Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Japanese Tea Ceremony Centers Around the Popular Green Tea

Tea is the most consumed, and one the most popular, beverages in Japan. It also holds a very significant place within their history, tradition, and modern culture. Tea holds such value among the Japanese, that there is even an entire ceremony dedicated to the preparation and serving of tea, the Japanese tea ceremony. Though several different types of tea are included within the ceremony, it centers around green tea- the most commonly consumed type in Japan.

The green tea family is home to five different types of green tea. These types include Matcha, or powdered green tea, Konacha, residual green tea, Hojicha, roasted green tea, Genmaicha, green tea with roasted brown rice, and Ryokucha, the classic green tea. 

Matcha, the powdered green tea, is the main green tea used within the tea ceremonies. This tea allows for only the highest quality leaves. It is prepared by drying and milling the leaves into a very fine powder, then mixing with boiling water.

Konacha, the residual green tea, is made up of tea buds, tea dust, and small leaves that remain after processing. Though considered a lower grade tea, it is still well-liked and considered a great compliment to certain dishes, such as sushi.

The roasted Hojicha tea is loved for its sweet, almost candy-like aroma. This is caused by the heat from the roasting process triggering the leaves to undergo chemical changes. It is also characterized by its distinctive reddish-brown color. 

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Genmaicha, or green tea with roasted brown rice, is perhaps the most unique type, serving as a popular alternative to the classic green tea. Its unique flavor is produced by combining of the roasted grains of the genmai brown rice with tea leaves. This mixing is also responsible for its yellowish color.  

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Even within Ryokucha, the standard green tea, there are different grades of the tea depending on how they were harvested. Gyokuro, is considered to be the highest grade. These leaves are picked during the first round of the harvest and protected from the sun before harvesting. The next highest grade is sencha. These leaves are picked during the first round of the harvest but unlike gyokuro, they are not shaded from the sun. The leaves retrieved later in the harvest season are referred to as bancha, and considered to be a lower grade of tea. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Significance Behind Japanese Tea Ceremonies

A few weeks ago, I indulged myself with a visit to the beautiful and impressive gardens of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Referred to as the "Crown Jewel of Duke University", this site featured acres and acres of breathtakingly stunning assortments of flowers, trees, fountains, statues, and ponds designed to perfection to represent gardens from around the world. 

Without even a hint of exaggeration, these gardens were able to transport me to places far from North Carolina or anywhere I'd ever been before. And one of those places was Asia. One of the several gardens featured was an area dedicated to traditional Japanese and Chinese trees, flowers, and architecture. I was amazed by the little Japanese maples, the Japanese-style bridges, the Bamboo forest, and more. But what sparked the most curiosity, enough so that I felt the need to research it upon returning home, was the model of a traditional Japanese tea house. 

Hearing of these tea houses and even having an opportunity to visit one or two was not enough to satisfy my growing curiosity, I wanted to know more of the deep rooted significance within the culture and the rich history behind these peaceful and aesthetically pleasing establishments.

During my research, I found that Japanese tea houses serve as structures specifically designed to hold their traditional tea ceremonies. The room within the structure is referred to as the chashitsu, which literally translates to "tea room". 

A Japanese tea ceremony is a cultural ceremony involving the preparation and presentation of green tea, or chanoyu. The rigid and traditional steps involved in making and serving the tea are considered an art form, it's performance being called otemae

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The seriousness of the ceremony can vary from a simple welcoming of guests, a chakai, to a very formal gathering, a chaiji. A chakai is viewed as a sign of hospitality, that includes "thin tea", or usucha, followed by a small meal. Chaiji is much more formal and complex, lasting up to four hours. These presentations include a full course meal, followed by dessert and a selection of thin tea as well as thick tea, or koicha.   

The powdered green tea was first seen being used in Buddhist rituals within the monasteries. By the 13th century, tea began to be viewed as a luxury and symbol of status among the warrior class. Over time, the ritual and steps associated with the preparation and consumption of tea developed into a very spiritually significant practice involving the sabis and wabis principles, sabi representing the material side of life, while wabi represented the inner experiences of humanity and spiritual life. 

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

People Crowd the Streets of Downtown Kyoto During the Annual Gion Festival

One of the most famous festivals in Japan is the Gion Festival, or Gion Matsuri, occurring in Kyoto. This festival, its name deriving from Kyoto's Gion district, stretches over the entire month of July. 

The beloved festival originated as part of an ancient purification ritual to appease the gods responsible for fires, floods, and earthquakes. Now fast forward to today, and though it may not be celebrated as part of a ritual, it is still considered an important aspect of Japanese culture and tradition. 

During this exciting time, Kyoto's downtown area is transformed in anticipation of the three nights leading up to the festival's most celebrated day, the Yamaboko Junko parade. During these three nights, referred to as yoiyama, the streets are lined with carts selling foods like barbecued chicken skewers, traditional Japanese sweets, and many other popular Japanese foods. The girls dress in traditional summer kimonos, or yukata, and walk around carrying with them traditional paper fans and purses. 

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Also during these nights, many of the houses located in the old kimono merchant district will open their homes to the public, giving everyone a chance to view a traditional Kyoto residence. As enjoyable as these three nights are, the first one beginning July 14th, they are all purposed to lead up to the main event- the parade. 

The Yamaboko Junko, occurring on July 17th, is the highlight of the Gion Festival. On this day thousands of people line the streets of Kyoto to get a look at the beautiful display of floats that pass by during the annual parade. The most priceless and exquisite Japanese tapestries drape these impressive floats, while dancers and musicians perform a skilled ancient ritual around them.

Smaller, but equally impressive, yama floats follow the larger ones. These represent life-sized mannequins of the ancient emperors, empresses, aristocrats, and deities. 

This parade represents the beautiful collation of art, music, dance, and craftsmanship within Japanese history, tradition, and culture. 

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thailand Celebrates Each Full Moon With Their Full Moon Party

If you ever have the pleasure of visiting Thailand, make sure to attend one of their famous Full Moon Parties during your stay. 

Each full moon Haad Rin Beach, off the East coast of Thailand, has what the islanders call a Full Moon Party. With these parties you can be sure to expect lots of dancing, food, body paint and glow sticks, and of course- lots of people. Up to 30,000 people are in attendance for each Full Moon Party, so it can get pretty wild. As many as 15 different sound systems are set up across the beach, playing every different type of genre you can imagine. So no matter what type of music you're interested in, there will be something for you!

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If  huge crowds and  music isn't your scene, you can still attend a Full Moon Party and have a great time- instead of heading to the beach, check out the bar scene. Haad Rin Beach has some fantastic bars, including the renowned Green Mango Bar. The most popular bars include the Drop-In Bar and the Cactus Bar, which are known for their fabulous drink promotions and fire shows. If you want to grab a bit to eat before you start tipping drinks back, The Floating Bar serves fresh caught crab and oyster, while the Outback Bar offers a relaxed atmosphere and a delicious selection of Thai, Australian, European, and American foods.

The next Full Moon Party is scheduled for July 22nd and then again on August 21st so if you're in the area, or looking for a unique cultural experience, be sure to mark those dates on your calendar! 

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