Ayumi: This morning, i am withering the last batch of Our Japanese black tea.
If you are ever in Tokyo and find yourself with an afternoon free, I highly suggest a short walk through Yanaka Ginza, a charming, old-fashioned shopping street. This area is located between two hills, Ueno-dai and Hongo-dai, and is how the street got its name. Easily accessible, it is located between the Nippori Station on the JR Yamanaote Loop Line, and Sendagi Station on the Chiyoda Line (the green subway line).
The purple line below is the Yanaka Ginza street
View Exploring Tokyo in a larger map
During the Edo period, many shrines and temples were built in the area and you can still see evidence of this today if you have time to stroll around the area. After the Second World War, many of the men returning from fighting had to struggle to survive in post-war Japan. Yanaka Ginza was widened and stores selling clothes, cooking utensils, and other items filled both sides of the street as vendors struggled to make a living.
Special events, like the surprise market and special sales, are also often held in the area to attract more visitors and to keep the area vibrant and exciting in a competitive market. As you stroll down the street, note the original signs, matching lights, and the eaves on the store exteriors that add to the overall charm and historic feel of the area.
Once you are tired from browsing the nearly seventy stores on the street and are full from snacking at all the delightful food stalls, walk up a set of steps known as the “Yuyake Dandan,” to view the beautiful sunset. It’s a wonderful place to rest your feet and escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city.
Discovery: Artist Yamauchi Eiemon
On the weekdays, she creates beautiful bags and other lifestyle goods in her workshop. On weekends, she travels with her creations by bicycles, selling at various points. I happened to discover her as she stopped near the entrance to Yanaka Ginza. Her products are somewhat expensive as befits an artist, but perhaps we may one day carry a few of her pieces. They’re very cute!
Her website in Japanese: http://eiemon.com
Discovery: The Kanekichi-en Shop
ADDRESS: 〒110-0001 東京都台東区谷中3-11-10 / 3-11-10 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0001 JAPAN
An old tea shop (many old tea shops also sell nori or seaweed for some reason), the Kanekichi-en shop is run by the same company that runs the Kanekichi Itouan Ryokan (Japanese inn) on the Izu Peninsula (another highly highly recommended visit!).
If you’re looking to pick up a bag of delicious Japanese tea or teaware, this is the perfect stop!
Discovery: Ito Manufacturing
Ito Manufacturing has two shops in Yanaka Ginza (towards the Nippori station side). One shop sells T-shirts, the other custom-made Japanese stamps, or hanko. They sell them with a kind of cynical, but cute humor that is unfortunately mostly in Japanese.
Boarding a bus from Shinjuku station, my friends and I embarked on our way to conquer Japan’s tallest mountain, Fuji-san (富士山, the “san” is the character for “mountain”). Having read various articles written by past hikers, we got a rough idea of how the climb would be. We had to keep in mind various factors: weather, altitude sickness, food&water, time, etc. After visiting a few hiking shops in Tokyo, I decided that I would try to climb Fuji on a budget since hiking gear is too expensive for a college student! I borrowed a friend’s head lamp, heat tech tights, and long tennis pants (in case it rained). Using my swiss gear backpack that I used for school, I packed it with:
- big bottle of water
- energy drink pouches
- Calorie Mate packs
- onigiri (rice balls)
- tennis pants
- spare clothes
- sweat towel
- gloves (didn’t use)
- 100 yen coins (for using the toilets on Fuji-san)
So with my backpack in tow, I brought multiple top layers for the ascent: tank top, exercise short sleeve shirt, long sleeve henley, and a sweater. Throughout the hike I would put on and take off layers due to the perspiration of hiking and coldness/wind of the higher altitude. On my feet, I wore wool socks and used my hiking boots I had bought earlier in the school year for when I hiked the Northern Japanese Alps. Gym shorts over top Uniqlo’s heat tech tights kept me warm from the waist down but allowed for flexibility when climbing over rocks. On my head, I wore a beanie and my head lamp so I could see where I was going in the dark.
