Getting Tea Drunk in Japan's Sencha Paradise

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Sencha from Bellocq Tea Atelier in NYC. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

When I took my first trip to Japan a few years ago, I imagined Tokyo as a tea-drinker's paradise, with funky tea cafes on every corner, serving up green tea in endless variations and a near-embarrassing degree of connoisseurship. You know, like what Seattle did to coffee.

Alas, no. Coffeehouses vastly outnumber tea cafes in Japan. I've been to a couple of nice tea cafes in Tokyo, but they were theatrical experiences, not the sort of cozy places where you could hang out with a friend over endless cups of tea. Most green tea in Japan is consumed the way America drank coffee in the pre-Starbucks era: in large quantities, but as a commodity, without regard to quality, provenance, or flavor profile.

That's too bad, because Japan's everyday green tea, sencha, can be one of the most satisfying beverages on earth, simultaneously soothing and invigorating. Like wine, coffee, and beer, sencha is available at every level of price and quality, from bland teabags to slim $35 sachets of loose tea leaves that release a puff of forest air when you snip them open.

Maybe, I thought, Japanese tea is meant to be savored at home.

Then I found tea paradise in Kagoshima.

Susumu Chaya

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Sencha from Bellocq Tea Atelier in NYC.

Kagoshima is a quiet city at the southern tip of Japan, crisscrossed by streetcars, with a humid, tropical vibe in the summer. The city is famous for pork, shochu liquor, fish cakes, and sweet potatoes, but Kagoshima is also the capital of Japan's second-largest tea growing region, and its tea cafes are stellar.

Take Susumu Chaya. Located near the central train station, Susumu-ya (as it's called for short) presents a handsome green facade. Inside, the shop is clean, modern woodgrain. All of the tea here is from the Kagoshima region, most of it is sencha, and you order by variety. Just as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot are varieties of the same species of grape and can be made into varietal or blended wines, so it is with varieties of tea bush.

Luckily, if you don't speak Japanese, all of the dozen teas available at Susumu-ya are set out in small dishes on the counter, and you're welcome to peer and sniff at them.

I enjoyed a pot of Asatsuyu ("morning dew") and a piece of black sesame candy. The tea was rich, cloudy, and deep green, with a balance of sweetness and astringency. Each pot of tea is served with a small pitcher of hot water for steeping the leaves a second time.

The second cup brewed from the same leaves is quite different from the first: forest green, opaque, soupy, and vegetal. The very essence of fukamushi (deep-steamed) sencha.

In the world of Japanese tea, there's a schism of Mac vs. PC proportions. All Japanese tea is steamed at the factory, which gives it that characteristic grassy flavor and green color. (Chinese green tea, by contrast, is typically cooked in a dry pan.) Asamushi(light-steamed) tea is steamed for 15 to 30 seconds. Fukamushi ("fook-a-moo-shi") is steamed longer, up to 90 seconds. Some varieties of tea bush are particularly well suited to deep or light steaming. (Yes, I'm ignoring moderately steamed chumushi tea. Maybe next time!)

Light-steamed sencha has a strong, floral scent, and the tea is yellow, clear, and light-bodied. Deep-steamed sencha is greener, thicker, and cloudier, with a muted aroma but more intense flavor. Light-steamed tea is associated with the ancient tea region encompassing Kyoto and Uji. (I once visited a tea shop in Uji, Tsuen Tea, that has been in business since 1160.) Deep-steamed tea is associated with the newer, larger tea regions of Shizuoka and Kagoshima, although those regions also produce light-steamed tea.

Partisans of light-steamed tea say deep-steamed tea is musty, stale, and coarse. Deep-steamed folks call light-steamed tea smelly and tasteless. All this over an extra minute of steam!

I enjoy both, but deep down I'm a deep-steamed guy, and I drained my cup and went back to the Susumu-ya counter for another. This time I selected Asanoka ("morning fragrance"), a variety known for its bracing astringency on the first steep and frank sweetness on the second.

Shimodozono Chaho

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Sencha from Bellocq Tea Atelier in NYC.

Honestly, I was tempted to camp out at Susumu-ya until dinnertime. It's one of the most pleasant and relaxing cafes I've ever been to, and I was hanging out with my friend Genki Takahashi, who works at a nearby tea factory, talking about tea rivalries and tasting notes and basically being huge tea nerds.

But we had another cafe to get to. On the way, we paused on a footbridge to admire Sakurajima, Kagoshima's local volcano, which has been erupting continuously since 1955 and deposits a fine layer of ash on the city's streets, day after day.

Shimodozono Chaho features a bright, airy glass and white laminate aesthetic. Its approach to tea is similarly streamlined. It's a large cafe serving full meals and alcohol, but its specialty is varietal teas made from Yutaka Midori tea bushes, a popular Kagoshima variety. Its cold-brew iced tea blend is excellent and available to take home in handsome packets containing enough tea leaves to brew one pitcher. Shimodozono's iced mint tea squash is also delicious. But I wanted to try the hot organic sencha.

As I sipped, I realized I was beginning to pick up more subtle distinctions between teas. Also, I was also getting so caffeinated that it felt like someone was using my brain as a lacrosse ball. After tea at Shimodozono Chaho, I was pleased when we headed to dinner and switched to Kagoshima's other favorite beverage: imo jochu, liquor made from local sweet potatoes.

Bringing Sencha Home

You don't have to know anything about tea bush varieties, tasting notes, or the great deep-steamed/light-steamed schism to enjoy sencha at home. And you don't need to go to Kagoshima to enjoy its teas (although I recommend it!).

O-cha.com sells over a dozen Kagoshima teas, both varietal and blended, including Asatsuyu and Asanoka teas. My favorites are the Kagoshima Sencha Sae Midori ($22) and Kagoshima Sencha Yutaka Midori ($21).

Kagoshimatea.com sells nothing but tea from Kagoshima, in all its variations, including teabags.

Susumu Chaya sells its tea online, but the site is only in Japanese, and overseas shipping is expensive.

Once you've acquired your sencha, here's how you can brew it.