WHAT HAVE WE LOST?
Rooted in centuries of tradition, the overwhelming majority of the tea enjoyed today in Japan is a product of space-age technology. The insanely green, umami-rich, reasonably affordable tea that graces our cup does so thanks to cultivar cloning, harvesting machines, freezers, electronic leaf sorters, vacuum sealers, and other gadgets that barely appeared in the mid to late 20th century. Some of the most celebrated matcha houses in Japan deliver, year after year, tea that is incredibly consistent in taste, extremely small in particle size (which is unachievable with old-school hand grinders), and very well preserved throughout the year (thanks to airtight tins and nitrogen).
This is paradoxical in a country with tea traditions that are older than the Mongol conquests and the vast majority of Europe’s modern states. It is very common to find tea companies with hundreds of years of history; it is quite rare to drink tea that was made with methods that resemble those used back in the day.
As the thirst of Japanese and Western crowds gravitates towards (very delicious) modern Japanese green tea, many regional, labour-intensive traditions are being neglected. Specialties like Awa Bancha, Toyama Kurocha, Goishi Cha, and (case in point) Musashi’s Bancha are enjoyed by an insanely small fraction of tea enthusiasts.
THE FIRE THAT FEEDS O5
It is no secret that we have a fascination for (nearly) forgotten traditions and old-school handcrafting. We find beauty in the obnoxious inconsistency of food and drink that are grown and processed with pre-industrial technology.
Unsurprisingly, Musashi’s Bancha (also known as Mimasaka Bancha or Sakushuu Bancha) became an instant favourite when we tried it in 2019. It is a delicious tea that feels just right in the stomach and is barely known beyond its hometown.
We consider ourselves no experts on this tea or its history; there is extremely limited information about it online (even in Japanese), and we’ve met nobody that has extensive information about the tea’s origins (including the two growers that we’ve met).
- The ‘Book of National Products’ from the Muromachi Period (14th – 16th centuries) mentions tea as a specialty of Musashi, Yamashiro, and Mimasaka.
- Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the most celebrated samurai in history and a native of the region, was reportedly an avid drinker of this tea. We wouldn’t be surprised: this tea is humble, non-pretentious, and grounding.
As much as we’re thirsty for more knowledge, we are proud to share this delicious tea with you.
A juicy, full bodied dried fruit with a toasty finish, reminiscent of hojicha.
THE HANDCRAFTING PROCESS
Kobayashi San harvests tea leaves in the hot and humid days of summer; the tea bushes have a mishmash of larger leaves (half the size of your hand) that have been growing since early spring, and some younger ones that sprouted more recently. Kobayashi San harvest both leaves and small branches, all of which will impart a distinct flavour to the tea.
These leaves are boiled in cauldrons over a wood fire; the water used for boiling is carefully collected. Smelling these tea leaves as they boil is on the bucket list.
Finally, the tea is ‘finish fired’ to produce a roasted effect that is similar to hojicha.
- Try this tea both hot (traditional) and iced. For the latter, make a concentrated infusion (4g / 240ml, 5 minutes) and serve over ice.
- Grab Kenji Tokitsu’s book Miyamoto Musashi. It’s the most complete Musashi biography we’ve ever read, and it contains very readable translations of his works.