How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

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Japanese hands

The other day I was watching the Japanese movie ‘Okuribito’ (usually titled ‘Departures’ abroad). I absolutely love that movie and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

Japanese movie Okuribito

The Japanese movie Okuribito. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

The movie is about a man who moves back from Tokyo to his hometown in the mountains. He gets involved in the funeral business, a profession that was despised in feudal Japan and was only carried out by the lowest social class, the eta. Even in modern-day Japan, some people still look down on the profession of undertaker. At first, the main character in the movie also has some misgivings about his new job, but gradually he learns to see the beauty in the tender ritual of preparing the dead for their departure. This ritual is called ‘nōkan’, and you can see it performed in the video below.

While watching the movie, it struck me again how beautiful and elegant Japanese hands are. One of my cherished images of Japan is the way most Japanese people perform even the simplest of daily tasks; their gestures expressing a mixture of elegance, precision and understated strength. The elegance of Japanese hands and gestures is even more apparent during the stylized movements of Japanese rituals, such as the burial ritual in the movie above or the ritual movements of the tea ceremony.

tea ceremony elegant hands

Taking hot water to pour into a tea bowl. All movements during the tea ceremony are elegant and delicate, yet precise and deliberate. Not an easy thing to accomplish!

tea ceremony elegant hands

Admiring one of the utensils that are used during the ceremony. The utensils have to be treated with the utmost care since they are very precious. Her hands look so elegant!

Japanese university graduation outfit

The school year in Japan starts in April, rather than in September as it does in Europe. Most kids have one or two weeks of holiday before the start of the new school year.

All through the month of March, children and parents are busy with graduation ceremonies. There are lots of ceremonies to be had: elementary school, junior high school, senior high school, university, …And that’s just graduation. Come April, they can do it all over again when they have their entrance ceremonies.

For university graduation, girls usually wear ‘hakama’ (Japanese style pants). It’s very exciting to spot someone in that kind of traditional Japanese attire amongst the mass of Western style clothing.

university graduation hakama Japan

This was the best picture I could get of her. I have to improve my sneak photography skills.

university graduation hakama Japan sleeping on the train

I think she was tired from an exciting day because she was dozing off on the train.

Girl’s Doll Festival – Hina Matsuri

March 3rd was ‘Hina Matsuri’ or ‘Girl’s Day’. On this day, all families with a daughter display a set of traditional Japanese dolls in their house. But apparently the habit isn’t limited to people with daughters. Ever since early February, I have encountered these ‘hina dolls’ (‘hina’ is the japanese word for doll) everywhere I went: in malls, community centers, restaurants, etc. I had heard about Hina Matsuri before coming to Japan but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is still so widely practiced.

The traditional doll display is hughe. It has seven storeys and portrays an imperial household, compete with furniture, servants and musicians.

hina matsuri emperor and empress

The first two levels contain an emperor and empress with three court ladies below them

hina matsuri minister of the left

A member of the imperial household. My best guess would be that he is 'the minister of the left'.

hina doll display

A few elaborate hina doll displays

Imagine having such a contraption in your living room, especially in a small Japanese apartment. No wonder that these days there are many modern and more minimalist options available as well.

hina matsuri minimalist

Minimalist hina dolls. Notice the 12 layers of fabric in the doll's clothing, which represent the 12 layer kimono's from the Heian period (called jūnihitoe).

hina matsuri mouse

And last but not least, my favourite: a hina doll mouse, wearing a kimono. Kawaii!

Japanese New Year’s Eve TV show ‘Kōhaku Uta Gassen’

It was quite exciting to spend New Year in Japan. I was very curious about Japanese New Year rituals and we tried participating in as many as possible.

Our Japanese New Year experience began on New Year’s Eve with a popular TV show called ‘Kōhaku Uta Gassen’ (on the channel NHK). It features spectacular performances by Japan’s most famous music artists, as well as some guest appearances by foreign celebrities. It is a legendary tv show and last year was the 62nd edition.

