Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Do you want to know how to meet maiko ladies?

This weekend, I went to Kyoto for a trip.  You can find some retro streets around Gion area, where I think a good place even for a walk.  If you are lucky, you might be able to see maiko ladies.  I had a chat and walked around and took some photos with them.  It was nice to hang out with ladies in kimono stroll walk around the traditional town.  Do you want to know how to meet this kind of maiko ladies?

Actually, they are Hiro, my wife and Miwa, our tea classmate!  They are not real maiko.  There are some photo studios in Kyoto that make you into a maiko for recreation.  So, if you want to see maiko ladies, be the one yourself or have your partner to be one of them too. 

For the plan Hiro and Miwa tried, it took about 3 hours for the entire activities.  It took about one hour to make up and dress.  They had photo shooting in the studio about 15 min each.  And we had 20 min walk outside at the retro streets around the neighborhood of the studio.  And it took another hour for changing clothes and choosing the best shots for printing.  Hiro and Miwa seemed to have a lot of fun.  Since they are bit of shy, they were bashful about walking outside because people definitely looked at them.  Tourists passing maiko looked back and oftentimes they aimed their camera at the kimono ladies.  You need to be open-minded and enjoy the attention.

Photo shooting in the studio

I didn’t try it myself so I waited for a quite some time at their lounge.  While I was waiting, many groups of ladies came and went.   They all looked excited when they were having instruction at the beginning, and after the photo shooting, they were having fun selecting the photos.  The plan that Hiro and Miwa tried was about 10,000 yen, which includes an option of photo retouch.  They can cover the unnatural gap of the wig and wrinkles, hahaha.   The plan covers three printed photos (no original data) from studio shooting.  The fee varies by the plans and options.  It is a worthwhile activity in Kyoto.  Be a maiko yourself and blend into the traditional city!

The photo studio we visited >>

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why tea whisks matter 2

Like I’ve mentioned in the previous blog, I didn’t find a significant difference between the moderately-frothed usucha (thin tea) prepared with a 100-tine whisk and the one prepared with a 70-tine whisk.  Then, I tried the same experiment on the well-whisked usucha with plenty of foam.  The conditions are the same as the previous test.  (Matcha: 1.7 grams,  Water: 50 ml,  Whisking: 20 sec)  I beat both teas with faster motion to obtain extravagant foam, “A” with 100-tine whisk and “B” with 70-tine whisk.

“A” with 100-tine whisk,  “B” with 70-tine whisk

I felt a resistance in the liquid while I was whisking “A”, and I could feel it in my senses that a generous amount of foam was formed.  On the other hand, I find a less viscous feeling on beating liquid “B”.  Lavish foam is covered on both of the surfaces.  The photo might not be clear but if you look at it closely, you will notice that “A” has finer foam and the foam in “B” is rougher and more bubbly.  I would find out later on, after taking sips, that there are more apparent comparisons to see.  For instance, the moment that the tea bowl reached my mouth, “A” has thicker foam.  I could not tell it from the surface.  I got a totally different impression on each tea now.

If you taste them more attentively, you’ll find the same quality of bitterness and sweetness.  However, the most obvious comparison would have to do with the texture of the foam produced.   The foam in “A” fills your mouth, and delicate taste lingers for a long time.  It consisted with fine tiny bubbles, so the foam is spongier.   Meanwhile, the rough and big bubbles in “B” easily break and disappear, and give a lighter touch.   

I therefore conclude that if you prefer usucha with rich and fine foam; use a whisk with a large number of tines.  If you like your tea with lighter foam, beat with a fewer-tine whisk.  There are various factors affecting the taste and texture of tea, and you can’t simply find a perfect answer.  However, the tea whisk matters for sure. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why tea whisks matter 1

I did an experiment on preparing a bowl of matcha with a 100-tine whisk (A) and the other one with 70-tine whisk (B).  In the previous entry, I mentioned that lately I prefer a fewer-tine whisk for its easy handling and better grip.  I wanted to focus on how the number of tines can affect frothing and the taste this time. 

I used 1.7 grams of matcha and 50ml of water for a standard usucha, thin tea.  I gently whisked both of them with the same speed of stroke for 20sec to attain a moderate amount of foam.
Here is what I realized: when whisking, I found the whisk “B” gentlier to mix in the tea bowl.  The whisk “A” is larger in size and bulky so it limits the range of your stroke.  It is not a big deal really but it’s good to be aware of it when you choose a whisk.  I got a thin layer of foam on both of the surfaces.  “A” has a slightly more foam and it is wholly covered.  You can still see the surface partially on “B” forming a little circle.   Finesse of each bubble is pretty much the same, but with a closer observation, you can tell that the foam in “A” is a little finer.  Consecutively, I didn’t find significant differences on their taste.  They have similar textures and flavor.  To further contain my wonderings, I sifted the tea before the mixture so I didn’t find any lumps or residues at the bottom of each tea after drinking.

