Maybe we were a tad crazy during our two week trip, in Japan and Seoul: it was almost a matcha tea dessert every day. Yea –in addition to sipping sometimes a lovely cup of medium to high grade matcha or at least green tea. There is a sublime difference.
Birthplace and Hub of Japan’s Centuries Long Fine Green Tea Production
How could we resist? We were in Kyoto city, the heart of Japan’s famed tea farms nearby and the birthplace of matcha tea centuries ago. We certainly didn’t plan nor know this historic significance until we were there. I was initially just drawn to Kyoto wonderous heritage of shrines, temples and Japanese gardens that were spared from American bombs during WW II.
What distinguishes matcha tea, is it appears as a green powder, which certain types of green tea leaves are steamed, rolled, then dried and ground into a powder. This technique perfected by Uji tea growers over centuries, renders a rich vibrant green colour, unlike other green teas. One whips up the matcha tea in the tea brewing process.
Tea fields were established in the Uji area 1185-1333, after monk Myoe introduced seeds to villagers from a trip in China. Tea leaf steaming, curing and grinding dried leaves into its brilliant green powder, was introduced by Nagatani Soen during the Edo era.
In our Tokyo hotel room for first few days, I enjoyed my free green tea for breakfast, much better than green tea I’ve had in Canada. It wasn’t matcha tea, but still quite good and soothing. Uji area produces for Japan, the 3 grades and types of green tea: sencha, matcha and gyokuro. Based on the brand packaging I saw in various stores in Japan, we get a lot of the low to mid-grade Japanese green teas in Canada.
Nearly Missing Historic Teahouse
In Kyoto, while wandering streets near Gion, a historic area, we did stumble across a long-standing teahouse, I had googled on the Internet in advance. We nearly missed it because there was barely any script to indicate any teahouse. Maybe we should have clued in, with the doorway hanging fabric banners.
Inside the cool teahouse interior, picture windows looked out to garden of stones, artful bushes and trees. Some people had bowls of ice soba noodles with slightly sweet syrup to cool off the humid summer heat. Jack had a small plate of green tea jelly squares dusted with roasted soy powder.
I settled for a bowl of frothy match tea and a little artful green mochi shaped like a little green apple with a sweet centre. Mochi is pounded rice until it’s elastic, glutinous and molded quickly in round shapes. Mochi originated in Japan and later, adopted by Korea and China as a dessert.
Joy of Warm Soft Green Tea Mochi: Hand-Pounded
In downtown Nara, we dropped by a well-known mochi store that pounded out warm green mochi rounds. Freshly pounded mochi is warm, soft and yummy slight sweet goodness. It’s a rare experience. Unfortunately I forgot at our hotel, my package of handmade soft mochi I bought from the mochi-pounding store –along with a large pack of local sencha tea bags. Hand-pounded mochi places don’t exist in North America.
Fox Stamped Rice Cracker in Green Ice Cream: Pausing below 1,000 Tori Gates
Throughout our trip, we had variations of green matcha ice lattes, hot matcha tea, green matcha tea baked desserts and ice cream. We took a short train ride from Kyoto to Fushimi-Inari, site of famed Shinto shrine with over 1,000 vermillion orange Tori gates along a pilgrimage route up sacred Mount Inari.
The shrine is dedicated to Inari, god of rice and prosperity. After our hot hike up and back down, of course, we dropped by a green ice cream café in the park. We licked our green matcha tea ice cream cones topped with a rice cracker imprinted with a fox, carrying a key in its mouth. There are stone fox sculptures by tori gates and shrines along the mountain route here and all over Japan. Foxes were believed to be messengers of Inari.
In Tokyo and Kyoto, high end European bakeries would feature at least a green matcha tea pastry as part of their diverse pastry offerings. So there were green buns with lightly matcha flavoured toppings or custard centres. Even Starbuck’s in big Japanese cities offered green matcha pastries. Just make you choose a pastry that’s light in taste.
Green tea parfaits may be combined with sweetened red beans, a cracker or mochi balls –all commonly found in many Asian ice cream based desserts.
We celebrated Jack’s birthday with a green tea cake roll from a high end green tea café in Seoul, South Korea. Too bad he didn’t choose the green tea multi-layered torte.
To this day, I dream of warm large green tea mochi, I forgot at the hotel.