As athletes from around the world competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, tea lovers participated in an event of their own: the Japanese Tea Marathon.
The marathon included 15 days of online events that shone a spotlight on Japan’s teas, producers, and the 15 tea-producing regions. Led by the Global Japanese Tea Association and Japan Tea Central Council, tea marathoners learned about 30 Japanese teas, how to brew them, and where they’re grown.
Kyle Whittington, a Tea Biz contributor and host of the TeaBookClub, attended every tea marathon event, tasting 30 teas over 15 sessions. He gives the event a gold medal!
Listen to Tea Biz’s interview with Kyle Whittington:
A Race for Tea Lovers
Jessica Natale Woollard: What was it about the Japanese Tea Marathon that inspired you to attend so diligently?
Kyle Whittington: It was the range of teas, that’s what really got me hooked. I have to admit, I fully intended not to attend all the sessions when I signed up for the Tea Marathon. But once I got started, I was so caught up with the variety and quality of the teas, I developed a serious case of FOMO and couldn’t miss a day! After the first few sessions, I thought, I have to attend tomorrow’s. The presentations, chats with the farmers, and videos, got me hooked into exploring each new tea region of Japan each day.
About midway through the marathon, I decided to sign up as a Pioneer Member with the Global Japanese Tea Association. I thought what they were doing, their passion, was inspiring, and I had to support it. Whenever I struggled to get up early to attend the marathon, making sure I turned up to support them was what spurred me on.
Jessica: Did you set up your own tea rituals when partaking in the tea marathon? For example, did you select specific vessels to use with certain teas or set up your space a certain way?
Kyle: I have a little bit of an admission here. I attended the first few events from the bath — with camera and microphone off and sticker over the camera on the iPad, just to be sure that I wasn’t flashing the world! I’m just not a morning person. So being compos mentis, awake and functioning for 8 am and looking respectable for the camera was not going to work for me and took some getting used to. My solution was to soak in the bath while I adjusted to the schedules. The first two or three sessions I did from the bath, and then got up and did the tea tastings downstairs. The rest of the sessions I did on my iPad while I did the washing up, made breakfast, and went through my morning routine. When it came to brewing the teas, then I would sit down, get out my nice Japanese tea ware and enjoy brewing the teas along with everybody else on the marathon.
That was really nice — delving into my collection and selecting pieces based on the tea we were brewing and its requirements for brewing, the recommendations the farmers gave about volume and water temperature. I got to use pieces I haven’t used in ages. It was so nice to do that and then post some pictures to Instagram.
The first day of the marathon was quite special as I had my first tea ceremony guests since before the first lockdown last year. I saved the teas from that day’s session to serve to my guests. I used the Fukamushicha from Kagoshima and brewed it cold to serve when they arrived as a refresher. I served it to my guests in the garden while we chatted. Later, we brewed the tea hot. I made a ponzu dressing (soy sauce and lemon), and we ate the tea leaves after brewing three infusions. It was a lovely touch to open the first day of the marathon in that special way.
Jessica: How did hearing from the tea producers right before you tried their teas influence the tasting experience?
Kyle: We heard from the farmers before and during the tasting, learning about their growing and processing. What I really enjoyed was them teaching us how to brew their teas. You can’t get much better brewing advice than that. It was interesting to explore with them their individual approaches and practices. We learned so much from them — new and interesting brewing methods for specific teas. They had great fun showing us the special tea ware they had developed with local potters specifically for those teas that they grow. You were actually learning how to use the tea at home from the person who grew it.
Jessica: Did any particular farmer’s story capture your imagination?
Kyle: Several! Their passion and dedication really shone through, as did that of the marathon organizers. I was particularly caught by the story of Otoyo Goishicha Kyodo Kumiai from Kochi prefecture. He makes Goishicha, a rare fermented tea. He was the last farmer making it at one point and saved it from extinction. There are now three producers, but he saved this tea; it would no longer exist otherwise. It was captivating.
I also really enjoyed Forthees from Nagasaki. We heard a really lovely story of four young tea farmers who joined together to open a factory and create their special teas, which we tasted. It was just lovely, the way they’d come together in their community to push forward and promote tea together. We tasted their Tamaryuokucha and Bo Hojicha, made from the stems from matcha production.
Jessica: Is there one tea in particular that, because of the marathon, is on your list to explore further?
Kyle: How to pick just one? I might have to pick two or three.
Goishicha absolutely! I only heard about this rare, fermented Japanese tea last year. I was excited when I saw it was on the list for the Japanese Tea Marathon, and I was looking forward to hearing from the producer. I loved it. It was amazing. Absolutely delicious. I drank it all day; it’s one of those teas you just keep on brewing. It’s way at the top of my shopping list.
I also really enjoyed the Sannen Bancha, which I’m sipping as we’re chatting. It’s made from tea bushes that have been left to grow for three years before being harvested and processed. It has huge big chunks of stem in it, and it tastes really delicious. It’s sweet and gorgeous.
The other one that stood out for me was the Gyokuro from Yoshida Meicaen in Kyoto. It was amazing. I had goosebumps when I took the first sip. It was one of those incredibly amazing teas.
Jessica: After this rigorous test of your tea endurance, are there any lessons learned you can share with our listeners?
Kyle: One thing that really came through is the importance of brewing techniques. Understanding each individual tea and its brewing requirements and characteristics. Especially with the Japanese teas. With the farmers showing us different ways to brew, it showed how much a difference it makes. The Japanese method of boiling the water and then cooling it to the required temperature actually makes a huge difference to the taste of the tea and how it brews rather than what we tend to do, which is heat the water right to the required temperature.
I hope we’re going to have more of these events in the future, given that we’re used to online events now. With any event like this, I think it’s important to find a way to make the structure and the time work for you — like I did, by attending from the bath! When events are digital, we have flexibility that we wouldn’t have if we were attending in person.
Explore Kyle’s favorite Japanese teas — Yokuro, Goishicha, Sannen Bancha — and all the other teas from the Japanese Tea Marathon on the Japanese Tea Association website.
The Global Japanese Tea Association reports that association membership increased by 25% during the course of the marathon, with some 89 new member registrations. GJTA has therefore, thanks to the Japanese Tea Marathon, achieved their target of reaching 100 Pioneer Members, those who were the first to trust in and support the association.
Listen to Tea Biz’s interview with Simona Suzuki of the Japanese Tea Association.
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