I recently had the privilege of traveling to Asia for the third time. Within 3.5 weeks I traveled to Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I wasn’t going to write anything originally, but a slow chatter of emails and messages have convinced me to type up a report. The trip was primarily not tea-related, I did manage to squeeze some tea experiences in along the way. My apologies for those looking for something 100% strictly tea.
It was my first time here and I don’t have too much new or interesting to say about Japan other than it is an awesome place to visit. Since there’s not much of tea interest there for me, sitting at the very top for me is the food.. It also made me realize how expensive Seattle is.. Even a place with a reputation for being pricy like Tokyo manages to be cheaper for a satisfying meal than the increasingly expensive Seattle. I will almost certainly be back. My wife also speaks Japanese, which is an added bonus as I got shepherded around stuffing my mouth while mugging for ridiculous photos without even attempting to really communicate.
I did end up going to Ippodo Tea House in Kyoto, which is worth a visit for the curious. It’s also quite a different setup than teashops in Taiwan or Hong Kong. There’s a cafe in the back, but the front is mainly setup to sell pre-packaged loose leaf tea for sale. It’s a nice shop but does have a more commercial feel to it. It’s also not nearly as commercialized as the Kyoto shop selling Matcha Ice Cream since 1861 or whatever.
In Tokyo, I had the added bonus of meeting up with an online tea friend based out in Japan. It is always a good deal of fun to meet up and drink tea with other folks that share the same passion around the world as these sorts of connections can be difficult to find locally.
Some food highlights:
- Honke Owariya (Kyoto) – Sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re missing out on until you’ve had it. I’ve ate Soba since I was a kid and it’s always been fine. Owariya is a very very old Soba shop. I went here on a whim off of a fairly random reference in a Marshaln post. It was one of those experiences which expands your horizons on what a certain food can be. Reminds me a lot of a similar experience with Nnaeng Myun when I was in Seoul a five years ago.
- Japanese Curry at Kitchen Nankai – My wife and I make Japanese-style curry pretty frequently as one of our comfort foods. Sometimes from scratch and sometimes from the box (Vermont is our preferred brand). Even though it is usually more of a home-cooked meal we ate curry a couple times (typically pork katsu) and this place stands out as a no frills, heavy-hitting comfort meal with an extremely dark roux.
This is my third time to Taiwan and we spent seven days in Taipei. I really love Taiwan. It’s not as big and overwhelming as Tokyo or Seoul can be but has a lot of the same conveniences (MRT, 7-11). At the right spot, street food is cheap and decent, people are nice and the tea is great. It’s a great place to spend a week.
I did most of my tea shopping in Taiwan. With just a week, I didn’t really devote anytime to exploring or going to new shops, and just revisited a few of my favorites from my last trip. Despite the recent revelation that I don’t drink as much aged oolong as I thought, I picked up a few hundred grams of some aged oolongs at a couple shops I visited last spring. I also visited another shop I had visited with my friend Garrett in the eastern area of Taipei and picked up a few cakes of wrapperless and CNNP traditionally stored teas that I enjoy as clean, no frills, solid drinkers for the price.
A few tea points:
- So much tea learning is done at the tea tables out east, a contrast to our tea hermitism in the west.
- While I have certainly not visited every tea shop in Taipei, if you can find the right shop the aged oolong availability is far, far better than anything available in the west and probably most other places in east Asia. I also find aged oolong easier to judge in the shop, than pu’erh. I think partially because brewing these is a bit simpler and more forgiving than pu’erh.
I also got to meet with Emilio of The Jade Leaf who lives in the mountains just outside of Taipei. We were able to catch up and film a few episodes showcasing his pottery and one of the teas Toby and him put in their curated box.
- Three years of substandard Mandarin classes in high school plus obsessive Chinese tea noun studying have resulted in hitting a relatively low standard of communicating in Mandarin at tea shops. A very low standard is better than nothing! However, in more ordinary life situations without my tea vocab my level of competence goes way down.
Some food highlights:
- Lin Dong Fan Beef Noodle/Lan Jia Guabao – Both famous shops. Lin Dong Fang is a beef noodle shop and Lan Jia is most famous for their Guabao. These were two of my favorites previous times in Taipei I was there. The Guabao in particular hits the right spots for my own taste being soft, fatty, pork. The beef noodle broth is very herbal which tends to hit my spot too.
- Baked Chicken on a Mountain just outside of Taipei – One of those meals you’d never get without a local. Emilio took us here after meeting him at his place. The chicken is cooked in large ovens seen below. Served with a variety of local wild vegetables.
