Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Matsumoto, Tea, Black Castles and No More Money

Fortune Cookie:


Seven falls, eight getting up.

Matsumoto was quite difficult to get to.

I took two trains to Bessho near Ueda City. After a few days there a minibus called at my inn and took me (door-to-door) to my ryokan in Matsumoto. I found travel arrangements in Japan to be exceptional in their convenience. They were a new high in my experience of these things.

My reception there was as cold and unpalatable as Bessho's was warm and excellent. This was only in a single inn but notable nevertheless. In fact it was one of the worst receptions I can remember although the hotel in Kyoto came very close.

Towards the mountains and Mount Kasumizawa in particular.

When I arrived at the foot of the mountain there was not the bus there I expected to carry me toward the hot spring on the mountain side. I could have got a cab but Japan, after three weeks was starting to bite. Three thousand dollars in the budget but I was starting to dine at convenience stores even there I bought an apple for 200 yen.

This nice woman had a shop full of everything sencha, hojicha, gyokuro, karigane, bancha, even a warming cherry and chilli drink.

A cornucopia of sencha

Whenever anyone discovered I was travelling to Matsumoto they insisted I visited the black castle or Crow castle as the locals call it.

Back at my distinctly frosty ryokan I settled down for a pot of common or garden sencha. As it was loose I didn't know its provenance but I was still just happy that green tea was provided in these rooms complete with caddy, cups and kyushu tea pot.

The taste: savory and saline, with a faint sweet grassy, seaweed undertone. It was a cheap brawny infusion; which is what you might expect. It's unlikely I was going to find ceremonial grade matcha in my room. My experience was affected by the ambiance and the kind of day I had. A flaneur's day in part and Wordsworthian in the other part.

There was a lot of happiness to it.

Black Castle at Matsumoto with cherry blossom

Near Mount Hotaka

A cool mountain breeze blows past the Korean bar on the banks of the Ta river.

Happy Tea Drinking!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Sencha Tea in Kenroku-en Gardens, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan

Fortune Cookie: 


Wisdom from life is better than the shell of a tortoise

Kenroku-en is known as one of the three great gardens of Japan.

It's a 17th century garden once run by Japan's feudal lords in the Samurai era.

Kenroku-en means garden combining six characteristics - all necessary in the ideal garden:

spaciousness, serenity, venerability, scenic views, subtle design, coolness.

There is great beauty to be realised in this garden.

Known as Little Kyoto because of the geisha and old Samurai families that still live here Kanazawa is less visited than other parts of Japan. It is 400 kilometres from Tokyo and is very different. The city lies on the far side of the Japanese Alps by the sea of Japan. There were some western visitors when I was there in the springtime but only a handful. Most of Japan away from Tokyo and Kyoto felt like this. Quiet, relaxing, self-contained.

Where you kind of had the town to yourself.

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.

The Japanese are partial to drinking tea in parks. This was the botanical garden in Kanazawa, my third experience of drinking tea in a park in Japan.

Gyokusenen tea house, Kanazawa. 

This to me is an excellent habit. Pared down 'takes' on the tea ceremony are presented to all visitors for a small (for Japan) fee.

When you hand in your ticket and enter the pavillion a woman in traditional dress serves you a sencha tea and a small sweet. She assumes the kneeling position. Following the protocol you yourself are already kneeling at this point.

We can see the tatami mats here used in the tea ceremony. Often there is a single potted plant nearby. On the wall is traditional calligraphy demonstrated in the form of hanging scrolls. Usually a scroll is hung in an alcove. A well known saying or epithet relevant to the occasion is written there. The writer of the scroll needs to be virtuous as well as sentient and in possession of sapience. Sometimes the kanji on a scroll in a tea room may refer to harmony, respect, purity and tranquility; the four principles of the tea ceremony.

This made an interesting counterpoint to the local prefect working outside the garden who screamed at me when I put my bicycle in the wrong place. Interesting to note that I was shouted at more times in Japan than anywhere else I have travelled to. Usually this relates to rules. Bikes and shoes were the main thing.

