Beginner’s guide to matcha – The next step (Part 5 of 5)

green tea, guide, japan, matcha

This is part 5 (the end) of the beginner’s guide to matcha. Access the other parts here:

This guide is intended as a jumping off point, meant to teach the very basics of matcha selection/preparation and tool handling/care. But, like all things in tea, the act of preparing and drinking is only the first step – If you choose to continue your journey with matcha, here are a few ideas for taking that next step:

Tea Ceremony - Sado 茶道

You can drink macha with no ceremony, but there is no tea ceremony without matcha. And yet in many ways matcha is one of the least important aspects of tea ceremony.

At its heart, tea ceremony is a celebration of the moment – a moment unique in time, characterized by the interactions between people and people with nature. This idea is embodied in the classic four word phrase ichi-go ichi-e 一期一会(once in a lifetime encounter). A tea ceremony host selects utensils, decorations, and food that reflect upon the season, while actions and words emphasize studied consideration between guest and host.

There’s much more to it than that, but if anything in my poor description strikes a chord it might be worthwhile to attend a tea ceremony in person. You probably don’t even need to travel to Japan – it’s not uncommon for tea ceremony events to be held at major cities around the world.

Tea Meals and Sweets – Kaiseki 懐石 and Wagashi 和菓子

Like food? Or sweets? Kaiseki, an elaborate Japanese multi-course banquet meal, originated in a small meal served before formal tea ceremonies. Learning to prepare courses in a kaiseki style is in itself worthy of years of study. 

The sweets used in tea ceremony (known as wagashi 和菓子) are also not your average fair. Some tea ceremony sweets stores (called wagashiya 和菓子屋) have been in business for centuries and make a dizzying array of desserts that change seasonally. The creation, categorization, and even naming of wagashiya is a much deeper subject than it might appear!

Tea Tasting and Production Methods

For those who prefer to concentrate on the matcha itself, there’s no better way to get to know the drink than by tasting deeply and widely.

Given that most of the matcha on the market are blends, tasting matcha made from single cultivar tea plants is a great starting place to understand the benefits/purpose of blends. Likewise, trying matcha grown in a single region/garden can be a good way to approach matcha terroir.

Learning more about how matcha is produced can also provide insight to tasting. The process used to create matcha is quite unique among tea. A little bit of knowledge about processing and growing conditions can go a long way towards understanding why certain profile are common in matcha.

Tea Tourism

There’s nothing quite like experiencing expertly prepared matcha in an old teahouse. For those intrepid enough to brave the language barrier, the rich experience of tea travel awaits (OK, maybe in year or so with the current situation, but still…)

Tea travel extends beyond simply enjoying matcha in idyllic settings – in some cases, it’s possible to visit the tea growing areas and even pick and make your own tea. To top it off, tea is often grown on the side of beautiful mountains – a hiker’s or photographer’s delight.

If you’ve really fallen down the tea rabbit hole, travel can be a great excuse to visit kilns and ceramics workshops and drop large sums of money. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…)

Ceramics and tea utensils 茶道具

The rabbit hole I alluded to above. Tea utensils for matcha go far beyond the basics of bowl and whisk mentioned in the Tools section of this guide. There are kettles and tea holders, scoops and jars, etc. etc. etc. Even if you don’t need the whole armament of utensils used for tea ceremony, after becoming enamoured with matcha it becomes frighteningly easy to justify purchasing chawan after chawan.

Beyond purchasing, there are a couple of additional avenues through which one can explore tea ceramics – learning and making.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to learning about tea utensils. The shapes, sizes, patterns, colors, and even usage of tea utensils has been intensely categorized and cataloged. So have the names of famous kilns and artisans, clays and techniques. It can be very satisfying to walk into a pottery shop and be able to identify the type and usage of display pottery in shops.

Screenshot of a book on raku-yaki 楽焼 (style of pottery) detailing various chawan characteristics. This book and many more are freely available as pdfs by the Smithsonian.

This manuscript catalogues chaire 茶入, a type of tea container used in some tea ceremonies. This book is also available here.

Lastly, one can endeavor to make tea utensils (ideally after some study). Just because matcha should come from Japan doesn’t mean your utensils must.

Skilled and not-so-skilled makers around the world are creating beautiful and inspiring work all the time. Just check Etsy or the profiles of some of the folks within the Instagram tea community.

A final word about making your own utensils – be sure anything that touches water or matcha is food-safe! This includes materials used for kintsugi (Japanese technique of mending broken items with lacquer and gold).

Tea Philosophy, History, and Aesthetics

 This is more or less a catch-all category for any other study of the culture surrounding matcha. There’s a heck of a lot of it.

Scholars have used tea and tea ceremony as a lens to explore a wide range of cultural and historical topics across time. There’s bound to be something of interest to anyone fascinated by tea – and there’s plenty of space for more explorations, especially in English!

If I had to introduce just one book as an example of a well-written, scholarly dive into tea ceremony, it would be Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice by Kristin Surak. This title contextualizes tea ceremony practice within the changing historical framework of nationalism. It’s a fascinating work that has informed my understanding of other practices that have become synonymous with a country’s culture.

That’s the great part about learning more about tea – such a rich subject tends to spill over and enrich other aspects of life.

And that’s it; the end! I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather thorough beginner’s guide to matcha (and beyond). And to those about to begin their matcha journey – may it be as enlightening as it is challenging!

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