I tend to think matcha is overrated. Unlike puer, the king of kings of tea, a set amount is drunk exactly once, and no more, as the leaves are consumed. This is perhaps the exact opposite the allure of puer, teeming with a depth of aged nutrients and bacterial growth which promises cascades of evolving tastes, sensations, and many, many brewings in tiny pots. One might think of puer or oolong as quintessentially Chinese teas in juxtaposition to matcha, which, in its use in the tea ceremony, in Zen, in its psychoactive effects, in its appearance, taste, form, and structure, seem to scream out: Nippon.
–But–No! Modern day matcha (if I understand correctly) is merely the most well known permutation of the category of “powdered teas,” which, in Olden Times, were more widespread. And where did this idea of powdered tea first originate from? Why, China, of course. Like everything else (in the forgotten yet chronicled past, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the present in its cultural forms, bound more tightly by genetics than anything).
The point is: I like evolution. Both in the genetic sense and in the subjective qualitative sense of self and other things. It pretty much motivates a lot of my reasons for living, because I am a person who abhors stagnancy. I used to be impatient (or more impatient), but the difference is, now, I am more accepting and perceptive of small growth/change–and in many respects, 10 small shifts have a potential to be much more interesting than one big one.
Perhaps, for this reason and others, it is no surprise that when we are young we seek to change the structure of our lives and identities through big shifts–jobs, locales, partners. Although I am still young, it seems to me that as we get older, there is a natural shift to want to experiment with change in smaller ways, as the “big” elements become more set–the taking on of additional responsibilities, fine tuning skills we may have already spent years or decades refining. Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who made Mario, said in an interview that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and moves furniture around.
The point is change comes in many forms. It may be grand of me to say so, but through drinking many types of teas sprung from different legacies and altered over time, we have a chance to experience a wide variety of tastes, sensations, and even attitudes of different ecosystems, cultures, and people. That seems pretty big to me. But how this is actually experienced is through really small differences, most of the time–this year’s crop vs that year’s crop, an extra hour of roasting–in any art, it’s these kind of small gradations that are the experimental substance that drive the changes of later distinctions, allowed to emerge as the new sum of a multitude of variations.
After being hit in the face with it at X number of shops, I finally broke down and bought some matcha on my second to last day in Japan. I had already assembled a decent collection of sencha and gyokuro, so I purchased a few containers of various grades of matcha from a small stall with a celebrated history, run by an older, smiling gentleman, in a covered market in Osaka.
This tea comes from a company called 山口園, which, using my knowledge of Chinese into pidgin-Japanese, I’d translate as something like “garden at the foot of the mountains.” It is grown in Yame 八女, in Fukuoka prefecture, which is a major tea producing area of Japan I was apparently totally ignorant of until just now. As the Osakan website will tell you, this particular varietal, 一葉 (“One leaf”?) retails at 20g for 1,050円 (also known as Yen). I chose it because it was the lowest member of the group of high-class matcha that were being sold, the other two going for about twice and three times as much, which was too much for me. As it is, this one converts to $15/ounce. That’s not exactly cheap, if one takes tea as a whole, so it must be at least pretty good, right? (To make no mention of how good those other two, higher prices ones “should” be,’ but linearity of price vs quality rapidly breaks down once reaches a certain point, as with everything).
Opening the can, a brilliant green luster of green powder appeared, and swirling, gaseous fragments of the tea jumped off of the tiny, low-mass clumps. Now that’s something that’s just never gonna happen with a chunk of puer. This is like earth vs air.
I pre-heated a simple kitchen bowl with water that I think is roughly 70-75 C. The Japanese method of achieving proper temperature water for pre-boiling-water teas (which I think ,are pretty much all greens), is to boil water and do a transfer between cups, thus lowering the temperature by a certain amount with each transfer, due to heat lost. It’s a very elegant, mechanical, Japanese solution. I prefer the Chinese one, which is more poetic and based on intuition, looking and listening to the water, at how many bubbles are appearing and how rapidly they are forming. I think I more or less have a handle on it; besides, it’s more fun this way.
After sifting the matcha into the pre-heated bowl, I pour it up to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 full, using my trusty Made in China whisk (about $8; I’m not paying $30 for a proper, high-quality Made in Japan chasen), and this is the result:
There’s thin matcha and then there’s thick matcha. I’m a thick matcha kind of guy–I like density and intensity. Adding to my ignorance, I also just recently learned that in the former category (what I had been mistakenly doing), one should beat the whisk in a rapid undulating sine wave/U shape, whereas to make the later, one should simply perform gently circular rotations. Makes sense. I seem to still have the problem of matcha falling out of solution, so is it that I’m doing something sub-optimally that’s resulting in supersaturation, or more that I take too long to drink it? Maybe some of both.
I drank in slowly. Then I waited. A slightly bitter (nothing compared to Lao Ban Zhang) taste with some detectable sweetness and umami. Pleasant. As I continued to drink, I felt calmer and calmer, yet more focused. I drifted–not away but more into my body. By the end of the bowl I was naturally sitting in a meditative posture, looking at a point on the table. I felt completely focused, yet totally relaxed, a razor sharp state of being. There were no thoughts outside my body taking me away from this present moment. I still had the thoughts, but I merely saw them, in great resolution–and yet, I had no desires or compulsions or anxiety about the past or future. It was just Now.
When I started this session, it was maybe 9 PM. I had some vague plans for the rest of the evening, to write, tidy up, read, watch something..but I didn’t, I just stayed in that moment, for at least 45 minutes, completely in a flow state of meditation. After the initial bursts faded and I got up to move around, I still felt very much at peace, engaged, but without any sense of urgency to any particularly activity.
The second session, which was this morning, and done on an empty stomach, was not quite as calming, and I think quite a bit of that might have had to do with these two different variables. I experienced many of the same sensations, but definitely felt my heart tangibly speeding up, and felt a bit anxious, strong heat and a kind of energy building up in my stomach, but in a much more singular way than the one sometimes experiences that with puer, which is diffusive and expansive in a complimentary but very different way.
In conclusion: DRINK THIS TEA. Or one like it. This is good. Not all the time, but, for when you’re ready to drop everything and enter that state of being for 1-2 hours.