Lord Matsudaira Harusato, perhaps better known by his tea-name Fumai, is the man person responsible for Matsue and the wider Izumo domain’s lingering obsession with tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), but he’s also frequently credited with the introduction of Bote-Bota Cha, a tea (yes, a tea–not a soup!) designed to stretch food rations and fill one’s famished stomach. This may just be a legend it actually does have folk origins, but it’s one of the many famine-recovery efforts put in place during the reign of this particularly famous feudal lord of Matsue, (Horio Yoshiharu and Matsudaira Naomasa are also particularly famous, but Fumai’s sake-loving son? Not as much).
Whatever the case, the commoners of the domain took quite a likely to it, and it remains part of the things-to-try-in-Matsue menu, along with Izumo soba, shijimi clam miso soup, zenzai, and the classic matcha and wagashi pairing. There are a number of places with their own various charms or fame all along Shiomi Nawate (the preserved Edo period road along the north side of the castle moat) and other paths in and around the castle once frequented by Lafcadio Hearn that serve all or a selection of these dishes, and at least one such place sells bottles of tea specifically prepared for Bote-Bote Cha. If you’re between sighting seeing at the castle and catching the sunset at Lake Shinji or catching your ride back out of town and you feel like you’re in a hurry to try every one of the aforementioned items, or you’d like to try some local beers, or if your traveling partner insists on having something completely different to snack on while you get your fill of specialties, then the Chidori Tea House, located next to the tourism information office and toilets near the main entrance to the Matsue Castle grounds, may be your best bet.
Or, if you’re a local like me who regular takes walks around the castle grounds, then this is a nice spot to take cover from the rain and warm up, or a place to cool down on a hot summer day. Sometimes you run into samurai in there, but I recommend trying to get there before or after the lunch rush!
The first times I had Bote-Bote Cha, it was a bit of an afterthought following Izumo soba and otherwise. It’s just tea, after all. And it’s not as if I have the shrunken stomach of a starving Edo-period townsperson. This time, however, I decided I’d try it on an empty stomach, and then get some dango or something on the other side of the castle.
So, famished townspeople and travelers, this is what you can expect from modern-day Bote-Bote Cha.
I repeat: this is tea, not soup. You’re supposed to dump the fillings in and drink/slurp them along with your tea, with the spoon to help. It’s certainly not the texture you’d expect from tea, especially since it’s a collection of textures many Western tongue may not be accustomed to. I once heard about a radio personality visiting Matsue and ordering this dish, and struggling for the right words to describe what he was consuming. I wish I could have heard that!
The starving people who relied on this may not have always had such a selection, and today’s Bote-Bote Cha may look extravagant, but that’s because it’s morphed from survival food to foodie item. Furthermore, in a city so steeped in tea culture, they couldn’t let this tea get away without being ceremoniously prepared. There are sometimes tea ceremonies dedicated to the preparation of Bote-Bote Cha, and while I haven’t taken part in one myself (yet), some of my Omotesenke classmates have done the tea preparation.
For the usual, unceremonious Bote-Bote meal, no need to be shy. I probably should have slurped my fillings more with my tea, but I was enjoying the hojicha so much that I had a few too many mouthfuls of that first, and wound up needing to eat a lot of it with the spoon.
So, about that dango…
Well, to my surprise, the Bote-Bote Cha on an empty stomach was rather satisfying. I wasn’t stuffed, but I wouldn’t have been able to say I was hungry, either. Famine food is effective!
…but seeing I wasn’t starving, I got some dango anyway. Funny how that works.