KYOTO, JAPAN – I was a medical intern in Tokyo when I was first introduced to matcha—a special kind of finely-powdered green tea—and I instantly fell in love with its complex, vegetal, and subtly sweet flavor. Since then, I have taken every opportunity to sample everything with matcha in it, from Royce to Kit Kat, cookies to croissants, waffles to truffles.
Thus, I’m always on the lookout for new matcha places in Manila. And whenever I’m in Tokyo, I make it a point to visit Suzukien, a tea shop in Asakusa that serves seven different kinds of ice cream with increasing matcha concentration. The 30-minute queue is always worthwhile, especially after a hike up Mt. Fuji or the Kanto region’s countless mountains.
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With the globalization of food, one can stumble upon matcha everywhere. Amherst Coffee in Massachusetts, I discovered recently, serves an incredible ‘cold brew’ matcha beverage. But there’s only one place that can lay claim to being the ultimate matcha destination: the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture.
With its excellent soil and favorable climate, Uji quickly established a reputation as the best place for tea growing in Japan, not long after the first Camelia sinesis plants were brought there in the 1300s. Uji tea was so valued by the shoguns that a ‘tea jar procession’ was held every year to transport the tea to Edo (now Tokyo), with people literally bowing to the tea jars as the procession passed them.
With Japan’s extensive and efficient rail network, Uji is easily accessible within a few hours of any of the country’s major cities, especially with a JR Rail Pass at hand. But it is best visited as part of a trip to the Kansai region, being just 30 minutes away from Kyoto via the JR Nara Line. From the JR Uji station, the city is small enough to explore by foot.
Upon exiting the JR Uji Station and walking towards the Uji River, one cannot help but detect the unmistakable aroma of green tea as one passes the numerous matcha shops that line the streets, offering everything matcha: ice cream, chocolate, soba noodles and, following the latest craze in the country, bubble tea.
Of course, one can also enjoy matcha as a beverage, hot or iced, with milk or water, to go, or as part of sit-down ceremony in one of the centuries-old gardens. One can never run out of matcha places to try. For one, there’s Tsuen Tea, founded in the year 1160 (yes, 859 years ago), and still run by the same family, now on its 24th generation. Then there’s Tsujirihei Honten and its mouth-watering selection of sweets and incredible ice cream. Even after several trips to Uji, one cannot run out of matcha shops to visit and matcha products to try.
As a souvenir, one can always bring home a tea cup or teapot. Some of the pottery makers in the area have a storied history rivalling those of the tea growers. Or one can go to museums or shops where the whole process of making matcha is explained. One of the lessons I learned when I first visited Uji was that not all powdered green tea are matcha. True matcha involves an intricate process of shading the tea plants before harvesting, steaming, and drying them, then removing the leaf veins before they are ground to become a very fine, vividly green powder.
Another lesson I learned is that aside from matcha, Uji also produces other kinds of teas and tea preparations, including the exquisite gyokuro, and that within ‘Uji matcha’, there are countless varieties, each with their subtle nuances.
Meanwhile, as one walks around the city in search of more green tea, there is the inevitable realization that there’s more to Uji than its famous product. The river, for instance, is picturesque with its historic bridges, a slender island in the middle that serves as a park, and a verdant background of low mountains—the same mountains that give Uji its pleasant climate. Then there’s Byōdōin Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that can rival the temples of Kyoto in terms of history and scenery. On the other side of the river stands another World Heritage Site, the Ujigami Shrine.
Uji is also one of the settings of Tale of Genji, widely regarded as the world’s first novel and one of the classics of Japanese literature. There are references to the novel and its author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, throughout Uji (there is also a Tale of Genji Museum), complementing the way novel references Uji as a place of quiet retreat from court life in Kyoto.
Over a thousand years later, one can still appreciate the tranquil beauty that must have charmed many a Heian aristocrat. Here in Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan there are larger temples, grander attractions, and far more dramatic scenery, but like a cup of the finest matcha, a trip to Uji lingers with soft, lasting sweetness.
Photographs by Gideon Lasco