Some people can hop on a plane at a moments notice, not me. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the joy of planning a trip and the anticipation that builds up. Admittedly, I used to over do it. Since I wanted to explore, and not just sit at a spa, I’d try and squeeze as many places and activities into one trip as possible. Then I realized that in my attempt to experience everything, I wasn’t fully experiencing anything. It was time to relax, and maybe even schedule some spa time.
Once I stopped treating each vacation as a checklist, I started to get comfortable with leaving attractions for next time. Sometimes I’d even go back to the same spot more than once. Although there are so many new places to see in Japan, when one brings you as much joy as Byodo-in Omotesando Road you can’t wait to return.
After visiting most of the tea shops on the main road, I wanted to go back and spend more time by the river. While walking along the trail, I spotted Fukujuen Café Uji. I hoped that the high price of their ceremonial matcha was an indication of its quality. They invited me to find a seat at the second floor, and I was happy to find a table overlooking the river.
While waiting for my order, I looked around only to discover an entire tea-making machine exhibition. It was interesting to see the machines up close, especially after the tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen. Once I was served, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the matcha I ordered wasn’t already prepared. Luckily I also learned how to properly whisk matcha on the tour, and was excited to put my newly acquired skills into practice.
The matcha set was served with instructions on how to prepare both usucha and koicha, a kettle, and a tray. On the tray there was an empty bowl of matcha, bamboo whisk, chashaku scoop, chaki container, and wagashi. As I vigorously whisked the matcha powder, it quickly dissolved and a thick foam began to appear. The matcha had a vibrant green colour and inviting fresh scent. As is tradition, I enjoyed the wagashi first and then slowly sipped every last drop of matcha.
Taste hojicha powder and loose leaf tea from Kyoto at Hojicha Co.
Long before I’d ever heard of hojicha, I briefly thought about selling matcha. There are thousands of companies selling the green tea powder, but for some reason it never tasted as good as it did when I drank it in Japan.
Whether I’d be selling it or not, I wanted to taste the best matcha in the world. As a long-term matcha drinker and enthusiast, Francois had already done the research and found Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji. Marukyu-Koyamaen is an award-winning manufacturer dedicated to producing teas of the highest quality. Luckily for us, they offered plant tours and had an availability while we were in Japan.
Although we were not allowed to take any pictures, believe me when I say that every step of the processing of tencha to matcha was more fascinating than the last. My favourite room was the one where stone mills were quietly grinding the tencha leaves into a fine matcha powder. The stone mills were going slowly in order to avoid overheating. Maintaining the perfect temperature was so important that it was all done in the dark. Seeing my excitement, the tour guide showed me a manual stone mill up close and I even got to grind some tencha myself.
Before the tour concluded, I learned how to make and drink a proper cup of matcha. As an inexperienced matcha maker, not to mention pretty clumsy in general, I was terrified of breaking the beautiful ceramic matcha chawan (tea bowl). I was hesitant to whisk the matcha quickly, and it showed. After watching from a distance, the director himself walked over to offer his assistance. He encouraged me to whisk the matcha briskly and demonstrated how the speed and zig zag motion was essential to dissolving the powder and producing a beautiful rich foam. The best matcha in the world takes work to produce and is deserving of skillful preparation, anything less would be disrespectful. The resulting matcha was the best I’d ever had by far.
The final part of the tour was a visit to the tea shop. I reached for their highest grade of ceremonial matcha, Tenju 天授 (heavenly). Although Marukyu-Koyamaen only uses natural fertilizers for all of their teas, I was curious about their organic selection. Knowing I was looking for high quality matcha, they advised me that their top matcha was significantly superior to their top organic matcha. While I understood there was no comparison, I had a feeling that their organic Matcha Gold was probably still better than many other matcha brands.
During my visit to Marukyu-Koyamaen, it was evident just how essential unwavering dedication to quality and attention to detail were to the production of exceptional matcha powder. When the same level of care was applied to my own preparation, I was rewarded with the perfect bowl of matcha. Learning how matcha powder is made, and how to prepare it traditionally, has increased both my appreciation and enjoyment of the tea.
The CEO of a multi-million dollar public company asked a new entrepreneur for feedback on their software. The entrepreneur was excited to share their honest thoughts and suggested a fix to one of the features. The fix was implemented that same week.
Meanwhile, a smaller competitor was hiring employees in an attempt to expand. They reached out to candidates with the promise of a job, only to redirect them to an impersonal screening call. The recruiter recorded answers to questions without actually listening to any of the responses. The candidate ended the call by asking for feedback to better prepare for the next interview. The recruiter then shamed the candidate for demonstrating weakness, and disappeared without replying to any of the follow ups. The company struggled and ended up laying off 50% of its employees before being acquired for parts.
