Recently, Laura, one of my best friends in Japan, had a birthday. We went to Yoshida’s house for dinner with a few of our closest friends.
Yoshida’s house is the local gem of a restaurant. It’s a house that is owned by an elderly women in Fukui City. She no longer lives there and allows a friend of a friend to use it as a restaurant. The guy who owns the restaurant is a fellow San Diegan expat named Ralph. He makes the BEST American-Mexican food that I have had in Japan. I love to eat at Yoshida’s house on days where the very thought of eating food with chopsticks makes me want to curl in a ball and die (those days happen). Local expats often hold events there, like Laura’s birthday dinner, since the food is good and we can rent the whole place and be as loud as we want without disturbing anyone.
However, This particular Yoshida’s House event was quieter. Laura invited her closest ALT friends as well as her closest Japanese co-workers there to celebrate her birthday with dinner. Her co-workers are Uchigura-san and Mitake-san. They are the school secretary and the school groundskeeper respectfully. I have heard so much about these people from Laura that they are like living legends in my mind. So, I was super excited to finally meet them.
There is one story that I always remember from when Laura was leaving Japan to visit home for Christmas. She was traveling alone to Tokyo for the first time early on in her stay in Japan. At this point she spoke almost no Japanese and could read even less than that. She had booked a ticket on the bus and had to leave Fukui super early in the morning. Most of our friends, who have been around longer and have better Japanese ability, had already left to travel to Thailand and Cambodia. She was on her own. When she arrived at the station with her bags she was looking around for the right bus when Mitake-san surprised her by coming to see her off at the station! He had come to say goodbye to her and to help her get on the right bus. Laura told me she had tears in her eyes when she saw him. She was so grateful. I also find that the little things like that make a real difference. Mitake-san. What an awesome guy.
They do so much for Laura and are so good to her at her school. They don’t speak a lot of English and Laura’s Japanese is about the same as my own. However, they seem to find a mix of English and Japanese and manage to communicate beautifully. You could really see the love and kindness they had for each other during dinner. Uchigura-san told me that she had a wonderful time meeting us and would like to be invited to our next dinner together. She also told us she was a member of the Tea Association. What is the Tea Association you ask? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you.
The Tea Association has 3000 members nationwide, only 10 of them live in Fukui Prefecture. Their goal is to teach and celebrate all the wonderful traditions of traditional Japanese Tea. (Their website is here if you are curious. It’s all in Japanese though.) She wanted to invite us to an event they were hosting at an old abandoned tea farm in Fukui. We would be picking the tea leaves and then learning to make green tea with them from scratch. Afterwards, we would be enjoying a cup of tea that we had made together and getting a nice lesson/talk on making tea.
It would mean an early sunday morning since it was far away from my home in Awara, but how could I refuse? All the ladies at Laura’s birthday decided that we wanted to go. We spent the night at Crystals apartment and then early in the morning Laura, Ashley, Crystal, and I set out on our tea making adventure.
The event we assumed would be small and relatively anonymous but when we pulled up to the place there was a TV news camera and a newspaper man. Great, I can be on TV again. (note the sarcasm. being followed by a camera gets old really fast.)
We were definitely stared at a lot during the event. The Cameraman was blatantly following us around and taking shots of us picking leaves and all of those things. We all thought he had a crush on Laura, since he seemed to like following her around the most. (Go birthday girl!)
Sometimes I am not in the mood to put up with being stared at and other times I don’t mind. Being stared at is a part of daily life in rural Japan if you are obviously foreign. This time though I didn’t really care that much. Mainly because the people there were really nice about it. They didn’t just stare and take pictures they also talked to us and attempted to interact with us.
There were two little girls who especially liked chatting with us. One of them has an aunt who is married to an English man, so she wasn’t intimidated by our foreignness at all. She was adorable and she gave me a good chance to practice speaking tons of Japanese. Her questions were all in super easy to understand Japanese, so speaking with her was easy and fun. ( Perhaps its because she was 10 years old…) She also helped me read my handout. Yay, for new friends!
After we picked leaves for an hour or so we went inside and they steamed the leaves in hot water for 30 seconds then they put them on a hot plate and rubbed them dry.
They had some very specific motions for drying the tea. because the goal was not to crush them to a powder but to press them. During this time the members of the tea association sang us a traditional tune for when making leaves. it was very beautifully and all felt very old world Japaneseyyy.
After they were dry they used a wood board to press them. They put the tea into little packets for us to take home.
Before we went home though we got to try making tea and got a very nice lesson in tea making science. The lesson was maybe 30 minutes long and all in Japanese so I might have a few of these facts a bit wrong but I think this is what she taught us.
- The temperature of the tea effects how bitter or sweet the tea tastes when drinking. If the tea is 90 degrees it is very bitter, if the tea is 80 degrees its a bit bitter and a bit sweet, and if the tea is 70 degrees its more sweet still.
- Green Tea, Oolong tea, and Black tea are all made from the same leaves. Green tea is made when the leaves are young and freshly picked. Oolong tea has been sitting for a day or so, and Black tea has been sitting for a 2 days or longer before its made.
- There aren’t many Tea Association members in Fukui because something about the Fukui land (I’m still learning Japanese y’all, I have no idea what she said here) is bad for the bushes that tea leaves grow on. These bushes we were picking from used to be part of the best tea farm in the prefecture. It is no longer running and these bushes are what is left of the farm.
Ushigura-san demonstrated for us the proper way to make tea and pour it for four people. then we did it ourselves. We enjoyed a nice cup of tea and said our Otsukaresama deshitas and arigatou gozaimashitas before leaving for home.
On my way home I was so inspired by the day I stopped at a home goods store to buy myself a nice Japanese tea pot and cups.
I’m so grateful that we have these connections to the community that allow us to experience events like this. I think this is one of the major benefits of being on the JET program and living in a rural area of Japan. It was a fantastic day and one I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.