It’s any given dinner party that’s been running late, and the little seafood restaurant with decorative scrolls, flowers, and dolls throughout the room we’re taking up has served us matcha (green tea made from powdered tea leaves) at the end of the meal. Casual though the setting is, my tea ceremony training kicks in, so I’m sitting formally in seiza and turn the cup two times clockwise before downing it in three sips or so.
A talkative man sitting on the other side of the table takes notice. “You drank the tea very well.”
“Ah… well… yes. Thank you.”
A friend smiles and fills in for him that I practice tea, which leads us to finding out he and I both practice the omotesenke school of tea and that he knows my teacher. As we talk a bit more, he lets us all in on an open secret: “Actually, in Matsue, you’re a little uncultured if you don’t know how to drink matcha. Most people have at least a little practice.”
This isn’t surprising to me, and I’ve heard similar comments from many other people. I’ve spent time in other parts of Japan and had wide social groups there, but here in Matsue, a much larger proportion of my social circle has practiced the tea ceremony to some extent, or at least has enough passing familiarity to know the basics and be able to explain them, be it to foreign guests or Japanese guests from parts of Japan where the tea ceremony seems more archaic. That’s not to say everyone is an expert (though there are plenty to be found here).
However, to say that Matsue is stiff about tea rituals would be incorrect. Rather, Matsue’s tea culture started to take a strong hold when the tea ceremony had already developed into something like a Pokemon trading card frenzy, in which rich people were all seeking the fanciest of tools, and artisans and merchants were selling off second-rate tea cups for exorbitant prices given the amount of prestige they could associate with their use. In many ways, the the world of tea (chanoyu) had become a world of ego and showing off ownership of expensive tools.
19-year-old Matsudaira Harusato (later known by his tea name, Fumai), grew up in the bustling city of Edo (later known as Tokyo) and saw the ebbs and flows of high culture there. As much as he was accused of having his head stuck in his tea cups instead of on preparing to be the lord of the financially troubled Matsue domain, he wrote “Mudagoto” (“Useless Words”), which was a criticism of modern tea culture, in which he stated:
Making chanoyu a luxury, exhausting beauty to make it splendid is a distressful thing… rather, it can be made an adjutant to governing the country well.
In response, Matsue’s popular tea culture cuts many of the frills. Although there are many social elements tied directly to a system of hierarchy and harmony and a wealth of tools enough to fill 18 volumes worth of “Kokon Meibutsu Ruiju” (“Classified Collection of Famous Utensils of Ancient and Modern Times”), ultimately, chanoyu is about drinking tea.
It’s not to say that no one drinks sencha (green tea made from steeped leaves), but the uncited but often quoted fact that Matsue drinks more matcha per capita than the rest of Japan does is also unsurprising. Besides the Grand Tea Ceremony every fall and other tea events throughout the year, on a walk between JR Matsue Station and Matsue Castle I can already call to mind seven or eight casual places you can stop in for a quick cup of matcha with wagashi refreshment, and that’s before you even get to the ten or so other places that come to mind once you get to the castle area and beyond. Quite often I wander in just to take a look at tools and I wind up being served a cup of matcha I didn’t order.
When I hang out at people’s houses, a lot of them have working knowledge of how to prepare matcha and have at least one decent tea cup and chasen (tea whisk) with which to serve tea. While being served a cup of sencha while visiting people may be common elsewhere, many homes here regularly serve matcha, not just for special occasions. What’s more, it’s a local custom to serve two cups of tea, not just one.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, back in Edo period, especially when Fumai was the ruling lord, he gave the domain a financial overhaul and then Matsue had extra cash on hand with which to indulge in tea culture. Besides documenting the aforementioned list of valuable tea tools and compiling a treasure trove for the domain of over 800 exquisite tools, the common people had more money to afford to drink matcha. While different kinds of sencha are made from different flushes of leaves from different parts of the tea bush grown in different conditions, matcha is made from only the very top leaves in stricter conditions, and the best grades of thick matcha only use the very, very top leaves. Hence, drinking matcha on a regular basis will take a bigger chunk out of your household budget than regularly drinking sencha will, but the townspeople grew quite a taste for it.
Given the city’s proximity away from the more active trade and travel routes and relative self-sustainability with local rice and seafood, the culture here was less influenced by the changes going on outside of the region, and therefore had a strong base for a self-developed culture. This is still evident today, as while much of the rest of Japan is caught in a post-bubble era, in the San’in region, it’s more like, “bubble? What bubble?”
But why serve two cups of matcha at a time? There’s an early Edo period reason for that I’ll touch on in the next entry. In the meantime, it’s always worth taking a look at the flip side of all of this. Although matcha is part of the cultural face of Matsue, people are individuals, each with their own lifestyles that may or may not fit an image of the city.
On a visit to an elementary after-school club, the students prepared matcha for us as thanks for the things we had prepared for them before. It was quite an affair—there were old, broken chasen everywhere, yokan chomped on from the ends of toothpicks, and cups/tea bowls for everyone. It seems the kids were supposed to bring their own. Some had beautiful chawan that they brought to school in sleek wooden boxes labeled with the tea bowls’ credentials, while others brought miso soup bowls or tupperware. There was frustration as they could not get the tea to froth, and a handful of the kids who had some experience walked around all their schoolmates and the cups of hot tea everything to go grab the chasen and froth everyone elses’ tea. A friend of one of the club members told me later that they had originally planned to serve manjuu, but something went haywire and they switched to cutting up youkan at the last minute. There were a couple hushed complaints about the taste of matcha while the kids snapped at each other to hurry up because the guests’ tea was getting cold. This was after we had already waited in the office for a little while as the kids did all the preparation.
Serving matcha to us as an introduction to Japanese culture was something the kids thought of a long time ago, and only when asked directly by the teacher if I had ever tried matcha before did I admit that I practice the tea ceremony. As expected, that made her and the few students who were paying attention a little embarrassed, but the teacher played it off well by pointing out loudly to the rest of the club members that I am so interested in Japanese culture.
However, instead of stopping there, I really appreciate what she said next.
“Most of these kids have never had matcha, believe it or not. Even though it’s Japanese culture, a lot of Japanese people pay no attention to it at all. Kids, a show of hands, please. How many of you drink matcha at home?”
Out of 20-something kids, less than a third raise their hands.
The teacher’s point is proved. As nice as it feels to celebrate surface culture, one should always be aware of the culture of how people actually live their personal lives. Still, I can’t help but think there would be fewer hands going up in other places.
That’s still a lot of matcha.