Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River

Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River 1

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.

Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River 1

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.

Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River 2

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.

Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River 3

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.

Back at Byodo-in Omotesando Road for Matcha by the River 4


Taste hojicha powder and loose leaf tea from Kyoto at Hojicha Co.

A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

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.

A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

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.


Love matcha? Then you’ll want to try hojicha, the roasted Japanese green tea.

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

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.

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

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.  

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

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.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji
Statue of Murasaki Shikibu

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.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

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.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

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.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

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.

Ordering Ceremonial Matcha in Kyoto

Ordering ceremonial matcha in Kyoto

The good thing about arriving in a surprisingly busy area of Kyoto, was the amble choice of teahouses. In an attempt to be open to new experiences, I embraced under-planning and walked into the first teahouse I came across. After drinking matcha in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, I wanted to try a matcha flavoured food. The menu had a variety of matcha noodle dishes, and appetizing desserts. Since matcha is an acquired taste, flavoured ice cream, tiramisu, and parfaits are a great alternative for those who don’t yet appreciate ceremonial matcha.

There were many food items, but unfortunately no vegan options. Instead, I ordered a ceremonial matcha and hoped it would be served with a sweet treat. In Japanese teahouses, the most expensive matcha on the menu is the highest grade ceremonial matcha and is served with sencha and wagashi. Wagashi is a small Japanese confection, often made from sugar and rice flour. It is typically plant-based, even when it includes a filling.

The order did end up including a delicious pink wagashi. The matcha itself didn’t have that distinct umami flavour, however, it was still extremely fresh and skillfully prepared. I also ordered an iced matcha, which was smooth but much sweeter than expected as they added a generous amount of syrup.

Sometimes it’s nice to stroll around, and visit a place without looking at reviews. Though, I have extremely high expectations for my next matcha tasting as it would be in the highly regarded teahouses of Uji.

My first visit to Kyoto

My first visit to Kyoto

After months of searching for the best hojicha Kyoto has to offer, I’ve finally found hojicha worth sharing and have officially launched Hōjicha Co. Japan Today kindly featured the exciting news, including more about the origin of Hōjicha Co. and our future plans. If you’d like to celebrate the launch and taste my new favourite tea, use code: DANIELLE10 to get 10% off any of our products (yes, even the Hojicha Launch Pack).

If you have no idea what hojicha is, you’re not alone. Although it was invented nearly 100 years ago in Kyoto, hojicha is only now beginning to gain popularity outside of Japan. Hojicha is a roasted green tea that has zero bitterness and is reddish-brown in colour. I only discovered the naturally sweet tea last March in Osaka.

During that trip to Osaka, I also visited Kyoto for the first time. After wanting to experience the modern urban vibes of Tokyo on an earlier trip to Japan, I was now ready to slow down and explore nature. Kyoto was always described to me as a peaceful hiking destination. That is why I was utterly shocked when I arrived at a bustling shopping district.

My first visit to Kyoto

As I tried to navigate through the crowded streets, I double-checked that Maruyama Park was in fact nearby. The cherry blossom season started early this year, and I didn’t want to miss out on the blooms near Yasaka Shrine. When I arrived at the park, I walked towards the cherry blossom viewing spot Google Maps had suggested. However, I was once again caught off guard as the spot turned out to be a festival area full of food stands. I continued to venture deeper into the park, determined to find a quiet spot.

My first visit to Kyoto

A few moments later, I was surrounded by nature. On my stroll I came across ancient shrines, beautiful buddhist temples, serene ponds, and colourful cherry blossoms. It dawned on me that there was much to see in Kyoto, and it was best experienced first hand with an open mind. A realization I hope to remember throughout all of my travels.

My first visit to Kyoto

 

Soy Chai Latte at Yodoyabashi Odona in Osaka

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

After a very early breakfast of convenience store goodies, I started to get peckish. Since it was only 10 am, I stopped at a Starbucks to refuel.

The Starbucks at Yodoyabashi Odona was quiet and classy. The glass display case was full of the usual items and some extra decadent treats. I skipped those as I figured my drink would have plenty of sugar already.

The friendly barista greeted me, and I placed an order for a medium soy chai latte. My go-to size is a small, but in Japan I get a medium. This isn’t because of the minuscule difference between Canada’s mL sizes and Japan’s cc sizes. It’s because a small is interpreted as a Tall in Canada, and a Short in Japan. Yes, I’m the annoying customer that forgets to use Starbucks’ official size names. I get flustered enough trying to remember my order and to ask for soy milk. While waiting in line, I always wonder if I should say soy latte or latte with soy milk. The first sounds better, but the second emphasized the soy more and might be more in line with the register process.

I was extra nervous about asking for soy milk in Osaka. When I previously asked other restaurants in Japan if they had soy milk, they would only catch the word milk and excitedly say yes. Even though I made a mental note to say ‘soy’ instead of ‘soy milk’, I accidentally blurted out chai latte with soy milk.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

Turns out I was worried for nothing. The barista clearly understood my request, and even handed me a cute soy milk card to ensure I was given the right drink. I quickly snapped a picture of the card before my drink was ready. Then I snapped another of the condiments bar. There were multiple sugar options (which I skipped), including: white & brown sugar, liquid sugar, and even orange vanilla sugar. There was also something called coffee powder, which looked like finely ground coffee that may or may not have been sweetened.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 2

I enjoyed my soy chai latte on a gorgeous red velvet chair, and got to planning the rest of the day.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 4

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

Prior to travelling to Japan, I had done some research into the best places to buy and sip on ceremonial grade matcha in Uji and Osaka.

