In the past year, Tokyo Survival Channel has assigned me some pretty wild tasks. I spent 24 long hours in an izakaya, tried urban camping on a Tokyo rooftop during peak summer, and did my best to learn 24 skills in 24 hours (no sleep allowed). So when they asked me to try this new challenge, it seemed like a walk in the park.
The task was this: try to discover as many ways as you can to drink green tea – Japan’s unofficial national drink – and maybe get a little drunk along the way. It sounded easy and fun, and slightly delish, so I couldn’t say no. I’ve been traveling a lot recently for work and a bit for pleasure, so I decided to incorporate my destinations into my tea challenge along the way.
This is what happened.
Starting My Tea Adventure at TeaRoom Inc.
I started this mini tea odyssey at the best place possible, under the guidance and teaching of Tokyo’s most exciting tea master, Mr. Ryo Iwamoto. At just 23 years of age, Ryo has already become one of the country’s most respected tea figures and experts.
“I first got interested in tea when I was nine, he told me.” Ryo is the CEO of TeaRoom Inc. a company that produces tea in Shizuoka, supplies tea to major companies across the map, and collaborates with other brands and organizations to reinvigorate and pay tribute to this iconic drink through new creations and legacy styles.
He kindly invited TSC’s Hiro Kano and me to his Tokyo showroom to serve us a non-stop tea banquet while simultaneously teaching us and preparing me for this tea journey.
We began with a welcoming cup of matcha, “the farm that produces this matcha is known for its flavor,” he told us, “it tastes baked, almost cookie-ish.” Before this, I just thought matcha tasted like matcha. Still, Ryo’s way of deep consideration towards tea opened my eyes (or should I say tongue) to witnessing its culinary potentials, “the matcha flavor comes first, then gradually the smokiness follows.” Once he explained what to look for, I could taste it; it just took a little mindfulness.
The next series of teas we enjoyed were all brewed with soft water as Ryo explained, “black tea is better with hard water, but I brew Japanese tea, and Japan is a country of soft water, so the leaves get more energized with the water that they live with.” Each blend more diverse and delicious than the last, my nearly two-hour tea tasting session at TeaRoom Inc. was an eye-opening experience and the ideal primer for what was to come.
One-of-a-kind Matcha Latte at Mia Mia in Higashi-Nagaski
My first destination was my friend Vaughan’s excellent cafe Mia Mia located in Higashi-Nagasaki, just outside of Ikebukuro. While there are plenty of matcha lattes on cafe menus across Tokyo (Mia Mia not being one of them), I decided to take my sachet of matcha powder over to the cafe to see what they could do with it, regardless. A testament to the cafe’s local reputation and the quality of their coffees, the place was packed on the rainy Friday afternoon that I visited.
Yusuke, the cafe’s star barista, was the man to fulfill my matcha requests. Although he’s a whiz on the coffee machine and knows his way around a drip coffee setup better than most, he did have a few hesitations about ad-libbing a matcha latte, as it’s not his forte. But a little hot water and some brisk whisking later, he needn’t have been concerned because what he came up with were some of the most impressive matcha lattes I’ve ever witnessed, complete with beautifully crafted green-white foam.
After seeing Yusuke’s creation, the whole cafe was green with envy, and at least five of the patrons asked whether they could order one, so for this afternoon only, matcha lattes were the new menu feature. I knocked back my brew, which sans-sugar was still very tasty — the perfect combination of smooth creaminess and a little bittersweetness — happily exchanged my matcha sachet with Vaughan for a crispy Coopers Pale Ale (beer), and then I was on my way.
Getting Tipsy with Green Tea Gin from Tatsumi Distillery
One of the tea combinations I was most excited about trying was the green tea gin from Gifu Prefecture’s Tatsumi Distillery. A collaborative effort with Ryo Iwamoto’s company TeaRoom — the gin uses tea leaves sourced from TeaRoom — it sounded like a match made in heaven.
“The gin has the tea leaf bitterness, it’s really difficult to recognize for some consumers,” Ryo explained when we sampled some of the gin at his Tokyo showroom, “but we as tea masters can feel the essence of the tea.”
Like the botanical flavors in more classical gin blends, the flavors of Tatsumi Distillery’s green tea gin feel implied, almost like a whisper on the palette, rather than an overwhelming concentration of flavor. Bitter but floral, it’s one of the more elegant, sophisticated blends of gin I think I’ve ever tried. I sampled it three ways: straight, tansan (soda water), and lemon tansan. Drinking gin straight is not what I’m used to, but it’s a great way to understand the gin’s complexity.
Regular tansan made for an excellent base. It didn’t compete with the gin’s flavor, and the bubbles almost carried the botanical taste to the top, probably as it dilutes the alcohol strength and gives the flavors more space to breathe. But for me, lemon was the winner. “Gin naturally has limonene,” Ryo explained to me during our chat; he taught me it’s a type of compound that many folks recognize as a lemon-like taste, same as the tansan, which is probably why it hits the #1 spot for me.
Green Tea with Koyo at Mt. Koya
If you’re a fan of Japanese green tea, you may be familiar with the name Sazen; it’s a domestic legacy-level brand that produces incredible teas of all variations. For me, this was the perfect excuse to buy a tin of their luscious leaves, all under the guise of ‘work.’
While writing this article, I was on a series of trips across Japan, one of those stops being a visit to the sacred Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. It’s an incredibly powerful destination and the home of a community of Buddhist monks who have dedicated their lives to meditation and their spiritual cause.
