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Sunday, Aug. 26, 2001

FORMOSA'S FINEST TEAS

Sips of high-grade tranquillity


Special to The Japan Times

In parts of Asia, tea is more than a mere beverage: It is a social lubricant, a sacrament of complex rituals and a vital part of national identity. Throughout history, farmers and philosophers alike have treasured a steaming cup of cha. While there is some evidence of tea's health benefits, there is little debate over the calming effects gained from just a few warming sips. It has been said that "tea is drunk to forget the din of the world."

William Lee, purchasing agent and representative of You ChaTOSHIKI SAWAGUCHI PHOTOS

The history of tea in China dates back thousands of years. During the Tang Dynasty, however, tea became an art. The first authoritative book about tea, "Ch'a Ching (The Classic Art of Tea)," written by Lu Yu in the eighth century, helped fan the flames of popularity.

Through experimentation, many "colors" of tea were created. American-born Chinese William Lee, of the tea shop You Cha in Omotesando, explains that teas are classified as green, white, yellow, blue and black to signify the level of fermentation or oxidation. "For example," Lee says, "green tea has no oxidation, while oolong, a blue tea, is quite fermented."

A roof-top view and some lovely tea

The history of tea in Taiwan, also called Formosa, is shorter than the motherland's, with wild tea first being drunk around 1661. In 1697, the first domesticated bushes were grown, with the Dutch shipping the resulting oolong (which they called "the champagne of teas") to Persia and beyond. Migrants from Fujian Province in China, later settling in Taiwan, began to cultivate their own styles of oolong. Then during the early 1900s, Japanese tea makers experimented with oolong and produced a lighter version that was more palatable version for Nipponese tastes. The Formosans continued to develop these oolong types in the cloud-covered mountains in the center of the island. Cultivation was mainly below the summits, until around 30 years ago, when gao shan cha, or "high mountain tea," began to thrive above 1,200 meters, where rich soil and less direct sunlight (because of the fog) produced a sweeter flavor. The higher grades of these leaves now fetch top prices worldwide.

Tea, Taiwanese style

The preparation of tea in the Taiwanese style, though influenced by the Japanese tea ceremony, places emphasis on the final product and hospitality rather than on ritual. From their tasting room at You Cha, co-founders Lee, the purchase officer and Chinese representative, and Makiko Fujii, a graduate of the Anhui Agricultural University in Shanghai, one of the premier tea academies, explain how to make the perfect brew.

"The best pots for oolong tea are made by hand," says Lee. "The clay is porous and of low density to trap the heat and flavor." Smaller than an orange, the unglazed pots feel like organic, living things. "When you have owned a pot for a long time," Lee says, "it almost feels like a pet."

In the first step, the pot is placed on a tray and filled to overflowing with boiling water to rinse the pot of residue and raise the temperature, which is very important with oolong. After rinsing, loose leaves are added, and water is poured in again to wash the leaves. The dried leaves unfurl as a third serving of water is poured. The top is replaced, and boiling water is poured over the pot.

"This creates an air-tight seal on the pot, creating an extra heat boost," explains Lee. "It 'pressure cooks' the leaves and squeezes out extra flavor."

Gin Pin in Shinjuku

After steeping for 30 seconds, the tea is poured into a cup the size of a film canister. Called wen xiang bei, or "fragrance cup," this tiny tumbler is used only as a go-between. The tea should be immediately poured into the second, squat cup, which amounts to about two swallows. Before drinking, the fragrance cup should be sniffed like a wine cork. The scents, sometimes earthy, fruity or floral, are among the ritual's simple pleasures.

Succeeding pots are steeped for around 10 to 15 seconds. When tea is shared among several people, all cups are poured with a fanning, back-and-forth motion. All cups should taste the same, while the overall goal is for a consistent flavor at each pouring -- a true sign of expertise.

Chen Li-jun of Gin Pin prepares tea.

You don't have to be an expert to enjoy, however. Half the fun is in experimenting. As for the flavor, Lu Yu wrote: "Its goodness is a decision for the mouth to make."

More common in Taiwan than in the mainland, teahouses vary in form as much as tea itself. From makeshift stalls and plastic chairs to elaborate salons with lacquered furniture and fresh tatami, these places cater to all types. What they do share in common is a social atmosphere. Coworkers and students, business partners and blind dates all descend on these establishments for conversations that go on for hours.

Teahouses that specialize in Chinese and Taiwanese tea abound in Tokyo, with much of the same variety in style and substance as can be found in Formosa. The shops presented here are but a sampling of the many different varieties in the metropolitan area.

Hua Tai Tea House

Hua Tai presents an overwhelming array of tea sets and accessories on the first and second floor. However, the third floor, with carved wooden shutters and dark wood tables with mother-of-pearl inlay, is the place to savor it. The menu consists of both Taiwanese and mainland goodies. There is also a lunch menu and light snacks. Several varieties of oolong are available for between 650 yen and 1,500 yen.

1-18-6 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; tel. (03) 5728-2551. Web site: www.chinatea.co.jp

A 10-minute walk from Shibuya Station. Take the fourth-floor promenade through Shibuya Mark City to the end and exit. Hua Tai is on the left.

L'Epicier

L'Epicier, a chain whose branches can be found at 50 locations throughout Japan, covers the full tea spectrum. While other branches focus more on East Asian teas, the Ikebukuro store carries tea from all over the world. Being located inside a department store, it has a somewhat sterile atmosphere, but the tea selection is immense. Tea starts at 700 yen and pastries from 350 yen. Four new types of Taiwanese tea have been added to the menu.

3-29-1 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel. (03) 5958-5570. Web site:www.lepicier.com

Take Exit 1A of JR Ikebukuro Station. L'Epicier is on the second floor of the Marui Building.

Gin Pin

Located near Shinjuku Station, Gin Pin is a more intimate teahouse, with wooden teapot displays and friendly Taiwanese women preparing the daily fare. There is Taiwanese tea and authentic food made by the owner, Chen Li-jun. Her homemade melon cookies are recommended. Formosan dishes, such as oyster pancakes and "drunk chicken" made with Japanese sake, are available for larger appetites. There is also a daily lunch special.

Kashiwagi Mura II B1, 7-20-12 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel. (03)-5389-7739. Web site: www.ginpin.co.jp

A 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station; one block off Omekaido, on the street between the Hokuriku and Shiawase banks.

You Cha

You Cha in Omotesando offers the expertise, variety and environment needed for a true tea experience. Its focus is strictly on the tea, so don't come hungry. The tearoom is on the fifth floor. The tasting room, where you can buy loose leaf, is on the ground floor.

On staff are Lee, Fujii and Wang Ya-lei, a professor and lecturer of tea and fellow member of the Chinese Tea Association of Japan. Masters of their craft, they are happy to provide information or recommendations. They also offer tea classes in Chinese and Japanese. The main tearoom overlooks the treetops of the area. The menu boasts over 40 types of tea from all over Taiwan and China, with prices starting around 800 yen.

5-8-5-100, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; tel. (03) 5464-8088. Web site: www.youcha.com Take Exit A1 of Omotesando Station and walk three blocks; You Cha will be on your left.


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