While Japan is famous for its green tea in general, if you want to visit the epicenter of the tea movement, you’ll need to visit Uji, Kyoto. Here, tea is grown using the ooishita method. Green tea leaves are covered before being plucked. This protection from the sun saves the rich green color of the plant and increases the umami flavor of the leaves. The process is time-consuming and tedious, as only the best young leaves are picked by hand, but the result is award-winning Uji matcha tea that’s unrivaled elsewhere in the world.
But the process doesn’t stop there! Here in Uji, the leaves are steamed and dried before the different tea shops create their special blend of Tencha and Gyokuro leaves.
This special town really loves its tea. Throughout the year, festivals such as the “Kencha-sai” (tea offering), “Ujicha-matsuri” (Uji tea) and “Harunodaichakai” (spring tea ceremony) are held here.
A day of Uji tea + fascinating history? A matcha made in heaven!
While matcha was originally drank by monks for its medicinal properties, today, anyone can enjoy Uji matcha! If you want to experience the special tea culture of Uji, join Arigato Japan’s Matcha Kyoto Green Tea Tour. Eat, drink and shop your way through this famous tea town!
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The day begins with a little history. And by a little, I mean one of the most historically significant places in all of Japan. Ujigami Shrine may be the oldest standing Shinto shrine in the entire country, believed to be constructed in 1060.
Tale of Genji
The history doesn’t stop there! Uji matcha and this city’s famous shrine aren’t the only important historical features. The Tale of Genji is the oldest novel in the world. And part of the novel takes place right here in Uji! Pass by the statue dedicated to the heroine of the novel and cross over the river that’s mentioned in the novel.
In Japanese, “cha” means tea and “soba” is a buckwheat noodle. Since this is the Matcha Kyoto Green Tea Tour, we had the chance to try matcha-infused soba for lunch! I enjoyed the cold version, dipping and slurping to my heart’s content.
Dos and Don’ts of Japanese etiquette
On both of my tours with Arigato Japan (in Toyko, I took the Crazy, Cute Kawaii tour in Harajuku), meal time came with a lesson in etiquette. I was sending silent gratitude for these lessons when I was the guest of honor at a recent dinner in Ibaraki. I spoke about tourism to the members of the City Council’s inbound tourism task force and attempted not to make a fool out of myself with my newfound chopstick etiquette.
Our guide taught us all about some of the proper ways to enjoy the food we ate for lunch. That slurping I mentioned before? It’s the right way to eat soba! And many of the bowls food is served in are meant to be held in your hands as you eat.
A major no-no? Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. When food offerings are made to deceased family members, this is how the chopsticks are positioned in rice.
If you’ve eaten at a restaurant in Japan, you’re sure to see an adorable creature called a Tanuki by the front door. Did you know that every physical aspect of this Japanese raccoon dog has a special meaning? From the shade of his hat representing protection to the business note in his hand that represents confidence, each characteristic is important.
Visit the shrine from the ¥10 coin
If you’ve been in Japan for long, you’ve got a ¥10 coin or two rolling around in your change purse. Have you ever stopped to wonder about the building that’s displayed on the coin?
On this tour, you’ll pay a visit to the Byodoin Temple and you can see the image from the coin come to life. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the “historic monuments of ancient Kyoto.”
Inside the Phoenix Hall, modeled after the Land of Happiness, 26 of the 52 statues of Worshipping Bodhisattvas on Clouds from the 11th century are on display. Each statue takes a different posture of prayer, some with musical instruments. It is said that Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings that help others achieve enlightenment, too. Don’t miss the phoenix, which once adorned the roof of the temple.
The complex does not allow photos. Stay in the moment, camera-free, as you walk through the colorful rooms and learn about the history of this temple.
Eat matcha ice cream
After a walk through Uji, you’re sure to be feeling a bit warm! It’s time to cool down with a sweet treat! If you haven’t had too much already, try a matcha ice cream cone sprinkled with matcha powder. Too much? Try the hojicha, made with green tea leaves that have been steamed and then roasted.
Make your own matcha
During the Edo period, tea was delivered from Uji to Edo (Tokyo) for the shogun. It was carried by hand (who wants tea that smells like horses?!) and protected by samurai. The journey took 2.5 weeks (nothing like the bullet trains of today). Mitsuboshien Kanbayashi Sannyu Honten is the tea house that supplied that tea. They’ve been around for 500 years, making them the oldest tea shop in Japan.
On tour with Arigato Japan, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the family-owned and run shop, now in its 16th generation. Here, you’ll grind your own matcha powder, which is typically a job for the elderly women in the family. It’s patience and consistency that make a good matcha powder.
The rest of the family members have other jobs. Young girls separate tea leaves in search of the softest leaves and men do the heavy lifting.
Once you’ve ground your own matcha powder, it’s time to whisk the hot water and Uji matcha powder into a creamy, frothy drink. You’ll learn how to properly drink (the cup should be turned before the first sip to show the face of the glass to others) and have the chance to enjoy wagashi alongside your matcha.
By this time, you’re full of matcha tea, ice cream, green tea infused soba noodles and history. Hopefully you have a bag full of Uji matcha to bring home for friends and to enjoy yourself. Now, it’s time to say goodbye to your guide, new friends and the lovely city of Uji.
Note: Arigato Japan hosted me on this tour. All opinions are my own and I’ll never recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!
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