Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to create and lead tours and hands-on experiences of Japanese culture for a foreign audience. While these tours tend to specialize in the more esoteric and exotic aspects of Japanese culture, they focus at the same time on making the experience very accessible to a lay-person regardless
of language ability and previous experience. The various tours that I’ve been conducting for the Tokyo American Club’s Women’s Group have been a great testing-ground for my ideas and a place to hone my skills. In this way I’ve begun to share some of my favorite experiences of the hidden world of Japanese culture: the tea ceremony; an Ikebana exhibit; an incense ceremony; a sampling of the unique sights, tastes and places to visit in my neighborhood.
It was on one of these tours of my neighborhood that the collaboration with Ocharaka was born. Stephane Danton, originally from France, has been in Japan for about 20 years, and after working in the food and wine industry as a sommelier, shifted his knowledge of fragrance and bouquet to the world of Japanese green tea. And hence his very original business, Ocharaka was created. Combining a Japanese sensitivity for quality and attention to detail with a western flair for creativity, Stephane’s flavored teas are poised to take the world of Japanese green tea by storm. I am especially inspired by the example he is setting as someone who has taken something with deep cultural roots in Japan (tea) and is bringing it to a fresh new level, hence expanding its audience and giving it a new lease on life.
My Kichijoji tours inevitably involve a stop at Ocharaka, where folks can taste a sampling of the delicious teas Stephane is concocting, and hear a few words about why Japanese tea should be appreciated and preserved, despite the seeming preference in the younger generations for pre-bottled teas, not to mention coffee. It was during one of these visits that Stephane mentioned his real passion- his love for the remote mountainous area of Shizuoka where his teas are grown. Over the years he has developed deep ties with the local community and the growers, and this mutually respectful relationship is truly beneficial to all. Once I began to plan the tour, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how eager and supportive the local tourism board was to host our group of visitors.
Despite the obvious learning-curve involved in designing and carrying out such a hand-crafted overnight tour for the first time, thanks to the help of Stephane and the Kawane tourism board, we had an incredibly fun and successful tour.
Allow me to share with you a few pictures and scenes from this memorable journey!
This is one of the engines of the Oigawa railway– one of Japan’s 12 currently operating steam engine lines. We rented a private bus for our tour, but on the first day we also enjoyed a ride through tea country on this historical railway.
What could be better than taking in the scenery whilst enjoying a delicious bento on the train? The railway’s own special bento features local tea, local seafood specialty “sakura-ebi” (mini-shrimp), seasonal bamboo shoots, and of course delicious onigiris.
Stephane taught us how to pick the tea: in the spring, when there is new growth, the flavor is concentrated in the top three leaves. The highest-quality teas contain only these three top leaves.
Picking tea in the lush green surroundings. In teams of two or individually we filled our own baskets, then put it all together in the end. It was time-consuming yet meditative and so rewarding to see the fruits of our labor combined together! (Stephane is on the left in the white shirt).
No getaway in Japan is complete without downtime in a traditional inn. This beautiful ryokan had impeccable service, serene and beautiful natural surroundings, delicious food, and a wonderful bath. Ahh relax and reset!
After breakfast on day two, we explored the countryside around the inn. Just about a 30-minute walk through a small village and stunning natural surroundings, you come upon this bridge, suspended high above the water.
Following our walk, we packed up and visited the nearby Chameikan, where we were treated to a special tasting of the new spring tea grown in the area. Japanese tea leaves can be reused several times, so it was very helpful to learn the proper brewing techniques- the temperature of the hot water and the time the leaves are allowed steep make all the difference! In addition to the tea tasting, the Chameikan has a beautiful Japanese garden, a large open lawn area, gift shop and mini museum where we can learned about the machinery and different stages that go into processing the tea.
Thank you to Stephane and all the folks who joined in to make this tour a success!