After drinking the green tea, in two sips as I remember, we sat gazing out at the beautifully arranged garden. There was a low murmur of conversation; sometimes silence and the sunshine, the sound of a distant stream, birds singing.

The Japanese prepare their views so that there is nothing ugly to interfere with them.

For the Japanese understanding cannot be gained by words alone. This seems to be the norm in Buddhist countries.

As for the tea itself there was a clear, golden-green infusion. A savory character redolent of seaweed and grass notes. It's a kind of soup. It didn't quite compare to a Kageshima Sencha that, to me so far has no nonpareil in the world of Japanese tea. That said I have drunk more far tea from China, Taiwan and Vietnam than Japan. I enjoyed this tea. The steaming process produces a thickish bright green liquid, compared to thinner continental green teas. Savory, rich and satisfying.

Although the shinkansen from Tokyo is very fast, using the railway through the Alps to the Sea of Japan at Itoigawa turning left on the Hokuriku line is the best way to Kanazawa. This way you have views of snow-capped mountains, rivers and fertile valleys. I met a New Zealander on this trip, this the only non-Japanese person on a journey lasting three days in total. Quite something.

Happy Tea Drinking everyone!

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.


Monday, 6 June 2016

Oriental Beauty in Vung Tau

Fortune Cookie 

茶是安静,我们对它的渴望永远 不会远离我们对美的渴求

Tea is quiet and our thirst for it is never far from our craving for beauty

Dong Fan Meiren, another name for Oriental Beauty.

It's a delicious tea made by a painstaking process. Some say to steep it at 70 degrees but I don't enjoy tea at that low temperature. 80 degrees does for me. My experience of this tea is that it provides flavour for up to 4 steeps.

The eyes can drink the tea before the hot water passes over it. It's multiple colours are tantalising. Dong Fan Meiren, sometimes known as white tip oolong, includes green, rust, brown, white and yellow.

The flavour is distinctive and I find no other tea is like this one. It isn't my favourite tea because I prefer one with a slow developing aftertaste and this frontloads itself onto the palate. That said it is a beautiful tea in the world of tea and I smile when I think about it.

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.

For the tea diary visit the SingingBirdTeaDiary

My mother Jean and Thuy on Spring break.

Both enjoyed Oriental Beauty, and at other times a very fresh Spring Baozhong both from north Taiwan and a distinctive shan tuyet green from the northern Lieng Son Mountains of Vietnam.

Happy Tea Drinking!

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.


Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Dragon and the Phoenix: using a scent cup

Singing Bird Tea

Fortune Cookie
Một nụ cười là hộ chiếu của bạn vào trái tim của người khác.
A smile is your passport into the heart of others.
Tea as a specialised practice in Vietnam dates back to the Le dynasty beginning in 1426.


In the Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Chinese style tea ceremony, at its highest form, the aroma of the tea is enjoyed as well as its taste. In this case, the tea is first poured into the tea jug, and then into a scent cup.

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.


The drinking cup is placed upside down over the top of the scent cup and balanced there. This is known as the Dragon and the Phoenix.
In Vietnamese, con rồng và phượng trong sự hiệp tốt lành meaning 'the dragon
and phoenix in auspicious union.'
This is a ritualised action is viewed by some as a form of prayer for the prosperity, wellbeing, and happiness of the guests.

If you like travel blogs visit: Guerilla Z
The two are inverted so that the scent cup is upside down in the drinking cup. In Vietnamese this is known as 'cá chép hóa trên,' in Chinese 鲤鱼翻身.
In English 'the carp turns over.'
The final stage, respectfully receiving the fragrant tea, occurs when the scent cup is lifted and the tea is released into the drinking cup. The guest can then enjoy the aroma of the tea from the scent cup before consuming the tea from her or his drinking cup. Following etiquette the drinker can drink their tea in three sips; the first a small one, the second the main one, and the last an after taste.
Vietnamese pink oolong (GABA) from the central highlands was used here.