Like most people, we planned our ascent from the 5th station. A little over 2 hours and we arrived at the 5th station just as the sun was setting. In total, there were 5 of us. 3 Japanese, 1 Swede, and me, the American. The Swede and I were exchange students at the International Christian University and our fellow Japanese hikers are/were regular students there (members of the yearbook club). After arriving, we went through our gear and made sure everything was good to go. Milling in and around the store at the station, we waited for our bodies to get used to the high altitude.
And here we go!
Starting out at around 8 p.m., the trail was initially fairly flat and provided a nice view of the city lights glowing brightly against the night sky. As we made turned onto the Fujiyoshida trail (the most popular trail) we slowly made our way. With me and the Swede typically taking the lead, the others were usually 30 yards behind us. Every hour, we would take a rest for about 10 minutes. Coming from Mitaka, Tokyo, none of us were used to being at a high altitude for a long time. So to avoid getting altitude sickness, we agreed to pace ourselves and to take frequent breaks. Altitude sickness can only cured by going to a lower elevation, and we didn’t want anyone to admit defeat after coming all the way from Tokyo.
The hike up is essentially a series of gravel switch backs with occasional mountain huts where you can buy food, drinks, oxygen, gloves, etc. Of course, there is a markup in price so if you’re feeling a bit faint, be ready to shell out around $10 for a canister of oxygen. Feeling thirsty? A bottled drink will cost you around $3-$5 (Japanese yen only of course).
“OMG, I’m hiking Fuji-san!”
About halfway through the hike, I started feeling a bit euphoric and wasn’t sure wether it was from altitude sickness or if it was from that sense that “OMG, I’m hiking Fuji-san!”. My fellow hiker, the Swede, also felt this way but instead of worrying about it we just kept going. Eventually, the feeling left and was replaced with “OMG, where is the top of this damn mountain?!” and “Why are there so many people here?!”.
After reaching the 8th station, we were meant by an insane amount of people. Seeing that we only had a few more hours until the sunrise, we shifted into high gear. Steep paths filled with old people, young people, kids, off duty U.S. military soldiers, other foreigners, and even soldiers from the Japanese Self-Defense Force on an exercise made getting ahead of the crowd pretty difficult. Luckily, there were Mt. Fuji staff workers telling climbers to divide into 2 lanes. Right lane=fast lane. Left lane=take it easy lane. Eventually becoming separated from the Japanese people in the group we started out with, the Swede and I raced to the top in time for a quick rest before the first sliver of the sun revealed itself.
We made it! The top of Mt. Fuji!
Upon arriving at the top, it was kind of like a back alley market with vendors for food and trinkets. Once we made our way through the crowd, we made it our way towards higher ground near the arch. From there, we waited for what seemed like forever. Finally, the sun revealed itself at around 4:30 and was welcomed by a clapping of hands and cheering from the climbers who hiked through the whole night to just get a glimpse of this precise moment.
After watching the sun show itself in it’s entirety, we peaked down into the mouth of Mt. Fuji (it is a volcano after all). Nothing but rocks and leftover snow. Feeling a bit peckish, my Swedish friend bought a hot bowl of tonjiru (pork soup) as we rendezvoused with our Japanese counterparts. Wanting to rest a while before we started our descent, we sat on the elevated floor in the heated hut. With the warmth of the hut and our own fatigue setting in, all of us ended up laid out on the floor, sound asleep. This lasted for about 30-60 minutes and then we slowly roused ourselves awake.
Up in 8 hours, down in 2.5 hours
Heading down on a different path, we barely stopped to take any breaks. With 8 hours spent going up Mt. Fuji, we descended it in only 2.5 hours. Once again, losing our fellow Japanese hikers in the dust, quite literally. The path down was nothing but rock so every step sent up clouds of dust. The constant downward hiking put constant strain on our knees so we walked at an angle, slid through the rocks, and even walked backwards to help take the strain off.
After powering through the descent, the Swede and I made it back to the 5th station just in time to not get completely burnt by the ever rising sun. Celebrating with a beer, we laid in the shade and waited for the rest to make it back down. Mission accomplished.
