Cultivated Days | Epicurean Ideals from the Heart of Japan
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A prelude

The rains have gone and we are swimming through sultry days. Hot, still air vibrates with the high-tension shrill of giant cicadas. But by all accounts this is still the minor phase of heat, the prelude to a major swelter soon to come.

Mornings are moderately cool. Higurashi herald an early dawn. My alarm is useless for its ring of songbirds is indistinguishable from the chorus right outside the open window above my head. But no matter, I’m already awake.

The moment that early summer turns to high summer comes when you can no longer fathom all those warmth-giving things you craved just a few short weeks ago, when the sight of wool or down suddenly suffocates, when cool showers replace hot baths, when all drinks are iced.

Each morning I measure out a portion of green tea. Some days it’s verdant spindles of Yabukita hand-harvested in Mr. Katagi’s fields in Uji. As soon as clear ice is added, the glass katakuchi begins to sweat. A magnolia leaf collects the condensation. In a couple of hours the ice will have just melted and the first draw is poured. The cool, syrupy tea is golden and remarkably sweet. I’ll wipe the katakuchi and magnolia leaf dry, add more icy cubes and set it aside for after lunch. The second draw is perfection, more balanced for my taste, the sweetness pleasantly subdued.

Some days we drink Katagi’s old-world zairai, Japan’s original tea. Unlike the cultivars that dominate today’s tea fields, the leaves of this heirloom varietal are harvested from bushes still grown from seed. With properly variegated genetics a harvest of mineral rich zairai leaves, diverse in shape and size, aroma and color, form their own natural blend. The cult of uniformity can devalue these leaves at market but the taste is original, umami rich with grassy aromatics that linger a long while.

More ice gives us a third draw of cool tea in the midst of hot afternoon doldrums. These measured shots throughout the day offer a clear-eyed wakefulness, enhanced focus, and clarity as I wade through my first full stifling summer in Japan.

If the days are shortening, it’s imperceptible. Each still feels luxuriously long. We work until evening cicadas lure us back up the hill towards home. That same call that serenades the first light of day sounds melancholy as a hazy pink sky bids the sun a slow farewell. The air cools and the mosquitos come out to prey. We drink a fourth and fifth draw throughout the long gloaming, extracting all we can from the tea leaves. These sips are lighter in flavor and in caffeine that could steel away sleep.

Darkness quells the tymbal nerve and when that final light fades, the cicadas cease to cry. Crickets murmur quietly in the hills as we ready for sleep. Inside the heat lingers, thick and still.

*Dear readers, you’ve likely noticed that the frequency of posts has waned this year. It is the symptom of a swell of amazing things going on behind the scenes, collaborations with people I’ve long admired, opportunities to study with the best and dive deeper into the heart of Japanese cuisine, the scent of ink and paper  – in short the fulfillment of many dreams. I’m not one one to voice thoughts until they are fully formed so I’ll leave it there. But stick with me, though it may be only once a month or so here, because amazing things are on the horizon. For a more regular dose of imagery at least, join me over on Instagram!

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