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.
Japan’s everyday green tea,sencha, can be one of the most satisfying beverages on earth, simultaneously soothing and invigorating.
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.
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.
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.