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Uji, Gyokuro, and the art of appreciation

Written by Ruby Benigno (@beebingka)

If you happen to love green tea, especially matcha, you may have heard of Kyoto. Their famed temples, teahouses, and geishas attract thousands of tourists to immerse themselves into the old world feel of this ancient city. Although Kyoto has wonderful teahouses and shops, the best tea will be found in an unassuming town sandwiched between the overpopulated Kyoto and the deer-populated Nara. Its name is Uji.

The first time I went to Kyoto, it was during the agonizingly hot and humid summer which was also the height of tourist season. As much as I would have enjoyed the matcha cremia ice cream, I lacked the energy to line up for 30 minutes, so I rain checked for another time. When Japan cooled down, I asked the teacher who ran the tea ceremony club at my school where I could find the best green tea. Moriyama-sensei told me that Uji was the place to go.

On a Friday morning in October, I trekked down to Uji. Once you leave the train station, you will see a wooden bridge that will lead you to a street called Omotesando where its 300 meter length will consume you with its many green tea shops, cafes, and restaurants. For an early lunch, I tried the famed cha-soba (green tea) which you dip in shoyu that is mixed with wasabi and scallions.

 

Japanese food
Photo credit: Ruby Benigno on IG at @beebingka

After lunch, I went further down the street and arrived at the World UNESCO Heritage Site of Byodoin Temple where you can try authentic Uji tea at a tea salon called Sabo Toka. You can never go wrong with ordering matcha, but their gyokuro tea is definitely a treat. Gyokuro is regarded as the finest green tea and one of the most expensive in Japan. Its flavor is mellow and sweet. Some might say it has an after taste of sweet potatoes or corn.

The delicate nature of gyokuro demands a lot of care and preparation. A tea specialist will come to the table with a tray (see picture) and teach you how to prepare a cup of gyokuro. In a small porcelain bowl, two tablespoons of tealeaves are measured. Water, enough to submerge the leaves, is poured in gently. A cover-like strainer is placed on the bowl to separate the leaves when it is time to pour. After a minute, it is served in a sake-like cup to remind the drinker to slowly sip and enjoy the tea. The Zen garden at Sabo Toka creates a space to reflect and relax as you drink.

 

Japanese food gyokuro ceremony
Photo credit: Ruby Benigno on IG at @beebingka

The ceremonious preparation of gyokuro is a reminder for us how the small things that we enjoy—for example, coffee—take a lot of care. We should take the time to appreciate it. So when you get your coffee or tea at your local coffee shop, please thank the barista.

About the author: Hello everyone! My name is Ruby, and I am a native Chicagoan who has just returned from a year in Japan. I fell in love with the Japanese food culture when I began exploring the Kansai region during my time as an assistant language teacher for the JET Program. I’m proud to be a blogger for Kokoro Care Packages where I can share some tidbits about Japanese culture, food, and travel. I hope your care packages and reading the blog posts will inspire you to visit Japan one day.



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