The first place I visited was Uji-en (Uji Garden) in Shinsaibashi. The tea shop is located near the end of a covered street in the shopping district, which feels like a large yet crowded hallway. Since there were two tea shops on the same area, I checked out the merchandise to try and figure out if I was in the right place. Taking the time to look around, also helped me spot the tea drinking area. Even though I knew Noren were traditionally draped at the entrance of restaurants, I thought the fabric might be concealing a stock room. Luckily, I got a brief glimpse into the back of the tea shop as another customer exited. It felt impolite to walk in, and so I asked another shopkeeper if I could enter while miming drinking matcha by holding my two hands up and tilting an imaginary matcha bowl to my mouth. The shopkeeper understood I wanted to drink matcha, not just buy a tin of tea, and enthusiastically invited me in.

There were plenty of seats, but I decided to sit by the counter to get a better view of the matcha preparation. Before placing my order, I was given a small cup with a deep caramel liquid. The drink was cold, and had a rich earthy aroma and subtle sweetness. It didn’t have the strong bitter aftertaste of green or black tea. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first taste of roasted green tea also known as Hojicha.

When my matcha was served, it came with yet another small cup. This time the small cup contained a hot bright green liquid. After enjoying the hojicha, I bravely took a sip of the unknown tea. As soon as I caught a whiff of the tea, I knew I wouldn’t like the flavour. It smelled and tasted exactly like vegetable broth. I was convinced it was vegetable soup, but later found out it was sencha. Apparently most people preferred the taste of sencha over matcha, and so it is served to clear the palate.    

After tasting one of the best and worst teas I’ve ever had, it was time for the main event. I won’t leave you in suspense any longer, except to say that this trip has completely changed the way I drink matcha. The first sip was so exceptional that I had to pause in appreciation before taking another. The matcha tasted incredible, and was obviously very fresh and of high quality. However, the skilled preparation took it to the next level. The delicate foam, the fully dissolved powder, and the perfectly warm water were all signs of an expertly made matcha.

Paying attention to details not only pays off in terms of flavour, but it also makes you appreciate matcha more than you would if you had in a plastic to-go cup while rushing to a meeting. It reminds me of a quote by the monk Jeong Kwan, who said on Chef’s Table: “I make food as a meditation.” Both the quote and this tea experience have had a huge impact on the way I prepare matcha and food in general.

If you are curious, here’s how I prepare my matcha.

  1. Boil filtered water and let stand overnight. Japanese tea tastes best in soft water.
  2. Boil water again once you are ready to drink matcha.
  3. Pour the boiling water into your matcha bowl, and let stand for a minute or so.
  4. Transfer the water into another vessel. This helps warm the bowl, and then cools down the water to 80°C to avoid burning the matcha.
  5. Sift two scoops of matcha into the bowl to prevent clumps.
  6. Add a little bit of the warm water into the matcha bowl.
  7. Whisk quickly in a zig-zag shape for approximately 30 seconds. Once foam appears, slow down and get rid of any air bubbles.
  8. Add the rest of the water. If you’d like to prepare a latte instead, then add half of the remaining warm water along with non-dairy milk.

The All Nippon Airways Experience

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva

When booking flights to Japan, I was willing to endure a couple of layovers to get to fly with All Nippon Airways within my budget.

My main concern with long flights is the food. There is little you can bring through security, and you can’t rely on the options at the airport. Some airports have decent food, but it’s difficult to plan ahead since food varies from terminal to terminal, gates may be announced late or change, and places may be closed around departure time. That leaves you with notoriously awful airplane food. Worse yet, there were times where the airline didn’t even have a meal for me.

ANA impressed me from the get go. For starters, their site lists several different meal options that worked for my dietary restrictions. Another reassuring sign, was a glowing review of ANA’s food that included a useful timeline of when to expect the meals. As if that wasn’t enough, ANA’s meals were actually voted on and chosen by customers.

Despite these high expectations, ANA still delivered above and beyond. The food was delicious, and the incredibly friendly crew members made it taste even better.

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva

After takeoff, a crew member confirmed my meal choice and put a sticker on the top of my seat to avoid confusion. Shortly after, it was snack time. This wasn’t your typical dry pretzels though. ANA’s snack was amazing seaweed rice crackers. The sweet and savoury treat was clearly marked as vegetarian, and a crew member also reassured me it was suitable for me when they handed it out. I spent the rest of the trip searching for a similar snack in grocery stores.

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva

It wasn’t long before the first meal arrived. The hearty main consisted of rice, spinach, and tofu marinated in a vegetable tomato sauce. There were also two sides, and a dessert. The leafy greens came with lemon dressing, which I used for the grilled tofu and vegetables side. The dessert was juicy fruit pieces. It’s worth noting how ANA’s attention to detail made the meal exceptional. The tofu in the main was cooked in flavourful sauce to keep it from being bland, while the grilled tofu and vegetables weren’t drenched in oil. The salad had a variety of leafy greens, rather than the standard iceberg lettuce. Finally, the fruit wasn’t dry or artificially sweetened, instead it actually tasted like freshly sliced fruit.  

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva

The drinks in between meals were also lovely. The hot/cold Japanese green tea, and the Aromatic Kabosu were both welcome changes to the concentrated juices usually served on planes. If you travel in First Class with ANA, you’ll also get to enjoy an authentic bowl of matcha.

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva

Before the final meal, I woke up to nibble on a cute finger sandwich filled with grilled vegetables. Then two hours before landing, a mouth-watering vegetable noodle dish was served. There were sides, but I was fully focused on the perfect seasoning of the noodles. This was definitely a meal I can’t wait to replicate at home.   

The All Nippon Airways Experience - Danielle Geva


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