By Michiyo Horike / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSAGA — Having green tea is so ingrained in daily life for many Japanese people that they may not pay particular attention to it. But careful brewing can make even the most ordinary type of green tea, called sencha, taste surprisingly great.
Koyugai Baisao, a Zen monk in the Edo period (1603-1867) who was known as “the father of the way of sencha,” was born in Saga. I recently visited Hizen Tsusentei, an establishment where visitors can learn about Baisao and how to brew sencha.
“Enjoy the fragrance and sweetness with the first infusion,” said Kimiko Kawamoto, 71, the director of a nonprofit organization that honors Baisao and operates Hizen Tsusentei. She poured tea into a small teacup. When I sipped it, I was surprised by the rich flavor of the drink.
The most appropriate temperature to extract the sweetness from the tea leaves is about 70 C. Kawamoto said cooling the hot water to that point before pouring it into a teapot is one of the key tips for preparing great tea. Letting it steep for exactly 1½ minutes and then pouring every last drop of tea into a cup are also essential in bringing out the best in the tea.
For the second infusion, hotter water than the first infusion was poured into the teapot. I waited for 30 seconds before enjoying it. This time, the tea had a profound taste with a good amount of astringency.
“If you pay attention to the temperature, you can experience the real taste of tea,” Kawamoto said with a smile.
To brew sencha authentically at home, a small teapot and cups should be used, in contrast to other kinds of Japanese tea, such as bancha and hojicha, Kawamoto said. At Hizen Tsusentei, tea leaves produced in Ureshino in the prefecture are used to brew tea. Visitors can enjoy tea served in local Aritayaki porcelain teaware with Japanese confectionery.
Quality sencha tea leaves are soft and can be eaten. It is recommended to serve them in dashi.
Baisao was born in 1675 as the third son of the family of a doctor who served for the Hasunoike feudal domain. He left home when he was 11 to practice Buddhism. He gained recognition as a calligrapher and kanshi (Chinese poetry) poet as well. He established a tea shop called Tsusentei in Kyoto after he turned 60 and eventually abandoned his status as a monk.
Legend says he traveled around places famous for cherry blossoms or autumn leaves, carrying teaware with him. He spread the practice of tea drinking, which had been a prestigious cultural pursuit of the upper class, among ordinary people, while using the catchphrase: “You can pay anything for the tea. It can be free. But I can’t go cheaper than free.” His free-spirited way of living influenced painter Ito Jakuchu and other cultural and intellectual figures.
Kawamoto learned about Baisao for the first time when she was working as a deputy editor of a community information magazine. She established the nonprofit organization with other volunteers in 2004.
When a foreign tourist who had tea in a small cup asked her, “Why is there so little?” she replied, “Because this is tea for satisfying your heart,” she recalled.
“Tea makes you feel relaxed, serving it is a perfect way to entertain guests,” she said, adding, “I would like many people to enjoy the taste of tea while also giving thought to Baisao.”
Sencha serving suggestions
Kawamoto shared a way to enjoy brewing a cup of sencha.
Necessary items: Proper amount of hot water cooled to about 80 C, a small teacup (ochoko sake cups are also usable), a small teapot, a vessel to cool hot water, tea leaves, your favorite confectionery and slightly soy-sauce-flavored dashi soup infused with kombu
Directions (serves 1):
1. Place 3 grams of tea leaves in a teapot. If serving two, use 5 grams.
2. Pour 40 milliliters of 80 C water into a teacup, and transfer the water from the cup to another vessel to cool it to 70 C. Return it to the teapot.
3. Wait for 1½ minutes and pour the whole amount into the teacup. Drink it while enjoying the fragrance and sweet taste.
4. Enjoy with your favorite confectionery.
5. For the second infusion, pour another 40 milliliters of hot water into the vessel used to cool down the hot water for the first infusion. Move it to the teapot and wait for 30 seconds. Follow the same steps for the third infusion.
6. Remove the leaves from the teapot to the vessel to eat them with dashi soup.
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