After experiencing the culture of each of these companies first hand, their fate doesn’t surprise me. The CEO is a reflection of a company that is successful because it values feedback and continuous improvement. On the other hand, a company that considers asking for feedback to be a weakness is bound to end up failing. True weakness is being afraid of rejection and constructive criticism that might lead to you having to change.
Ask for, and listen to, feedback.
Do you have any feedback about Hōjicha Co.? Please share your thoughts with me here.
Since my last post about bread making, I’ve learnt several more lessons (some painful). Baking bread is definitely a science, and my style of improvisation doesn’t always work out. But if I can do it, anyone can.
The most important thing I’ve learned is how to adjust the amount of liquids for each recipe. You’ll need to add more liquids if you substitute any portion of your flour with whole wheat flour. The amount of water also depends on your kitchen’s humidity. If your kitchen is dry, you’ll need to add more liquids. Finally, it’s important to properly measure the flour because too much flour will result in a dry dough. Avoid packing your flour too tightly by fluffing it up in the container. Then, scoop it with a spoon and sprinkle the flour into your measuring cup. If you have a kitchen scale, then skip all of that and just weigh it for optimal results.
Understanding the above is helpful in preventing a dry and dense bread loaf early on. However, knowing it’s never too late to save the dough was the true game changer. Once the bread machine begins to knead the dough, you can quickly tell if the dough looks like a puddle or if it’s a shaggy dry mess. Instead of baking the dough and hoping for the best, you can salvage the bread by adding more flour or liquid. Start by allowing the bread machine to knead the dough uninterrupted, as sometimes the dough just takes time to form. If the dough isn’t coming together or is lumpy after several minutes, then it is too dry. If the dough is sticking to the sides, then the dough is too wet.
The key is to carefully add one tablespoon of either water or flour at a time. As I’ve learned, pouring water from the Brita onto a tablespoon above the dough isn’t going to end well.
The type and even the brand of your flour may also affect the amount of liquids needed. My unbleached all purpose Canadian flour has a higher protein percentage than American flour. This means that I might need much less flour than listed in the recipe. Although you can always adjust the liquids during kneading, the flavour and rise of the dough will be affected when the difference is too great. The ratio that works best for my flour and machine is 3 – 3 ½ cups of flour, 1 cup water, and 2 ½ teaspoons yeast. When you figure out your ratio, you’ll get better at identifying recipes that will result in a successful loaf. You’ll also be able to adjust any recipe that lists more flour for the same amount of water and yeast you require.
After baking your own bread, your patience will get tested while you wait for it to cool. Know that slicing your bread will be much easier once it is properly cooled. If that isn’t enough incentive, then keep in mind that the bread continues to bake outside of the bread machine. Let the bread complete its cooking process, and you’ll be rewarded with a better tasting loaf. Achieve the best results by removing the bread from the pan as soon as it is done baking. Place the bread on a cooling rack to ensure you won’t end up with a soggy bottom. Then place the bread in the oven, and leave the door slightly open. Cool the bread slowly to avoid a wrinkly crust.
The last time I baked bread, I was so eager to get it to cool that I burned my arm while flipping the pan over. Always use long oven gloves to carefully remove the freshly baked bread from the still very hot pan. If you’re curious, the bread turned out great and is now my go-to sandwich bread.
Below are both of my favourite recipes so far, though I suspect this French-Style Country Bread with poolish starter is going to taste incredible. Cooking with poolish could fill another whole post, but I’ll just say that it gives bread (and pizza dough) an amazing restaurant-quality flavour.
Although the order recommended by my bread machine is liquids followed by dry ingredients, I prefer to let the flour fully hydrate first. I add all of the ingredients into the bread machine in the order above, except for the olive oil. Then I turn the machine on the dough cycle, and after exactly two minutes I add in the olive oil while it’s still kneading.
Instead of taking the subway from Umeda Sky Building, I decided to walk back to the hotel. This way I could explore different neighbourhoods in Osaka, and make it to my room before dark. The walk would take about 40 minutes, and I wondered if that was too long of a wait for dinner. Exploring would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t worried about getting hungry and then having to find food without wifi.
The nearest place with vegan options was Mauloa Acai and Cafe. The cafe has great reviews, and it helps that I already love acai bowls. As I walked in, the beautifully decorated cafe transported me to Hawaii. Or at least how I pictured Hawaii looks and feels. The greeting was also as warm as I would imagine. There was so much to see, and take pictures of, that I almost forgot about ordering.
