Food & Drink

More than merely matcha, tea marries science and culture

by Mariko Tamura

Kyodo

In a fashionable area of the city of Shizuoka, an hour southwest of Tokyo by shinkansen, is a teahouse where a young French woman is attempting to spread her passion for Japanese tea to the world, particularly to Japanese youth unfamiliar with its place in their cultural heritage.

Marie Roux, 24, has been working at Maruzen Tea Roastery cafe for less than a year. She greets customers in flawless Japanese, brewing them tea at custom-ordered temperatures and serving them tea-infused gelato.

Roux, who is from Besancon in France’s Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region, didn’t expect to find her life consumed by a passion for Japanese tea. As a university student, she only became interested in studying Japanese after reading manga and watching anime as a teen. She wasn’t even sure if she would ever visit Japan.

A chance encounter at her university with a student who had just interned at a Japanese tea farm sparked her curiosity. It was soon followed by a tea tasting organized for students studying Japanese.

“I had a revelation,” Roux recalls. “I had never tasted anything so good. I wanted to learn more.”

She decided then and there to reorient herself toward studying Japanese tea. Roux flew to Japan where she did a three-month internship at a tea farm, studied for a year at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto to improve her Japanese and, after graduating in France, returned here to delve even further into the world of tea. Roux was hired as Maruzen Tea Roastery cafe’s kanban musume (an old-fashioned word for a pretty girl who attracts customers to a shop).

The beauty of tea is multifaceted, Roux says, and she would like to show her appreciation for this drink to the fullest by not only embracing the feelings that tea evokes for her, but also the science underpinning it.

“Tea has great health benefits. A lot of people focus on coffee to stay alert but tea actually has the ability to make you alert and relaxed,” Roux says, explaining the drink’s dual benefits.

Roux also cherishes the special way that tea creates a setting for people to come together, regardless of their backgrounds. She references the Japanese term ichigo ichie, which describes the cultural concept of treasuring meetings with people and is closely associated with Japanese tea ceremonies.

Ichigo ichie translates to “one chance in a lifetime,” as in, the same gathering will never happen twice.

“Even if you speak different languages, even if you drink tea with people from different countries, you can always share something through tea,” she says.

These are the things that Roux would like to impart to others. Speaking about her native country, she says that the French understanding of Japanese tea is “still cliche” with a superficial knowledge of matcha ice cream and the tea ceremony as a symbol of Kyoto, similar to geisha.

“We don’t really hear about Japanese sencha (green tea) or hōjicha (roasted tea). Only connoisseurs do.”

Even Japanese drinkers of hōjicha are unsure of its origin and get, according to Roux, tripped up by its reddish-brown color.

“A lot of people are surprised to hear that hōjicha is actually green tea. It only becomes hōjicha after you roast the leaves,” she says. “(People) don’t realize that both teas are derived from the same plant.”

Japanese tea leaves are steamed, rolled and dried, although hōjicha leaves go through the extra step of being roasted. The steaming prevents the leaves from becoming oxidized, retaining their green hue throughout processing. With hōjicha, the leaves take on a reddish color as they are roasted, a process that removes nearly all of the caffeine.

“You ingest lots of good elements when you drink green tea,” Roux says. “When we talk about green tea, we talk a lot about catechins and antioxidants, but that’s not all they have. We rarely talk about the caffeine-theanine combination that simultaneously relaxes and makes you alert.”

Roux’s immediate focus is to impart a deep appreciation for tea to Japanese youth, an appreciation she feels has become increasingly neglected.

“People ask ‘Do you want to export this culture of tea to (France)?’ Yes, but it’s not really my principal goal,” she says. “What I want to see is Japanese people realizing how tea has a great importance in their culture and is something that needs to be cherished.”

Young people have an image of tea as “something rather old” and drab, which Roux says is a shame. People have been drinking tea since their childhood and it has become as “common as water,” so they don’t know the chemistry behind the tea, or even that all types of tea come from the same plant.

“I want everything about tea to become second nature to the Japanese, especially the young,” she says.

Roux does public relations for the cafe, but her Instagram account shows a realm beyond its products since she adds photos and text to teach people about tea, wanting them to learn “the details,” such as how tea is made.

Aware that people usually scroll past photos quickly, she puts up “classy” pictures that are eye-catching enough for people to stop and hopefully read the accompanying text, which she carefully crafts in both English and Japanese.

Roux admits it is a difficult task, as neither is her native language, and she tries to synthesize as much information as possible into a few words.

Now Roux is studying to pass an exam to become a “Japanese tea adviser” and reads books on tea. “They are in Japanese so it takes time but it’s very interesting,” she says.

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