It was a very apt destination, as Japan’s relationship with green tea has its roots in China’s evolution of Zen Buddhism. In ancient times, Chinese Chan monks would sip on tea as a way to stay awake during long meditation sessions. When Japanese monks traveled to China to study this spiritual tradition, they brought back with them tools, tea leaves, and a new, enlightened arsenal of knowledge on how to brew tea.
During my visit, Mt. Koya was reaching its peak koyo (autumn leaf) beauty. The temples were flanked with fiery leaves of red and orange. I realized mixing Sazen’s incredibly fine quality tea with something novel or even alcoholic felt almost sacrilegious. Also, as Sazen’s CEO Mr. Jotatsu told me, “it’s strongly recommended that you drink sencha alone.” So, to tie it all together and get a nice linking shot, I pocketed one of Koya’s glorious red leaves that lined the temple pathway, washed it, and added it to my brew. It didn’t do much for the tea in the way of taste, but when it comes to tea, Sazen is near perfection, so who am I to mess with it?
Trying Green Tea with Drip Coffee in Kochi
While near Mt. Koya, I received a gift of green tea, so for my next trip I decided to leave my Sazen tin at home and pack my new, more compact brew for the road. I was recently in Kochi for another trip, and one of my travel hacks I discovered was to bring disposable single-serving drip coffee bags, since once you check in to hotel rooms outside of the city, it’s all tea all the time.
Early one morning, while staying at a ryokan in Kochi, with my tea in one hand and drip coffee bag in the other, I had the brainwave to combine the two: A double caffeine hit with the health benefits of tea. The taste? Surprisingly not bad! The bitterness of both was complimentary, and the green tea’s freshness worked with the darker notes of the coffee. I’d rank it a solid 7/10. Is this a thing already, or did I just craft a new morning go-to?
Beachside Matcha Beer in Amami Oshima
There are few things more satisfying than cracking open a cold beer on the beach after a long day when you’re thirsty enough to practically inhale the can, and tired enough to really feel like you earned this cheeky treat.
When we met with TeaRoom’s Ryo Iwamoto, I asked him about these matcha beer combinations I’d seen sporadically online and whether he thought it was a good idea. He seemed to approve, “many younger women like matcha beer as the bitterness of the matcha is more palatable than the bitterness of hops which you often find in beer.” While at just under 30 years old, I’m probably a good seven years out of the ‘younger women’ category. I thought if it’s good enough for them, it’s definitely good enough for me.
So, while I was in Amami Oshima on a little vacation, I decided to set up a solo beach bar with one thing on the menu. Matcha beer, and matcha beer only. Literally, just matcha and beer together, mixed with my finger. I wasn’t expecting any other customers. I can see how if done better, this combination could be a hit, but to me, it feels like more of a winter drink. The bitterness and flavor of the matcha is almost too heavy to combine harmoniously with the lightness of Okinawa’s finest brew. That said, it’s probably one of the combinations with the highest potential.
Green Tea with Sake from Niigata’s Sado Island
I was recently lucky enough to take a trip to Niigata Prefecture, where I spent a handful of days exploring the fascinating culture of Niigata’s Sado Island, an island of taiko drumming, hills filled with gold, and a history of political exiles that consisted of Japan’s intellectual elites. It’s also home to excellent sake because Niigata is a prefecture known for its high-quality, delicious sake rice.
Hokusetsu Shuzo Sake Brewery was one of my favorite destinations during this adventure and is one of the prefecture’s most iconic sake producers. Established in 1872, the brewery remains one of the most respected in the world, and they supply sake to the famed Nobu restaurant chain (co-owned by Robert De Niro) in New York, Los Angeles, London, Milan, and Dubai. I picked up a bottle of the sweetest, smoothest stuff I could find, found a recipe for matcha sake online — which was essentially just matcha and sake, with a little hot water thrown in for good measure — and gave it a go.
The taste wasn’t atrocious but was definitely not better than the two ingredients separately; almost too sickly sweet and bitter. I think if it were mixed as a type of sake cocktail, or with a drier maybe even more bitter sake I’d be onto something. But I couldn’t even finish my teacup, and let’s be honest, it’s not like me to let good alcohol go to waste.
Surviving a Bought of Dalgona Matcha
I first became familiar with dalgona coffee back in April when the lockdown was heavy, and I signed on to do a madness-inducing 24-skills challenge with TSC. As one of the skills, I had to create the viral-star coffee drink that was winning Instagram. Honestly, it tasted pretty awful — it was essentially burnt instant coffee and sugar after all — so I didn’t have high expectations for the green tea incarnation.
I found the recipe online when doing some preliminary research for this article (which means just Googling ‘matcha recipes’). There wasn’t a lot out there on this particular drink, but it looked good, so I thought why not give it a go. The ingredients were an egg white, sugar, and matcha, all whisked together and served in a nice cool glass of milk. Simple huh?
Well, maybe not so simple, the whisking method was a little more involved than the coffee version, so I grabbed an electric whisk and went at it, probably too hard actually; I practically made a meringue. After scooping it out and plopping it onto the top of the milk, it was time for the taste test. It tasted like crap. Hard raw egg whites, and bitter matcha on milk, it was so bad I actually felt sick after the second sip. Straight down the sink.
Medicating Myself with Matcha Milk
With the leftover ingredients from the dalgona matcha and a little hope, I thought a smooth, delicate matcha milk might be a tasty antidote to the culinary monster I had previously created. I was so very, very wrong.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to make the powder smooth, and the taste — which was made from matcha, sugar, and milk as well as a little water — left plenty to be desired. Basically, it looked (and tasted like) a milkier version of Shrek’s swamp.
That’s enough matcha for me. I’m out.
Special Thanks to TeaRoom Inc and Sazen Tea!