Now I think that you don’t have to be so picky about the whisk with preparing usucha with moderate foam.  You may find a little difference on ease of handling and frothing, but you definitely will not find a significant difference on taste. 

I started to wonder if there is any difference for well-whisked usucha with a lot of foam.  I did another round of test for it.  It’s exiting but I will talk about it on the next entry.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Impact of the foam to the taste

Do you know why the amount of the foam is different on each of the bowl of matcha in this photo?  The way of whisking tea varies depending on school traditions.  Some schools tell to whisk fast and well to attain a lot of foam, but some schools do not.  The speed of whisking makes the difference of the amount of foam.  Here in our school, Omotesenke, we are taught to whisk lightly to attain just moderate amount of foam.  

I prepared two bowls of matcha, one with a lot of foam (A) and the other with a moderate amount of foam (B).  I tasted them to concur if the way of whisking or the foam affects the taste.  I prepared the tea with a standard method of making usucha, thin tea.  I precisely measured and used 1.7 grams of matcha and 50ml (1.8oz) water for each.   I whisked both for the same period of time, 20 seconds, “A” with faster whisking and “B” with slower beating.  Which type of tea attracts your palate?

Based on my experience, I think well-whisked tea has a better taste because all of the components are perfectly mixed.   However, my instinct tells me to heed on the teachings of my school, which I had modestly done lately.  I heard different theories advocating either way.  Here I actually tasted them myself.

After all, is there really a difference in taste?  Well, I’m delighted to say Yes.  I sure found out the two teas differently.  With the first sips, I sensed stronger bitterness in “B”.  To find out more profound difference, I sipped more alternately seeking satisfaction for my curiosity of the difference.  I then realized that “A” also possessed bitterness.  I also find the same degree of grains in both of them.  So, what is truly the difference?  Density.  For “A”, you put the tea into your mouth in dig your lips into the foam.  Your mouth is filled with airy foam and it makes the taste milder.  As for “B”, the moisture or the tea itself gets your tongue covered around.   So, you can taste the intense flavor.  The difference is not really the quality of flavor, instead the feeling of texture of the ingredients has a bigger impact.

I didn’t use good quality tea this time, so I tasted bold bitterness.  I prefer the method “A” for this bitter tea.  But if it is a premium matcha, the method “B” can be good too.  I don’t want to simply conclude which is better at this point.  I want to pursue seeking and have more experience for deeper understanding through my tea carrier.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trial and error for perfect tea storage

I have done an experiment to find out the best way to store my precious tea.  I considered the same containers, but did trials on room temperature, refrigerator and a freezer.  The tea kept in the refrigerator appeared the worst quality.  Meanwhile, the teas stored in either the room or in the freezer, has more likely the same result, same quality, and they were both better than the refrigerator-stored tea.  I concluded that the normal room storage is the best there is.
The entry regarding about the previous test >>>

Quite honestly, I have little doubts about this result.  I had done some other tests on tea storage simultaneously, and I achieved unconvincing results on those test.  Then I realized that there was something different, something was out of the way.  Alas!  I packed the tea samples on a rainy and humid day.  I assumed that the leaves absorbed moisture, plus I packed them with the humid air. These conditions: moisture and density of air, contributed a significant effect on my tea storage.  Having said that, I think that the result of the test for the best storage is not reliable and needed modifications.

Here, I did another test again.  This time, I packed the samples in a fine dry day.  I had to take note of the temperature and humidity using thermometer and hygrometer. I need to be precise and specific.  I stored them in the following conditions for one month.
A.    Room temperature
B.    Refrigerator
C.    Freezer

Here goes the result:
A.    Bitter
B.    Clear
C.    Bitter

I soon discovered that “A” and “C” have a bold bitterness, especially “A”.  Relatively, I found “B” most tasteful.  I would conclude that the refrigerator is the best place, sort of.  You might have realized that “A” has a lot more fine residue of tea settling at the bottom of the cup compared with the other cups.  This means I did not evenly pick the grains of the samples when packing though I specifically weighed each sample equally.  I tried to be very careful, but actually it was not enough.  Small grains of leaves dissolve the substances faster than larger grains.  This created the possibility for “A” to be bitter. 

I’m sorry that I cannot give you a confident answer for this issue again.  I am annoyingly frustrated.  However, by taking notes of these errors, I hope I could reach a more profound and convincing result someday.  I just have to be optimistic!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An aged man in a tea ceremony

A middle-aged man, in his mid 50's was standing at the entrance of a tea room, looking as if he did not know what to do.  None of the staff were present, since they were all at the back.  The man wanted to ask if the next ceremony will be the one for his ticket.  He is skinny and simple, and he was not even wearing kimono.  He wore just checkered shirt and a pair of trousers.  I saw this man at the tea ceremony I attended yesterday.  