After a quick look at the menu, I noticed a sign for their newest acai bowl called PB energy. It sounded great, and tasted even better. The cute mug shaped bowl was bigger than expected, and it kept me full with the addition of peanut butter. I also ordered a few extras to be sprinkled on top even though it already included granola, banana, blueberries, honey, cacao nibs, hemp seeds, and almonds.
Acai bowls seem to look and taste better when made at a restaurant, but I can’t wait to buy some acai and add it to a smoothie at home.
After having Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station, I walked over to Umeda Sky Building. Instead of heading directly to the top of the building, I first tried to find a Doutor. The cafe advertised their sakura flavoured desserts in celebration of the cherry blossom season, and I wanted to taste the Sakura Mille Crepe Cake. At the time, I was still making exceptions for desserts that weren’t plant-based.
I had looked up the directions for Doutor back at the hotel, and was convinced I knew the exact building and level. Then when I didn’t spot the cafe, I started to panic. I had found myself in an underground market with no Doutor in sight. Although it was a wonderful recreation of an old Osaka street from the early 20th century, I couldn’t focus on exploring it. I darted from one area to another, desperate to stick to my schedule. I felt lost without any internet, and once again forgot to keep an open mind while travelling. I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually lost or even alone, and that it wasn’t the end of the world if things didn’t go according to plan. Maybe I’d even find a better sakura dessert later on.
Just as I had thought of skipping dessert and heading to the rooftop, Francois had found the cafe. I finally ordered the Sakura Mille Crepe Cake, and noticed that the dessert set came with coffee at a discounted price. I tried to order a decaf soy latte, but it wasn’t going well. The soy latte part was understood, but not the decaf part. When I tried to paraphrase, the barista tried to suggest hot chocolate. This seemed like a weird suggestion at first, but then I realized that technically it was a warm drink without any caffeine. It seems that the barista did understand me after all, but was trying to be polite.
After reading between the lines that decaf coffee wasn’t available at that location, I ordered the soy latte and figured that at least it was discounted. Then the total price was different from the discounted set price. There was no one in line behind me, so I casually asked about it. The server kindly explained that since soy milk was extra, the set was only available with a dairy milk latte. Even though this all happened much quicker than it sounds, I still felt bad about bothering him with my complicated order. I reassured him it wasn’t a problem, thanked him for all of his help, and quickly paid.
The Sakura Mille Crepe Cake was adorable and tasted like strawberry jam. I was mostly just happy to finally relax and enjoy my dessert. When I was done, I calmly made my way to the entrance of the Umeda Sky Building. First, I walked around the indoor observatory taking in the beautiful views of Osaka. Then I went to the rooftop to experience the Floating Garden Observatory. The open air observatory was absolutely terrifying. There was no glass hiding the city views, which makes it ideal for taking good pictures but terrible for someone with a fear of heights. It was so windy, I was convinced I would fly right off the building.
As I clutched my bag, I began to panic for the second time that day. While changing course had caused me stressed earlier, this time it brought me comfort to know that I could simply go back down. I knew my fear was irrational since other people were walking around happily. Not to mention that the rooftop wouldn’t be open if it was dangerous. However, I decided that I shouldn’t feel pressured to walk around if I wouldn’t enjoy it. I was brave enough to check out the top level, and didn’t need a picture to prove it. Besides, Francois would fill me in and show me his photos. I went back down to the enclosed observatory area, where I could enjoy the view more peacefully.
It’s that freezing time of the year where I dread going to the grocery store (I don’t drive). In addition to my usual planning and stocking up the freezer, I borrowed my friend’s bread machine. The bread machine came with a recipe booklet, but most of the recipes included eggs and dairy. Since baking is more exact than cooking, I looked up a vegan whole wheat bread recipe instead of improvising. I then bought a giant bag of whole wheat flour, before realizing I had to go back to the store to buy bread machine yeast. At least these two ingredients will last me for several loaves. Luckily the seeds and vital wheat gluten were listed as optional as I had just used the last of them earlier.
Before getting started, I figured I should wipe the machine down. Turns out it needed much more than a quick clean. Below the bread pan was a horrifying mess. I thoroughly cleaned the machine, and then turned it on bake mode for 20 minutes just to be safe. Finally, I was ready to get baking.
The first ingredient was warm water, so I got started while the machine was still warm. Even though the order goes from liquid to dry ingredients, I should’ve measured them all out to avoid having to wash and dry my measuring cup and spoons half way through. The last ingredient was the yeast, and I’d forgotten the recipe explicitly stated that it should not come into contact with any of liquids. Oops. I rushed to start the machine in the hopes that it wouldn’t matter if it started kneading the dough right away. After a few minutes, I noticed that I had accidentally put it on bake mode. I tried to switch it to the whole wheat cycle, but this didn’t go smoothly either as now the machine was too hot to start. Several minutes later with the lid open, and the machine was finally cool enough.
