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Making Tea

Making tea doesn't require a sharp mind, but it does require a few things. Attention to the quality of ingredients, water, fire to heat it up to the right temperature, choosing the brewing time you prefer, balancing the quantities of tea and water, and then drinking it in the short time before it gets cold.

That requires you to be in the present moment. Ready to drink and receptive to the tea's poetry. You sip, you meditate and look out the window at the mist rising off the sea beyond, or chat with your companion about the flavour, whether you want sugar, milk, or lemon, small talk about food, or the garden, things you see around the room. This is the time to talk about the pattern of the wallpaper, not about the mortgage, this relaxing time after the work of eating is done.

Of course you can do a lot more. Japan has made a science and art of the tea ceremony. If you live here awhile, you realize that the tea ceremony is more about "oughts" and the ritual of the dance of tea rather than merely about the quality of the drink. The flowers are as important as the tea. The decoration and choice of vessels is as important. Comportment and ability to turn the bowl so that the front faces away from the server, and then back again after drinking are important. The choice of guests, and the order of serving them is important. Measuring the tea on its tiny bamboo stick, and even the direction of stirring it are of considerable importance. Even the slight snobbery of the idea of "look at us all being cultural" with its undertones of mutual congratulation is a factor. Yet.

Tea can be made on a campfire in a tin pot. It can be drunk from plastic camping cups during a breakfast that raises the spirits and the body temperature so that people can un-stiff the kinks in bodies and minds grown accustomed to rolling out of a monster orthopedic kingdom and flicking a switch on the coffeemaker on their way to the shower. It can be as good, or better from that plastic cup, because tea ministers to the spirit as the spirit requires. And we all know fresh air, and getting closer to our natural animal habitat makes us feel more alive, and that invigorates appetite. Even unwillingly.

Tea is good for the spirit. It is almost unreservedly offered here if you visit a home or office. Offering tea is a gesture of welcome, and does indeed succeed brilliantly at that even when the product is virtually undrinkable. For a tea cup in the hand has the power to relax us under the most stressful of conditions. Perhaps it is the warmth of our hands around the cup, as much as our slow sipping of the liquid, that reminds us of our first nourishment. Perhaps it is that tea is offered in times of stress as a comfort. "Let's sit down for a cup of tea" provides a spot of refuge, a chance to change pace and focus on the physical, remind ourselves that we are alive, and while so, should appreciate these moments.

Apart from the tea itself, which is available in Japan in thousands of variations, where it may be appreciated more than any other country on earth, water is the thing that tea needs to be right. The water in Kagawa is not all that tasty. It is certainly chlorinated, though not so heavily as that I have tasted in the bigger cities.

Because it doesn't taste good I grew into the habit of drinking bottled water, along with millions of Japanese. Water from France, or even other parts of Japan tasted reliably better and fresher. Because there are drink machines on every corner, it was easy to buy a bottle or choose from a half dozen varieties of bottled teas. I believe that teas here actually outsell soft drinks like colas.

But usually I've made my tea at home from tap water, which is more palatable after being boiled. I think some of the chlorination must be released by boiling. The tea is not bad. Nor wonderful.

Recently I discovered that drinking tap water is better for the environment than bottled water. It made a lot of sense to me that flying water from France would not be as environmentally-friendly as water from the local catchment. I also learned that tap water may even be safer since it is more regulated than bottled water. Bottled waters don't have to say what's in them. With a little effort you can discover the quality of the local water by contacting your local government. Since that's a little difficult for me here with the advanced Japanese it would require, I have taken to filtering my water, using a Brita filter. The tea has improved.

I often make tea to take to work rather than buying from the machines. If you want to do that, and are new to green tea, here is how I do it. If you make a pot for breakfast and let half of it cool, you will be able to bottle it up before you leave near lunch time. I do use an old PET bottle, washing in between, because it is the lightest for me to carry on the trains. I figure it is pretty safe for the few hours the drink remains in it before I drink it. You might like a thermos, if you travel by car or bicycle.

I bought myself a Japanese teapot with the screen that fits inside the rim and holds the tea leaves. Filtered water is boiled and allowed to cool for a moment, if it's loose green tea, sencha, that you are making. You don't want to "scald" the tea. Use a good tablespoon of tea per cup of water and one for the pot. After sitting for about 30 seconds you can start to pour it, or leave it to steep for a few minutes if you like a darker, more bitter brew, higher in anti-oxidants. In any case, when it's as you like it, you simply remove the screen holding the tea. You can let it drain on a saucer and then put it directly in the compost or garbage. No teabags to waste or add off-flavour.

Enjoying locally-grown tea is not only environmentally sound but it makes a satisfying basis for a snack. Here we often eat small sweet-bean jam filled cakes called manju with the tea which cuts the slight bitterness perfectly. Beautifully-shaped into fruits and blossoms of the season and decorated with small coloured leaves at this time of year, they are food for the eyes as well as the stomach. With or without ceremony, in community or alone, tea is a lovely celebration of being alive.
Autumn manju with white bean paste and chestnuts.

And if you're feeling in need of a little extra healing or want to aid digestion, try this spicy recipe for Healing tea, my version of Yogi tea, which is also great but a lot more expensive.

Healing Tea

1/8 cup dried lemongrass (or try a stick of fresh if you can get it, chopped and crushed)
1-2 sticks or a small handful of cinnamon stick shards (Mine are from
1-1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
2 inches (5 cm) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cups of water, filtered or plain

Take a small saucepan. Into the pot put the dried lemongrass and the cinnamon. Take out your suribachi or a mortar and pestle and break up a teaspoon or so of black peppercorns. Put them into the pot with thin-ish slices of the peeled fresh ginger. Cover with about 4 cups of water, bring barely to a boil and simmer on low for a few minutes, around 2-5. Pour the liquid through a strainer into a tea pot and enjoy as many cups as you like. Be well and happy!(


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