The tea ceremonies were held at Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum.
One of the ceremonies held in their tea house.
This is the tea house.

The man finally found a staff member and got in the room.  Me and all other guests, about 15-20 people, had been already in the room.  We could see the man from our seat.  The man moved to the last position and seated.  Soon after, one of the guests asked him to sit at the seat for the main guest.  The main guest, who should be an expert and experienced in tea ceremonies, represents the whole body of the guests and he converses with the host.   Usually, at huge ceremonies like this, the guests choose from the members or rather wait for someone to reluctantly volunteer to be the main guest.  However, this man without hesitation accepted the offer with humility and moved to the position.

This ceremony was for koicha, a thick tea, which is considered more formal than usucha, a thin tea.  I was quite excited for koicha and little nervous at the same time.  The aged man was totally calm on his seat.  He looked poised.  The host entered in the room and started preparing tea.  The man flawlessly greeted and spoke with the host.   While he was having a warm chat with the host, he took time to smile and gestured to the other guests.  He is very knowledgeable about tea utensils but at the same time imposing an amazing humility on this expertise as he willingly shared his skills to the other guests. 

At tea ceremonies, there are some people who wear kimono and have an obvious aura of master.  However, this presenile man doesn’t have that kind of arrogance.  He appeared to be just an ordinary man.  However with his wisdom and fine gestures, everyone could tell the he is a very experienced tea person.  I think not many of the guests expected that he would be an expert when he was standing at the entrance of the tea room.  I was impressed on his humble attitude and simplicity.   I definitely want to be like him when the time comes and I get his age.  Looks can be deceiving indeed. This man seemed so simple and common, but skills and knowledge inside shimmer like gold.

When I left the tea house, I saw him walking alone toward another site of a tea ceremony.  I wonder how many people he can amaze again with his splendid expertise on this wonderful tea day.

The tea room after the ceremony

Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum (Japanese) >>>

Thursday, October 4, 2012

My first day in the tea school

When my brother and I visited the tea school for the first time, the master served refreshing tea for us.  The room was so quiet and the only sound that we heard was the sound of her preparing tea.  It was a familiar traditional Japanese room but something was different.  It was neat and clean, where a simple ornamental and a hanging scroll were displayed.   The master acted with precision and seriousness.

While she was preparing the tea, somehow laughter welled up on us.  We were young.  It was going to be so rude if we laughed aloud.  We tried hard not to laugh in there.  When you ware young and you are in serious situations, have you experienced trying to suppress laughter, but can’t help it?  We sometimes looked at each other’s face, and finding out the other person is also struggling to hold back made it a lot funnier and hilarious.  It was crazy!

The two young guys definitely felt something, something peaceful and extraordinary.  The unique atmosphere prompted the laughter.   We certainly giggled, but it means that the ceremony has some magical allure to common people like us.  Whatever that spark is, we were drawn into its world since then.  I always reminisce on that entertaining tea ceremony experience that me and my brother had.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My recent interest on tea whisk

There are usually two or three tea whisks that are ready in the preparation room at my tea class.  You can use whichever you want.  Lately, I realized that I’m often choosing the one with few splines.

Tea whisks usually have around 30 to 120 splines.  The whisks with fewer splines are used for koicha, thick tea.  The ones with many splines are often used for usucha, thin tea.  The rule seems to depend on school traditions.  I have never thought about specific rules at my school so far.  I believe that the whisks I commonly see at my class would have the splines in the range of 60 to 100.  

You will consider many aspects when you choose a tea whisk.  The number of splins affects the fineness of the foam.  The special effect and feeling of tea whisking oftentimes depend on what tea whisk you use; elastic or rigid. I preferred the whisk with a large number of splines (100-120) when I started Sado (The Way of Tea) because I thought that it can mix tea well.  These days, I seem to care about other things too.  The reason why I pick the one with fewer splines is that it has thinner handle.   I find that a thin handle fits in my hand better, and gives me a perfect grip.

This is figure of two tea whisks.  Left: 100 splines  Right: 70 splines

The one with many splines have a thicker handle.

I told to Hiro, my wife, about it who attends the same tea class with me.  She commented that she also prefers the thin-handled whisk for the same reason.  At the class, the thick-handled tea whisk is often wet, so I guess that another disciple who attends the class before me prefers the thick one.  The one Hiro and I prefer is about 60-70 splines, and the thick one has 90-100, approximately.  How about you?  Would the thickness of tea whisk handle matter?   Are you meticulous about the grip when whisking?