In the excitement of watching the machine knead the dough, I forgot all of my worries. Then the window fogged up during rise time. While waiting, I planned my next loaf of bread. Turns out milk powder is only used because many people put their machine on a delay, and without a delay I could easily substitute it with non-dairy milk or even yogurt.
When the bread begun to bake, the room filled with the lovely aroma of the honey lavender included in the mix. I was tempted to devour it right as the machine beeped, but instead I carefully removed the bread pan to cool in the oven. I left the oven door slightly open to avoid a crinkly and soggy crust.
The wait was worth it. As I sliced the loaf, the texture was perfect. I had a plain bite, and the taste was incredible. It was perfect alone, or with a simple spread of margarine or coconut oil. But I was inspired to quickly whip up a healthier cashew spread with just a hint of honey.
While thinking of other toppings like almond butter and bananas, I tried to come up with a savoury option that wouldn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the bread. There was a fresh bunch of carrots in the fridge, and I always had extra chickpea flour around, so I decided to make some chickpea omelettes. I even had some chickpea milk, but any non-dairy milk would do (even water works in a pinch). I usually only make enough batter for two, but this time I made enough omelettes for the entire week. A perfect winter brunch. I usually drink a matcha latte when I wake up, as I don’t like eating breakfast too early. Then by the time I’m done sipping on my tea and planning the day, I’m ready for a meal.
The omelette sandwich tasted great with the cashew spread and topped with alfalfa sprouts. It would also be great topped with fresh cucumber, cherry tomatoes, or peppers. The only thing left to improve is the size of my slice. I’m still getting the hang of it, but while my slices are this thick I’ll just have to stick to open-faced sandwiches.
After a busy afternoon tasting hojicha and matcha in Uji, I spent the following morning relaxing among the cherry blossoms at Osaka Castle Park. The area was beautiful with plenty to see. Last time I visited the park, I went straight to the castle. However, this time I wanted to explore the quieter spots by the river.
As part of the Japanese tradition of hanami, everyone was quietly adoring the blooms. Then as soon as it got windy, people rushed to capture the petals falling to the ground known as hanafubuki.
At lunch time I made my way to Umeda district. The giant station and surrounding malls offered a variety of food options. Even with the wide selection, it was tough to find something plant-based. Since I was craving noodles, I came up with the idea of ordering Kitsune Udon without the dashi broth. I explained the reason to ensure they wouldn’t worry about my enjoyment of the dish and they kindly accommodated me. The Kitsune Udon came with udon noodles topped with flavourful deep-fried tofu, a sprinkle of seaweed shreds, and sliced green onion. Even though I’m sure other people thought it was crazy to be eating noodles without the broth, the noodles tasted amazing with a drizzle of soy sauce.
Just to be sure I wouldn’t leave hungry, I also ordered the Inari sushi. This type of sushi is usually vegan by default as it is simply rice stuffed in the same deep-fried sushi pocket that comes with Kitsune Udon. After this filling and delicious lunch, I was ready to go looking for dessert.
As I crossed the Uji-bashi Bridge, I stopped to enjoy the Uji river view and the surrounding hills before finally arriving at the famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji. The short road leading to the Byodoin temple is chock-full of tea shops selling the best matcha in the world.
Although I had a list of matcha brands I wanted to buy, I strolled down the street looking for a quiet teahouse to relax in after the train ride from Osaka. Terashimaya is the first tea shop that caught my eye. The shop had hundreds of wooden tea crates and was extremely busy, which was a good sign, but what drew me was their outdoor seating area.
One of the shopkeepers was surrounded by customers sampling genmaicha, and so I approached another and asked if they had ceremonial matcha. After gesturing to explain I wanted to drink the tea, the shopkeeper lead me outside. The tranquil seating area was sheltered from the sun and the noise from the street.
While I had planned on trying to ask for their highest grade of matcha, I lost all of my courage when the shopkeeper didn’t come back with a menu. Instead, I was presented with a beautiful black and red tray. The tray had a hot cup of sencha, a bowl of vibrant green matcha, and two matcha flavoured Japanese sweets. I sipped on the first matcha of the day and relaxed.
The matcha served as part of the standard set was good, but not amazing. I later learned that many shops don’t allow you to taste their highest grade matcha. Luckily, I had done my research and was now eager to buy my first tin of the finest matcha powder.