This tea, rolled in balls in the Taiwanese style, is one of my favourite teas, not just because of its inherent qi but its colour, deep taste with a little smoke, caramel and long, rich aftertaste.
The tea is processed with nitrogen rather than the usual process with oxygen. The result is a calming tea that lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety and depression.
Va tat nhien roi,

Happy Tea Drinking!

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Tie Guan Yin at the temple of Guan Yin, Cho Lon

Welcome to readers from Somalia


Singing Bird Tea


Fortune Cookie


Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world    
                                                                                   T'ien Yiheng

Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy gives her name to a kind of tea. Tie Guan Yin or sometimes Tie Kwan Yin.

A fine example of this tea, along with a particular Da Hong Pao tea, has reportedly been sold for something in the region of $3000, for a one kilo.

Her temple in the Chinese sub-city of Cholon in Saigon.

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.

The tea here is a heavy roast, highly oxidised tea. It is popular in Hong Kong and Chaozhou, where serious practitioners of Chao  Zhou style gongfu tea brew the Tie Guan Yin with a heavy hand. There are too many steps to list here for this style of brewing. One may also brew such teas more casually by following parameters similar to a high roast Tie Guan Yin. This type of Tie Guan Yin looks like this: 

The teapot is a short spout yixing pot bearing the Chinese characters of a Buddhist prayer.

The liquid is mid-brown colour with a long shallow finish. The aftertaste is lingering and of smoke, close to rolling tobacco. It's a distinctive tea and quite unlike any other tea I have tasted. The mouth-feel is slender with sweet coffee notes. 

The Iron Goddess of Mercy - a very humble, paint spattered 12 inches high.

I was in Da Nang at Christmas. 

At Lin Ung Pagoda on the Son Tra peninsula.  The Son Tra Guan Yin statue is 220 feet tall. The tallest statue in Vietnam.

Praying to Guan Yin in Da Nang

Guan Yin is known across east Asia from Sri Lanka and Myanmar to Korea and Japan. She is an important symbol of compassion. She's also associated with vegetarianism.

Jump back to tea. 

 Muzha Tieguanyin tea 木柵鉄観音 

This Tie Guan Yin tea is a very dark roast.

This is a traditional oolong. It is roasted and has a stronger taste with a roast nutty character. The tea liquid is more brown than red. 

In this version of Tie Guan Yin I can first of all taste a lot of smoke, some roasted nuts followed by a slowly evolving sweet caramel flavour. My feeling is that fine tea, like good wine, reaches the back of the palate and seems to infuse through the nose on the breath out. 

The second steep is similar but the smokiness is softer. Some say the second steep is for your friends, the first for your enemy with this tea I find the reverse is true. The next three brews are less distinctive. The first two are rich and dimensional while the third tails off quite dramatically despite longer infusions. This tea is sourced from Taiwan

see also Stephane Erler's Teamasters high-roast-Tie-Guan-Yin 

Back at the Quan Am temple in Cho Lon.

The names of temple benefactors 

A temple frieze. 

These porcelain dioramas skirting the roof depict life in a 19th century Chinese city. Actors, demons, animals, Persian sailors and traders appear - a representation not unlike the trading history of Cho Lon.

There are approximately 465,000 Cantonese Chinese in southern Vietnam, the majority in Cho Lon.

Some of these incense coils burn for as long as a month. The tags carries the name of the worshipper who paid for it.

At the pagoda I met Dr Zhifang Song of The University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He explained to me the significance of the temple and others in Cho Lon. He told me something of the significance of these temples for shǎoshù mínzú (少数民族diasporan Chinese people especially as the new China begins re-recognising the old "silk road" routes.

Happy tea drinking!

Please visit Singing Bird Tea for a small range of Vietnamese made teas including Oolongs, green, black, flower and wild tree white, green and black teas.