Out in Saitama Prefecture is Sayama City, a proud producer of tea for Japan. They’re pretty niche, though, producing less than 1% of all tea for the nation. Regardless, they have a strong tea tradition which is on display during the annual Sayama Tea Festival, which we were fortunate enough to take part in this year.
There wasn’t much here on this, but they did have a small corner by the ikebana exhibit where tea farmers were drying out some green tea on large tables. The tables were specialized and made for this singular purpose: they had a cloth cover and were gently heated from below. On top, the farmers (or tea preppers; I’m not 100% they were farmers) would roll the tea, spread it out, pull out central clumps, reform their rolls, and begin anew. This gradual process removes the moisture from the leaves and makes them ready to be brewed or pulverized into powder.
Near the entrance to the park, you could also buy Sayama green tea from local farmers, be that in powder or leaf form. From what I tasted there that day, I would highly recommend you pick up some Sayama matcha. What a flavor!
English-language Tea Ceremony
The English match ceremony was unique in that 1) it was geared towards foreigners and 2) you made your own tea, not the tea master.
First, she introduced herself and her assistant, who would demonstrate the actions while she described them. First, she showed us the decoration for the tea ceremony, which is an important part of the experience. Mostly, you’ll find ikebana, or flower arrangements, catered specifically to the time of season, decorating one simple table in the room. There is also a poem that captures the essence of the season and the occasion on display as well. For this English version, our tea master was very much into origami, so she had an origami turtle and crane on display, symbolizing longevity, as well as some origami maple leafs scattered on the display table to commemorate the Autumn season.
You get your snack first. Didn’t know you got a snack, did you? It’s usually some form of wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweet, often made of rice flour and with a sweet red bean filling. For this tutorial, we actually received chocolate, which we were told pairs quite nicely with green tea. It was pretty nice!
Then we learned about the tools: The bamboo spoon and whisk, as well as the bowl. We got our own bowls with hot water and matcha, ready for the whisking. You have to mix those a lot harder than you might initially think. The goal is to get a solid layer of foam on the top that is free of large bubbles. It’s really tiring in you’re not used to using your wrist and forearm to whisk like that!
After, you take your cup into your hands (left hand up and open, supports the bottom of the bowl, while the right hand holds the side). You admire the pattern before you, then turn it twice, getting a good 90 degrees with each turn, to make the other pattern on the bowl face you. Then, you will take the optimal three sips to finish the tea, making a loud, satisfying slurp at the end of the final sip. Take your index finger and thumb on your right hand and wipe off where your mouth was, and wipe your fingers on the paper your snack came on. Then, rotate is counter-clockwise so the original bowl pattern is facing you. Congratulations! You have now done a tea ceremony.
During a private ceremony, people will drink from the same bowl, which is why you wipe off the lip of the bowl. Given that there were so many people at each booth area, they made more in the back and every person got their own bowl, even the guests of honor, who got to drink tea made by the tea master.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
There were plenty of tea ceremony schools, high school clubs, and individual tea masters present at the festival to show off their tea-making prowess. You paid 600 yen per ticket, which you would then give to each booth in exchange for a chance to sit in on the ceremony, have a snack, and drink their delicious matcha. Watching was free, and everything was done outside with small seating benches for everyone to sit on. The guests of honor had their benches marked with tatami seat mats to distinguish them from the others and were typically sat very near where the tea master was.
For their ikebana, most booths had them attached to umbrellas near the back of the seating area, while others had full floral borders placed around their tea-making stages. Poems were there as well, with most of them being put out for admiration after the ceremony had finished.
It was the same process: You got your wagashi, cut it into bite-sized pieces to enjoy with your small (but very thicks) wooden pick while the tea master began preparing tea for the guests of honor. Apprentices in the back would prepare the bowls for the other participants, brining them out in waves for everyone to enjoy. The teas themselves were very thick, almost creamy from the whisking, and just the right amount of bitterness. Having experimented with whisking my own tea at home since, you might be able to taste a bit of the wood from the whisk in your tea, adding another subtle layer to the tea-drinking experience.
If you’re in the area in November, I’d highly recommend you go take in the festival! If the weather is as stunning as it was when we went, then you can’t go wrong with such delicious tea, peaceful surroundings, and dedicate tea fans!