NHK Kohaku presenters

NHK Kōhaku presenters

Jackie Chan on NHK Kohaku

Jackie Chan on NHK Kōhaku

Lady Gaga on NHK Kohaku

Lady Gaga on NHK Kōhaku (live from New York)

There were more traditional performances: (unfortunately blocked by YouTube I think)

Spectacular performances by J-Pop bands:

And even a male singer (at least I hope he/she is male) in a big golden dress:

I found out later that this singer is female (see comments). My apologies, whoever you are!

Even later I found out she is called Akiko Wada.

(Thank you for the infomation Yuko and Ayako.)

The rest of our Japanese New Year adventure is for another post!

Christmas in Japan and Belgium

Christmas is not a traditional Japanese holiday. Only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. New Year is a lot more important in Japan and is celebrated with many traditional Japanese rituals.

But Japanese people never turn down an oportunity to have a festivity or festival, so just like Halloween and Valentine’s day, Christmas has been imported into Japanese culture. And just like they do with anything else imported from other cultures, the Japanese have adapted Christmas to their liking and invented their own ways of celebrating it (click here to go to an overview of Japanese Christmas customs by Billy Hammond).

Christmas decorations in Matsuzakaya, Toyota City

Christmas decorations in Matsuzakaya, Toyota City

But what struck me most so far is the difference in the anticipation leading up to Christmas. In Belgium, people eagerly look forward to Christmas all through the month of December. In Japan, I hardly noticed any anticipation for Christmas. December in Japan is more about forget-the-year-parties (bōnenkai) and preparing for New Year.

In Belgium, as we have long, cold and dark winters, Christmas and the month leading up to it are all about coziness, light and warmth. Some of the anticipation rituals include:

Advent wreath

Advent wreath

  • Putting a Christmas tree in the house and decorating it.
  • Making an advent wreath, either one to put on the front door or an indoor version with four candles. The first Sunday of December one candle is lit, the second Sunday two candles are lit and so on, symbolizing the return of the light after the darkest time of winter.
  • Every city puts a nativity scene on the central square. A nativity scene is an imitation of the stable where Jesus is said to be born. The nativity scene often contains live animals!
Nativity scene in Belgium

Nativity scene in Belgium - with a real live donkey in the background

  • There are bonfires and people gather around to drink warm wine or heart-warming liquor (‘jenever’).
Christmas bonfire in Belgium

Christmas bonfire in Belgium

Even though Christmas has lost its religous meaning to a lot of people in Belgium, it is still deeply embedded in our culture. Even non-religious people consciously or unconsciously keep celebrating Christmas as a means of getting through the darkest time of the year.

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This article was submitted to the J-Festa blogging festival December edition, themed ‘Christmas in Japan’.

Japanese wedding

We were fortunate enough to run into a Japanese wedding party yesterday.

traditional japanese wedding 2

Japanese wedding

The lady in white and the man in the gray hakama in the middle of the picture are of course the bride and groom. They are posing in front of the temple entrance.

I was surprised to see so many people dressed in black. In Belgium people wear bright colours to go to a wedding, black is for funerals. But in Japan it is customary, at least for the parents of the bride and groom, to dress in black.

This kind of traditional Shinto wedding ceremony is losing popularity in Japan. These days young Japanese people prefer to get married in a wedding hall or in a church (although I’m not sure that also involves the Christian ceremony, I think it’s more about the venue).

japanese wedding hall 1

Wedding hall

In this kind of Western-style wedding, the bride wears a completely over-the-top colourful dress, that is usually rented instead of bought.

japanese wedding dress 3

Wedding dress rental shop

japanese wedding dress 1

Japanese Western style wedding attire

japanese wedding dress 2

Some more over-the-top dresses

Japanese wedding kimono

I'm not sure if this is traditional style or not (perhaps to wear after the ceremony?), but it looks beautiful