Tea is a way of life in Japan. Restaurants serve complimentary hot tea the way ice water is provided in US restaurants. Green tea is the most common, but I did experience hot barley tea a couple times. During a tour of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, we stopped by a tea shop and learned what the difference is between what we may consider leaf green tea and matcha, which is what is most commonly served throughout Japan. Matcha is green tea that is broken down into a fine powder. The big difference is that with matcha you are actually consuming the green tea itself and benefiting from the many healthy minerals and vitamins as compared to steeping leaf tea that you throw out once brewed. Some say that consuming the green tea regularly is one of the reasons that Japanese life expectancy is among the highest in the world.
While in Kyoto, we booked a reservation at Tea Ceremony Koto (located right next to the beautiful Golden Pavilion). We met with an aspiring tea master to experience the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. I say ‘aspiring’ because it takes more than 10 years to become an actual tea master. She explained the history, formality, steps and then conducted the ceremony with us. Imagine a small room with tatami mats on the floor. The guests sit around in a circle with the tea master in the front near the tea and the door to move in and out. She carefully adds a spoon of green tea matcha powder into a bowl and uses a special bamboo whisk briskly in water. The hot tea is then provided to each guest one at a time. The guest is expected to first say to the next person ‘pardon me for having tea before you’ then turning to the master ‘thank you for the tea’ and finally turning to the previous guest to say ‘I will join you’. Then you drink the tea. Usually a couple of small sweets are provided in a tea ceremony, but these are always eaten prior to the tea being served, rather than with the tea.