopping avenue, but one that caters more to local residents than tourists. Yomise-dori still has enough of interest in terms of old local flavor to warrant exploring.
From Nippori Station, Yanaka Ginza is only about 3 minutes' walk. Turn left out of the West Exit of Nippori Station, follow the road up as it slopes and take the right road where it forks.
From Sendagi Subway Station, Yanaka Ginza is only about 3 minutes' walk. Go out Exit 2, cross the road using the pedestrian crossing and go left up up Shinobazu-dori. Take the first turn on your right, then the first on your left, then the second on your right. Read more: http://www.japanvisitor.com/tokyo-area-guides/yanaka-ginza#ixzz4UjV6MuqL
Can't go? Create the best green tea at home.
Not many of us have the luxury of going all the way to Japan for the perfect cup of green tea. So by following these three rules, you can create your perfect cup of green tea in the luxury of your very own home. I would love for you to one day be able to enjoy the stillness and beauty of Yanaka Ginza. But until then, go get your favorite green tea or explore some new options mentioned above. Make sure your infuser or teapot has a lid to hold together the flavor. And double check your water temperature and steeping time with my charts above. Hope you can enjoy that perfect sip soon!