Tuesday, January 18, 2005

leaves in hot water (tea time)

I have made the Tokyo-New York direct flight more times than I or my wallet cares to count, and (at it's most reasonable), $500 is way too much to pay for two microwaved meals, a can of beer and three movies. Excluding the benefits of being moved from one side of the world to the other, a trans-Pacific flight is the most expensive triple-feature on the planet.

At best the movies tend to be faintly entertaining (Along Came Polly held up surprisingly well the three times I saw it), and at worst... you get The Tuxedo starring Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I really enjoyed Jackie Chan's original Hong Kong and early US stuff, he had an old Hollywood style comedian's drive to be a purely likeable entertainer, not someone who laughs at their own bitter humor. But there was one line from the end of the movie that is absolutely seared into my brain. After all the action and fighting has finished and feuding spy partners Jackie and Jennifer have reconciled, he asks her out on a date:

"So you wanna get a cup of coffee sometime?"

"I'm sorry," she replies in her snootiest voice "I only drink organic green tea." Oh cool, I thought, they're gonna go out to tea.

But, speaking for the audience, everyman Jackie replies "Come on, just get a cup of coffee with me." She relents, they walk into sunset, credits roll. Congratulations committee that wrote The Tuxedo: American hegemony and ignorance in three short lines. Or did these Hollywood writers not know that green tea wasn't invented for yuppies but is consumed daily in the world's most populous country? (Hint: Jackie Chan is from this country.)

Here in Japan (not the world's most populous country, but one whose tea I know a bit more about) going out for coffee is just as common as it is in the States. In fact it's of a much higher quality. I am amused to no end that when you see the option of "American Coffee" in a restaurant it refers to their weakest (and most watery) brew. It's only for people who don't actually like coffee. Four dollar cups of joe are more common, but the coffee is amazing, and the added value is in your surroundings, a quiet, tastefully decorated nook of a coffeeshop.

Unlike Taiwan and China, with their all night tea houses where people play cards and do business over pots of fragrant teas, Japanese green tea (o-cha) is overwhelmingly consumed in the home. One doesn't head out to get a finely roasted and blended cup of o-cha, it's an afternoon pick me up passed around the teacher's room at 3:00, it's a jar in the cupboard brought out when guests come to call, it's a souvenier brought back from an annual trip to Kyoto. Unlike Americans who guzzle watery coffee by the gallon, swilling from their liter-sized cups parked next to the PC or in the cup holder, green tea is still treated as a precious commodity.

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By sheer coincidence, I have lived in all three of the most renowned tea regions in Japan (Kyoto, Shizuoka and Sayama, though the last is debatable), where good tea is as natural and everyday as tying your shoes. While my friends around the country had nothing but instant coffee to drink at work and the green tea was reserved for important guests, I was subjected to tastings of a whole spectrum of local blends. Each school employs at least one old local woman who is invariably full of smiles, speaks the coarse local dialect and whose job mostly consists of prepping the teacher's lunch and serving afternoon tea. One day at a school in Tenryu, Shizuoka I was given an exquisitely light tea that had a beautiful curling aftertaste. When I asked where it had come from, the tea lady looked out the window, squinted and stuck out her finger. "About, right over... there. Those tea bushes between the road and the river."

There is a mountain of information available on green tea's health benefits (prevents cancer, lowers blood sugar, rescues small children from burning buildings), and even more available on high end tea and tea ceremony, but I personally find all that stuff pompous and boring. I don't even like matcha, that powdered stuff used in tea ceremony; it's bitter and stays all chalky in the mouth after you swallow. I enjoy Shizuoka tea's raw, grassy aftertaste, Uji-tea's smooth mellow roundness and Sayama-tea's bold, direct flavors. I like a cup of green tea in the drowzy haze of 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon.

But, in a bitter irony, most people here seem to choose a cup of instant coffee whitened with the disturbingly named powdered creamer "Creap" (short for Cream-powder?) over a simple cup of locally grown green tea steeped for barely half a minute in water just approaching boiling. I'm not really sure why, I think it's too easy to say "fascination with all things Western", because coffee has been here long enough that it can actually be written in kanji. I don't think it takes much guesswork though, fact is coffee is much better with cake than green tea, and who doesn't like cake? Even in Japan, nobody doesn't like Sara Lee.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm inspired, just opened the bag of green tea and roasted rice I bought in Kyoto (from Uji, I think) and am sipping my second cup of the morning. I feel healthier already.

And I will always be grateful to Japan for introducing me to Starbuck's cappucino grande.

Guess who.

Dr.Gray said...

Japan has been overly doing there westernization. The coffee association of Japan has been spending a lot of money to advertise on various Jdramas trying to make it seem trendy and cool. I just hope that they do not loose what they already have there. I mean people choosing instant coffee over fresh green tea.

Also, green tea is good with cake. Check this out - latte matcha