Monday, June 21, 2010

Heaven: Delivered In A Box

Over the years since leaving Japan in '87, except for Shikoku my mental ties with Japan weaken a little more each year. I don't follow everything that's going on there, i don't look forward to their national festivals and celebrations, i don't follow their baseball, and i only follow sumo in a rather precursory manner any more. But, there are four things that i still follow just as much today, maybe even more, as i did all those 20+ years ago.

The first, and not surprising to anyone, is the start of the henro season on Shikoku each spring. As the temperatures start to climb the henro come out of their winter hibernation and start their annal swarm around the island. The swarm usually begins sometime in late March, with the full effect in April and May. By the end of May, the swarms have pretty much died out and then it's a trickle until winter, when you almost never see any henro. When i have the time and money, a rare thing to find in the right combination at the same time, i go over to Shikoku and celebrate.

The second is the annual blooming of the Sakura, the Cherry Blossom tree. This pretty much follows the beginning of the spring henro season and takes place during the month of April. In fact, the two seasons are so intertwined that i sometimes wonder if henro are the ones pollinating the trees each spring. Henro make their appearance in late March, by early April the trees begin to blossom, henro swarm the island with cameras in hand, posing for pictures under almost every imaginable tree, the blossoms fall by the end of April, and the henro start to disperse, with the last disappearing within a month. For this, i simply planted a Weeping Cherry Blossom tree in my front yard so i don't have to leave home to enjoy it.

The third is the annual Autumn Full Moon, usually celebrated during the full moon in late September. The Japanese (and the Chinese) believe that this moon is the fullest and the brightest of the year, and celebrate it accordingly. I don't particularly do anything during this festival because here in the US we don't have an Autumn Moon Festival. All i can do here is make sure i go out and notice, and admire, this particular moon each year.

The fourth is probably the easiest to celebrate but the one i almost always only celebrate vicariously by reading about it online each year. This is the harvesting and sale of Shincha (literaly, New Tea), the year's first harvest of green tea.

Just like the annual hoopla over the release of each year's new Beaujolais, the Japanese go wild over the release of each year's new tea harvest. Unlike Beaujolais, though, there's a good reason for it: it tastes like heaven in a cup. Released in June, the taste of new Sencha (the most commonly drunk green tea) and Hōjicha (one of the banchas and roasted before it is packaged) are out of this world. Newly harvested Matcha (used for tea ceremonies) and Gyokuro (like Sencha but harvested differently and a higher quality) are both best if stored for up to a half year before drinking.

What brings this up? I just received an unexpected package in the mail — a friend in Japan sent me some brand new, freshly harvested, freshly processed, freshly packaged, and delivered right to my door, Ippodo Tea Company Sencha and Hōjicha. Right now i am on cloud nine. Imagine that, shincha, right here at my house. Mine.

I have never been a practitioner of the official tea ceremony, but there is little better in the world than getting up early, making a cup of sencha, and then very slowly admiring its color and aroma as you watch the steam stream off the top of the cup while the sun rises. Then, just as slowly, savoring the taste sip-by-sip as you recognize that a new day is beginning. If you prefer your evenings because you have more free time you can repeat the process as the sun sets, but instead of sencha use hōjicha because it has very little caffeine in it.

A cup of green tea, a rising or setting sun, a quiet mind, plus ears and heart open enough to hear your breath and the wind and birds outside equals five to ten minutes of a completely lived life.

Shincha, delivered right to my door! Who would have thought today could be such a wonderful day.

OK, now downstairs to brew a cup of tea and to watch the birds moving into a new birdhouse i planted outside my dining room window on Saturday night.


Damian said...

Your post inspired me to order some shincha for myself. Thanks for including the link to the tea company. My packet is on its way now!


Lao Bendan said...

You're welcome.

Another tea company you could consider is Hibiki-An at They also grow their tea in Uji, which should almost guarantee the quality, i would think. I've never bought their teas because there's a Korean grocery store near my house that sells Japanese sencha and houjicha, but this is the site i follow the harvest on throughout the spring and early summer. Plus, they have a nice Heart Sutra kyusu that i plan to buy for myself as a Christmas present. :-)

Enjoy your tea.