Its been on my bucket list since 2008 to go to Kyoto, but not to go to Kyoto City. I wanted to go to Uji City which is also in Kyoto Prefecture. You see, I’m sort of obsessed with tea. As far as Japanese tea is concerned, this the mecca. Sure, Yame in Fukuoka is said to produce the best gyokuro now, but this is the begining. This is where matcha was invented. This is where sencha was invented, and yes this is where eventually gyokuro was invented.
Tsuen is reported to be the oldest tea shop in Japan, and the world, opening in 1160. However, the tea shop our ryokan’s owner suggested we visit was the Horii Family’s Matabay. (Their name would be romanized as Matabei in standard rules, but apparently that’s how they’ve chosen to spell it)
They’ve been in business in Uji for hundreds and hundreds of years, but formerly ran a ryokan. It was only 1887 that they turned their business attentions exclusively to tea. As an American, that’s still pretty old. According to an article I read, the direct family produces Matcha, while other parts of the family produce other kinds of tea for the shop. Really quite interesting. This specialization must have worked because the shops walls were coated with awards, and fully lacked the “we’re here for the tourists” vibe that the other tea shops had (Including, yes, Tsuen).
We didn’t get to meet Mr. Horii, but he seems like he would be interesting. He actually left the family business to go play professional baseball and even coached baseball in America for a time before returning to Uji to help with the family business after a 24 year pro-ball career.
We were helped by two lovely ladies, who prepared us delicious samples. I’d heard that it was sometimes possible to arrange tours of the fields in the area so my friend asked. With little hesitation, perhaps since I had purchased 100 grams of the finest gyokuro in the store, she offered up the family’s fields and facilities…the kicker was she actually had someone drive us there. After viewing a gyokuro field(high quality leaves that mature under shade cover, these leaves are either used loose or made into matcha) we were driven to the matcha preparation facility which was a sight to see. So many places will have one matcha grinder on display…well how about 80 of them.
The building wore a fine coat of green powder. I touched the floor and found my fingers coated in pure green. No shoes were allowed in, just slippers…really I probably could have licked the floor and not regretted it.
Really it was pretty magically. The tea was expensive (matcha and gyokuro are totally worth it!) but with the tour it was a bargain!