There are two different, traditional Japanese ways for preparing matcha: Koicha and Usucha. Normally before being used, matcha will be first filtered through a device called a sieve in order to break up any clumps that may form in the mixture. Usually, these sieves are made of stainless steel mesh. After being sifted, the matcha is placed directly into a tea bowl or in more formal situations a chaki (tea caddy). For this purpose only a small amount of matcha should be placed in the bowl using what is traditionally called a chashaku (bamboo scoop). Hot water (but not boiling) is added into the mixture. Next, it is lightly mixed into a generally consistent texture using a chasen (bamboo whisk). If done properly, there should be no lumps left in the liquid, and no ground tea should remain on the sides of the bowl. Before drinking the matcha, a guest would normally be served wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) to balance out the bitterness of the matcha.
Usucha (thin tea) requires about one and a half scoops (using the chashaku) of matcha and 75 ml of hot water per serving. Depending on the drinker’s personal preference, the tea may be lightly mixed to produce froth or not.
Koicha (thick tea) is slightly less bitter than Usucha and calls for more matcha, around three chashaku scoops and 40 ml of hot water per serving. The resulting mixture is thicker, similar to that of liquid honey. Therefore, blending it entails a much slower stirring motion so as not to produce foam. Koicha is usually made from more expensive matcha, originating from tea trees exceeding thirty years of age. Koicha, rather than Usucha is served almost exclusively as a part of Japanese tea ceremony.
Health benefits of Matcha
The real health benefits of matcha green tea powder are widely publicized on the internet, and many companies are taking advantage of these claims.
When you drink matcha tea, you are drinking the actual leaf itself (in powdered form) instead of water that has been infused with the essence of the tea leaf. What does this mean? Very simply, you get a lot more of the essences of the tea leaf when you drink it whole.
The real story
Is it really healthier? Probably. But, there are many types of green tea leaves, and each has its own properties. Here are the differences:
Shading vs. non-shading
Shading the tea leaf prevents catechins from being formed, and results in an increased amount of L-theanine amino acids. Catechins are antioxidants that are, on one hand, healthy for you, and on the other hand, cause bitterness or astringency. Matcha tea leaves (tencha leaves) are shaded the longest of all green tea leaves therefore have the least amount of catechins for spring-harvested first flush leaves. Of course, you don’t drink the entire leaf when you drink other types of green tea (unless you are drinking powdered sencha).
Seasons: Spring vs. summer, autumn
Spring is when the most amount of essences are infused by the plant into the each leaf. Therefore a spring harvested matcha is much more potent than an autumn harvested matcha. If you are paying less than $50 for 100 grams of matcha, most likely this is not a spring harvested matcha. The matcha powder harvested in the spring is most likely called ceremony grade while other seasons go toward kitchen-grade or industrial-grade uses.
Autumn harvested tencha leaves when ground into matcha also have the least amount of caffeine though the levels of catechin are lower. For those who are sensitive, autumn harvested green tea may be a good balance between low caffeine and higher levels of catechin (generally the leaves for autumn harvests are left longer in the sun).
How steeping methods affect anti-oxidant levels
Catechins are infused into the water at higher temperatures, whereas theanine amino acids come out at lower temperatures. A good comparison test would be to steep two different teas at the same high temperature and taste to see which is more bitter. That tea is likely to have more catechins.
How tea plant cultivars affect anti-oxidant levels
Think of cultivars as different people. Same species, but different height, hair color, etc. When a cultivar is identified to have certain properties (i.e. a specific set of DNA), it can then be propagated via cuttings. The entire field of plants can then have the same properties.
Matcha specific cultivars are chosen for the lower amount of catechins, whereas cultivars for black tea have higher amounts of catechins (the catechin levels in the resulting black tea are lower than green tea though because catechins oxidize/degrade to form the flavor of black tea).
How much this affects the amount of anti-oxidants in the tea though is something that requires more laboratory research…
A short introduction to a very complicated topic, but if you are drinking matcha solely for health reasons, please be aware of the above. Some of the health benefits claims out there include a boost in metabolism, calorie burning, lower cholesterol, energy boost, cancer fighting antioxidants, and relaxation promoting amino acids. How true is this? We’ll have to wait for more research…