With cafes starting to reopen, my friends have been trying to get me out for a coffee. I have to admit, though, I’m more of a green tea kind of person.
Due to decades of お茶離れ (ocha-banare, a departure from tea) thanks to the popularity of coffee, I’m worried that us お茶好き (ocha-zuki, tea lovers) are becoming a minority.
Still, no matter the numbers, お茶 (ocha, tea) has seeped into the broader Japanese culture. So much so that we call it 日本茶 (Nihoncha, Japanese tea). For example, I reckon that most people know that now is the time for 新茶 (shincha, tea leaves from this year’s earliest harvest), a seasonal delicacy that appears in tea stores between May and July.
Besides appearing in the nation’s pots and cups, お茶 pops up in the language all the time. For example, 日常茶飯事 (nichijō sahanji, everyday occurrence) uses the kanji for both 茶 (cha) and 飯 (han, rice), both iconic staples of the Japanese diet. We might say, そんなことは日常茶飯事です (sonna koto wa nichijō sahanji desu, such a thing happens every day) to reassure a friend that something is no big deal as it happens all the time.
The phrase お茶の子さいさい (ocha no ko sai-sai) is a cute way of saying something is a “piece of cake,” while 臍で茶を沸かす (heso de cha o wakasu, brewing tea on one’s navel) is a way to describe something that’s utter nonsense: 8月までに10キロ痩せるなんて臍で茶を沸かすような話だ (Hachi-gatsu made ni jukkiro yaseru nante heso de cha o wakasu yōna hanashi da, It’s nonsense that you think you can lose 10 kilograms by August.)
お茶を濁す (Ocha o nigosu, to cloud the tea) means to deflect the focus of an argument by making vague remarks, and is often used to describe the goings on of politicians: 政治家はお茶を濁すのが上手い (Seijika wa ocha o nigosu no ga umai, Politicians are adept at clouding the tea) is definitely not a compliment.
More of a compliment would be if someone were to ask you a formal “お茶を飲みませんか？” (“ocha o nomimasen ka,” “would you like to have tea with me?”) or a casual “お茶でもどう？” (“ocha demo dō,” “how about some tea?”), both of which were standard pick-up lines in the latter half of the 20th century. Of course, many of the men who asked women this question were after more than tea — unless it was asked by a お茶男子 (ocha danshi, a tea boy).
According to modern media outlets, the お茶男子 is the kind of guy who asks his partner if they would care for tea. It’s quite a role-reversal in Japan, considering that for the longest time women were expected to take care of お茶汲み (ocha-kumi) — meaning they’d make the tea for the men at the office. It is thanks to this tradition that practically every floor of a Japanese office building has a 給湯室 (kyūtōshitsu, office kitchenette).
However, お茶淹れ (ocha-ire, the making of tea) was once the realm of those most alpha of Japanese, the samurai. The ability to do it properly was part of the 武士の嗜み (bushi no tashinami), the necessary accomplishments of a samurai. Maybe that’s why I always felt Japan’s corporate samurai were slightly lacking when compared to the real thing.
Times have changed, though, and these days “お茶しましょう” (“ocha shimashō,” “let’s do tea”) is more likely an invitation to join someone on a walk to the 自動販売機 (jidōhanbaiki, vending machine) than an order to serve the menfolk.
Speaking of which, the Japanese were the first in the world to package 緑茶 (ryokucha, green tea) in disposable containers such as cans (in the 1980s) and PET bottles (in the ’90s) and sell them from 自動販売機. Some nutritionists claim that loading the machines up with 緑茶 instead of soda has helped Japan keep obesity at bay — though studies have shown that the bottled kind is high in additives and calories so it is still wise to control your intake.
Made fresh, however, and 緑茶 is endowed with a host of benefits, such as 体内浄化 (tainai jōka, internal purification) or, in other words, your own personal detox. The drink is also filled with 酸化防止剤 (sanka bōshizai, antioxidants) and is said to 免疫を強化する (men’eki o kyōka suru, strengthen one’s immunity). Not bad during a pandemic.
At the height of summer, 冷茶 (reicha, cold green tea) is a treat, especially in the mornings. In fact, there’s a phrase, 朝茶は七里帰ってでも飲め (asacha wa shichi-ri kaette demo nome), which translates loosely as “it’s worth walking back home seven ‘ri’ to drink your morning tea.” 七里 (shichi-ri) equals out to an astounding 27 kilometers — but seeing as though 緑茶 is so healthy, I reckon it’s doable.