Buying Tea in Kyoto

When we talked about buying presents in Japan for our family, one gift I knew ahead of time: green tea for my dad. He’s a confirmed green tea drinker, and while he has his supply of Chinese green tea from a friend, he hadn’t had Japanese green tea.

Beyond the vague shopping list of “tea, green” and a desire to avoid the Japanese equivalent of Lipton green tea, I had no plan. I was excited when we passed a specialty tea shop while we were spiraling in to our ryokan, but since we were — not lost, exactly, but not entirely found, we decided to return later.

We weren’t able to stop until the last afternoon in Kyoto, on our way to check out of the ryokan. The store looked closed, but one of the two women chatting outside was the owner, and ushered us back in.

Tea Shop Owner

Our Japanese-speaking friend once again had the pleasure of translating for me as we tried to figure out what kind of tea she sold, and what the difference between the foil bags of tea and the more traditional-looking packages of tea were. It turned out she sold tea powder that you mixed straight into water and drank, and tea leaves mixed with rice that you steeped using an infuser. She could tell we were confused by the difference, so, unprompted by us, she grabbed a package of both kinds from the shelves, ripped them open, and made us tea.

Cups of tea

While she made tea and fetched cups, I boggled that she was so willing to do that for us. The second surprise came when, as she was serving the tea-and-rice combination, she said, “I’m learning English, but I don’t know it very well yet.” She had a nearly American-neutral accent.

We ended up buying both kinds of tea for my dad and some for us as well. The owner wrapped everything up in many layers of paper. As I turned to leave, she dropped several packages of green tea cookies in the bag.

So I got my present for my dad. Even better, I got a story to go with the present.

11 thoughts on “Buying Tea in Kyoto

  1. I have some green tea with rice. I bought it from the Vietnamese market in Madison. My dad had green tea in Japan, hated it and thinks that all green tea must be like that. He goes on and on about that when I mention green tea.
    I have read a lot of people add green tea powder to smoothies. I was just reading about it today. I wonder if it is similar. What I read about was called Matcha.

  2. Ah, the post I’ve been waiting for! I’m jealous, since Japanese tea is one of my favorite things in the world and I’ve never had it on its home turf.

    The powdered tea is indeed called matcha; it’s used in the Japanese tea ceremony, and it’s considered the most premium of all Japanese tea. It’s nothing like American or British instant tea. To make it, you have to measure carefully, heat the water to the proper temperature, and mix with an expensive bamboo whisk. You can think of this as annoying or part of the fun.

    The tea with brown rice, genmaicha, is a great introduction to Japanese tea: inexpensive, easy drinking, brewable at a full boil, and a little quirky. I drink it often.

    I hope this is not true of your dad, but I find that it’s pretty rare for someone to really like both Chinese and Japanese teas. They’re incredibly different–I always tell people they’re as different as green and black tea. I had a recent conversation with a Taiwanese tea seller, and I brought up Japanese tea. She scoffed: “Love the sushi. Love the cars. But the tea? Ugh.”

  3. Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea are different, but they aren’t as different as “green and black” – it’s just a difference in body and scent.

  4. Exactly, Stephen.

    Fahmi, I’d say they’re also different in flavor and especially in color. And they’re produced differently. The only thing they have in common, as I see it, is that they’re unoxidized, and oxidation level is just one of many, many factors that affect the final product. Unless we’re talking about Dragonwell, my favorite Chinese tea, which is sort of Japanese in style. (I assume calling Dragonwell “sort of Japanese” makes the vinegar BBQ people angry, or something.)

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