Sebastian and I met up with Mr. Taniguchi who supplies us with some of the finest sencha and gyokuro in Uji. But first, we stopped at Ryo An Ji, one of the most famous Zen temples in Kyoto, mobbed by school kids and tourists. Nonetheless, the faultlessly perfect stone gardens and the moss carpetted gardens, not to mention the quintessential Japanese woodwork and beams made out of whole tree trunks, captivated Sebastian so much it was hard to leave. His father, apparently, had built quite a few Japanese teahouses in the East coast (www.superlativetea.com/category_s/26.htm) and Seb had some experience with the woodwork. His enthusiasm spilled over to me and we wandered around, bowled over by the experience.
Mr. Taniguchi made it a point to stop in at the farmer's cooperative teahouse first before going to the gardens. We must understand how to steep sencha and gyokuro the right way, or all the best leaves won't make a bit of difference. What was fascinating and new though was eating the fine gyokuro leaves as salad after steeping it 4 times. Add some ponzu sauce, which was yuzu/citrus vinegar plus soy sauce, and an incredibly delectible salad was served. Sencha was steeped at 50 degrees celsius, and Gyokuro was at 40 degrees.
The Gyokuro plantations were either traditionally shaded by hay, which required ALOT more work, but gave it a softer sunlight shading (90% of light shaded out), vs. the new black plastic tarp like overhangs. The obasans were picking tea when we arrived, chatting away like women tea pickers in China or Taiwan. They were all cute, short, and about 80 years old. Sebastian's head almost hit the tarp roof.
Onward to see lots of gyokuro processing and meet Mr. Shimooka, who has won more top awards for his teas than there are kanji. The machines were complicated and precise, but no matter. For Mr. Shimooka, it is the care he puts into feeding his plants. For example, for the Gyokuro tofu meal is used for fertilizer, and instead of using pesticide, they use bug pheromones, which makes males think they are supposed to be looking to mate with female bugs, not eating the leaves. Or something like that. And then they die shortly after their mating cycle, which doesn't actually happen.
The Uji teas have a very specific, local taste of soybeans. As Japan teas have all originated from Uji (Only 7 families own the right to grow tea in the past), its taste was the standard by which sencha and gyokuro was judged. These were the teas that lower classes were allowed to drink as matcha was reserved for the upper classes only.