Obon and a Big Package of Stems and Leaves Tea
Steep Dreams Are Made Of This
Welcome to the July Newsletter. We are happy to report that it is raining in Vancouver. It has been a long dry spell, and we know it's raining too much in some places and not enough in others, but hearing the rain this morning was a nice way to wake up. We had arranged to meet in the office today and made a nice matcha for everyone - we do not often have matcha in the morning but enjoying the smooth matcha this morning while watching the rain come down was a real treat.
Talking about green tea!, the Buddhist monk Eisai brought Green tea from China to Japan in the twelfth century.
It is not the only thing that Buddhist monks brought from China to Japan, though. The Obon Festival, which happens at this time in Japan, was also introduced similarly. It originated as the Ghost Festival in China, and Buddhist scholars brought the festival to Japan.
Depending on where you are in Japan, you may be celebrating the Obon festival in July or may have to wait to celebrate it in August.
Like most countries, Japan now uses the Gregorian calendar but used to use what is called the lunisolar calendar – a combination of lunar and solar calendars. Japan being the complicated place that it is – people in the east, including Tokyo, decided that the date of Obon should be in July based on the Solar Calendar. For people in the rest of Japan, the lunar calendar was used to set the date to make it in August. To complicate things a bit more, sometimes the Lunar and Solar calendar match – for example, in 2019, when both schedules coincided, so the festival was in the same month.
Even though it originated in China, the Obon festival is a very Japanese festival. The main focus of the celebrations is paying respects to ancestors. At the beginning of the festival, families carry unlit lanterns, called chochin, to the burial place of relatives and use the candles and incense at the temples, light the lanterns and make their way home, using the chochin to guide the way for their ancestors. Once at home, the lanterns are placed on shrines called butsudan. After several days of celebration, including dancing and music, it is time for the ancestors to return. Some people make 'spirit horses,' shouryo-uma, to carry their ancestors back to the spirit world using cucumber and eggplants. In contrast, others float the lanterns on rivers complete their journey.
The most well-known Obon festival is probably in Kyoto, which is called the Daimonji Festival. This lasts several days and the highlight is the creation of large bonfires in the shape of characters formed in the mountains around Kyoto. The fires are up to 200m in size and are visible from almost everywhere in Kyoto when they are burning.
Away from places like Kyoto, the Obon festival is still widely celebrated, and even in small villages is a time of joy and respect for ancestors gone but not forgotten. It typically lasts several days and is marked by dancing, parades and lots of street food.
A New Bulk Offering
Last year we introduced a good quality matcha tea available in bulk. We had traditionally sold matcha in small packages of 30g of ceremonial matcha. Many people asked us to provide tea in larger quantities, so our bulk matcha product was born. We have had good feedback on the bigger portion.
This month we are pleased to introduce a larger offering of a Sencha tea; our new product is Young Stem and Leaves Green Tea.
We now have a sencha tea made from young leaves and stems of plants from the Yabukita cultivar available in 200g (7oz) portions.
This is a nice quality tea made from a blend of young stems from the first flush tea production, picked in May, added to the deeply steamed Fukamushi second flush tea leaves picked in early June.
When the first flush sencha is picked, it is processed through several steps to produce the premium tea. One of the steps involves separating the leaves from the stems. Those stems are retained.
New shoots will start growing again about two weeks after harvesting the first tea leaves. The next tea can be gathered about 45 days after the first harvest. This second flush is called Niban-cha. This second-flush tea is picked when there are more hours of sunlight; it contains more catechins, an antioxidant component, than first-growth.
The stems are retained from the first flush and are added to the second flush leaves to produce this tea.
This is a nice everyday tea in a convenient size at a reasonable price.
We Do Not Sell Tea From Hokkaido
In the occasional tourism section of our Japanese Tea newsletter, we bring you Hokkaido.
There is no tea produced in Hokkaido, you say – most of the tea is produced in the south of Japan, and Hokkaido is way up north!
You are right, there is some boutique tea production in the North of Japan, but most of it stays within the country, if not more so in the Northern Prefectures.
It's not the tea that attracts us to Hokkaido, but many other great things make it worth a visit.
Japan is experiencing a huge tourism boom at the moment, places like Kyoto and Tokyo are not full, but they must be getting close.
Hokkaido is off the beaten path still and is a treasure to be found at the end of the railway line going north.
Japan is famous for having a fabulous railway network, and there is a bullet train that goes from Tokyo to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. The Japanese bullet trains are referred to as Shinkansen (which means new main line); there are currently 8 Shinkansen lines that allow rapid train journeys covering a lot of the country. The line that goes to Hokkaido is called, rather disappointingly, the Hokkaido Shinkansen. There is a 54km railway tunnel that goes under the Tsugaru Strait, the stretch of water between the main island of Honshu to Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is an island community and has a tradition of fishing, and the seafood there is exceptional. There are many places that sell seafood, and the thing that we had not anticipated is that they would ship the purchases anywhere in Japan and maybe the world. Almost every shop and stall offer this service. One makes the purchase and pays for the shipping, and the product is packed in ice and shipped that day – we suspect it is shipped on the Shinkansen and can confirm that when we shipped some to relatives near Tokyo, it arrived still fresh the next morning.
Hakodate is the terminus for the Shinkansen; it is a good city to visit and has many yokocho to visit and meet the locals. Yokocho are Japanese Tapas bars where you can drink and enjoy typically small plates of food. There is an area in Hakodate called Hakodate Ekimae Yokocho which is an area with lots of small alleyways with surprise yokocho around each corner. Everyone we know that has visited, including us, really loved it, but it has a lowish rating on TripAdvisor etc. not sure why – but that means it is still a hidden gem.
If you imbibe too much at the Yokocho or the Beer Museum in Sapporo, a short ride further north, you can visit lots of great tea houses in Hokkaido and might be lucky enough to try a local tea or two.