This was my second time here and my wife’s first. We had four nights at the end of our trip and spent the majority of it going to fairly normal tourist spots. My great grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated to the US from Guangdong to open up a Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in Spokane, WA (in the early 20th century). While, I’ve long given up hope of finding old pu’erh, I grew up eating a fair amount of Cantonese cuisine with the extended family. Since my Chinese grandparent’s passed, I don’t do go to family-style Cantonese style eateries at all. These restaurants occupy a more sentimental place in my memory than other Chinese foods. Eating at a couple Hong Kong family restaurants is enough to evoke nostalgic memories of going to family gatherings as a kid.
Tea.. (1) I just did a small amount of tea shopping here restocking and buying a few traditionally stored teas from a shop I’d visited in 2015. (2) Also managed to meet up with the esteemed, long-time tea blogger Marshaln of who I am an unabashed fan of. We met at a local shop who presses their own pu’erh. We started with a pair of supposed Songpin recreations done by Chenyuan Hao and then drank through an assortment of the shop’s own pu’erh and aged oolongs.
(3) I got to meet up with another tea friend, where we ventured to the Dayi store, and our day culminated into a tea meetup orchestrated by Toby (thanks Toby!) at a local shop, Sin Fook.. The tea meetup took place at 6:30PM, an unideal time to drink loads of tea. The meetup was at Sin Fook, where HK Tea Forumer 3B was hosting.. We started with some 2001 Xiaguan Iron Cake, which despite being stored in Hong Kong for a good chunk of its life was still very green. 3B half-seriously remarked that it probably needs another 16 years. From there it was a series of famous teas from around the turn of the century.
A quick note… 3B’s brewing is very strong. He loads 13.5grams into maybe a 150-180ml pot and gives these teas a generously long steeping. In the all-time potent brewer hall of fame, he’s right up there with Mr. Yunnan Sourcing.
- 1990s Liubao – This was easily the smoothest, most comfortable of the evening.
- 2001 Xiaguan Iron Cake 8653 & 2003 Gold Dayi – Sessioned the gold dayi against the 2001 Xiaguan Iron Cake. Simply put, the Gold Dayi is really strong and powerful stuff and the version we had was still quite green. It’s got substance but I certainly wouldn’t want to drink it yet.
- 1998 Menghai Yesheng Qiaomu – This was lightly traditionally stored and despite 3B’s best efforts to push it, the tea came out quite smooth. By far the easiest to drink besides the Liubao. There was some astringency in a couple early brews, byt overall it was a nice tea to cut the power of some of the other ones.
- 1999 BGT Black & 2001 Thin Paper YYX – This was a blind test. The YYX was easily the driest stored version I’ve tried and really quite different from the two or three wetter versions I’ve tried. The BGT had a lot of bite and oomph left and what I feel like was a more interesting mouthfeel and better depth while the YYX was pretty drying. It’s very difficult to judge the tea completely off of parameters that deviate from your usual. My friend ended up preferring the YYX while I preferred the BGT.
1988 QB 92 batch? –
We were getting up to head out the door, when 3B sat up whipped out a baggie with 10 grams of tea labeled as 88 QB and we knew we were staying for at least another tea. 3B said he liked the tea but commented that it lacked longevity. Of course, that’s with 3B’s brewing. In comparison to the previous teas, it was definitely a notch more mellowed. Still it had good body, depth, medium to strong strength, and huigan with a plummy, woody, grainy taste to it. Definitely not the same as your aged traditionally stored tea.
As others began to open up wine and order dim sum, we ducked out.. Needless to say, we slept very poorly that night.
A few final tea observations:
- Traditionally stored tea isn’t really in style. On one hand for people that like this sort of tea (raises hand) it is good because it depresses and caps out the value that certain teas can be. For instance a dry-stored 1990s tea will cost much more than a traditionally stored version of the same production. On the other hand, the shop owners that are traditionally storing these sorts of tea don’t really have as much incentive to continue to do so. This makes me pretty unsure at what the future for these teas will be.
- The Dayi store is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a locally owned franchise that sells a huge amount of Dayi productions, including many of the latest 2017 teas. For people that are fans of the brand, it’s a good place to stop.
- Hard to be a judge of the qi in big sessions listed above. For the most part, I was just trying to enjoy the teas. My apologies to those who have grilled me for tasting notes/objective ratings.
Some food highlights:
- Lin Heung Teahouse – Dim sum in a crazy environment. This was my second time here, and for a foreigner it’s an unforgettable experience. The food is alright, but the experience is very unique.
- Sky Cuisine/Tim’s Kitchen – For the reasons mentioned above.