Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dark Mountain Hut



No one visits here
in my dark mountain hut
where I live alone.
But for this sweet loneliness
it would be too bleak to bear.

- Saigyo 西行 (1118 – 23 March 1190). Saigyo was a Japanese poet in the late Heian and early Kamakura period. He was from the nobility and was a guard to Emperor Toba 鳥羽天皇 before becoming a monk at a young age. His poems are greatly loved and revered even today.

How appropriate it is to have tea in this place somewhere in the mountains of central Taiwan. 

This is the residence of a devout Buddhist living almost in solitude after long years of service in a temple in south Taiwan. The residence and the garden is designed in Japanese style with a certain sense of Shibusa 渋さ. Even the water for the tea was brought to boil in a Japanese tetsubin which is unusual for drinking teas from Taiwan. Peace and tranquility pervaded the atmosphere. 

Visitors are not allowed as it is a private home. Extremely private, I hasten to add as the few residents spend most of their time in prayers, meditation and household chores. 

A disciple of this person brought me here after a getting a special appointment, just so that we could enjoy tea in this serene place with exceptional water from a nearby mountain spring. These photographs do not do justice to the place and the description here is a very poor substitute to the feeling and ambience that I experienced. It was a perfect setting for drinking and enjoying classic high mountain teas from Taiwan (Meishan 梅山) and Nepal (Jun Chiyabari).

Tea was brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks and scholars and was propagated by various monasteries. In East Asia, Buddhism and tea were for many years very closely connected. 

So finding myself in this place, that connected all the dots of the tea universe, Chinese culture, Buddhism, tea and Japan, I am transported to another dimension, to the world of the tea poet, Lu Tong 盧仝 (790-835) of Tang dynasty..........
.......I am overcome,
Feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.

Images: Residence, garden and tea pavilion with a meditation room below. Taiwan March 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sun Moon's Black Tea

Long years have passed; yours in the Way, mine in worldly life.
I am fortunate to speak with you this autumn.
Drinking fragrant tea until late,
Painful though parting be, I bow to you as I see
you off to distant clouds.

- Emperor Saga 嵯峨天皇
(February 8, 785 – August 24, 842) 52nd emperor of Japan

Black tea was introduced in Taiwan during the Japanese period in the 1920's when assamica variety, mostly from Burma, was introduced. After much research Sun Moon Lake area was chosen to be the area for black tea cultivation because of its climatic conditions.

Long years have passed and black tea has come on its own in Taiwan. Some of those plants were crossed with the local Taiwanese wild varieties Camellia sinensis forma formosensis. A prime example of this being Hong Yue 红玉, a hybrid of a Burmese and a local Taiwanese cultivar. This is a fragrant tea with an amazing flavour profile is now one of the most well known teas of Taiwan: a true, living national treasure if there ever was one.

I was fortunate to "have a conversation" with Liao Mayor Black Tea Storyland at Sun Moon Lake in the spring of 2014. It was a fascinating place where the story of black tea in Taiwan is told in a simple but very effective way. Here one can try various types of black tea at the tea bar and even eat tea flavoured ice cream or buy tea and tea ware. In another but contiguous section, a museum of old tea machines and history of black tea are displayed.

How I wished that we could have something similar in Nepal.
........... Painful though parting be, I bow to you as I see you off to distant clouds.

An aesthetically done shrine to black tea at Liao Mayor Black Tea Storyland at Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan. (March 2014)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Qingming 清明節 2014


A drizzling rain falls like tears on Qing Ming;
The mourner's heart is breaking on his way.
Where can a tavern be found to drown his sadness?
A cowherd points to Xing Hua (Apricot Blossoms) Village.

- Du Mu 杜牧 (803–852) of Tang

This year Qingming festival 清明節 falls on 05 April.

Du Mu's poem alludes to Qingming rains. Tradition has it that it will rain on this day piling more misery to those already heavy with grief in remembrance of their departed loved ones.

Almost every year I like to post something about this festival because of its connection with tea. Tea lovers all over the world look forward to pre-Qingming teas specially from China, the country where tea originated. Despite the stratospheric prices for these pre-Qingming teas they are in great demand. Accordingly this festival is of great significance to all of us involved in tea.

Qingming Festival usually falls 104 days after winter equinox. On this solemn day families visit ancestral graves and tombs to sweep and clean them and generally remember their forebears. The festival itself is said to have started during the Spring Autumn Period (771-476 BCE).

One does not celebrate Qingming for it is a solemn day. However on this special day for tea, I shall reminisce about the bowl of tea that I had in a wonderful natural setting of a tea garden in the mountains of central Taiwan. The feeling was out of this world: much like the 7th bowl of tea of Lu Tong 盧仝. Of course, some exquisite tea will be on the menu for the day as an offering to the Gods and ancestors for a successful 2015.

Tea "ceremony" near Pagua Tea garden somewhere in central Taiwan. (March 2014)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tea on The Tropic


Ruisui Township 瑞穗鄉 is a small rural town in Hualien County of Taiwan on the Pacific coast. Population of Ruisui probably does not exceed a few thousands. Nothing significant except that Tropic of Cancer passes right through it. Except its innovative tea farmers produce some exquisite red / black tea called Mixan Hong Cha (Honey Red Tea). One sip is enough to make you exclaim, "Wow! How can anyone produce such teas?"

Oh yes, if you get fed up of drinking sublime teas, you can always head to its wonderful dairy and drink fresh, fragrant and "udderly" delicious milk.

A real bucolic idyll to which I want to go back soon!

Top Three: Tea gardens some amidst betel nut plantations.
Middle Three: Tea farmer serves tea to customers. A happy smiley Mixian Hong Cha and the tea cultivar from which this is made. 
Bottom Two: Orchids (grows profusely in Taiwan).
March 2014

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Primeval Elegance


This is definitely my favourite food. Sashimi or raw fish. For me, nothing compares to it because of its pure and unadulterated taste. No spices. No oil except what is naturally secreted by the fish. Not steamed or fried or grilled or somehow altered from its natural state. Of course soy and wasabi accompany it as a dip, but I look at that as being optional.

There is also something primeval about it. I can imagine someone 70,000 years ago eating raw fish as she eyed Asia across the Horn of Africa before crossing Bab-el-Mandeb into Yemen. 

Yet there is something elegant about Sashimi too. Presentation is mostly minimalist and the portions are bite sized and convenient for chopsticks. Some fish is laid out flat while others are upright and some slanting: all part of the food presentation. There are different colours that make them visually attractive but everything is in harmony and focus is solely on the fish, the main and only ingredient. With different seasons come different fish with different textures, colours and taste. Just perfect!

However I also worry. What happens when 200 million Chinese discover the joys of Sashimi? Forget the price going through the stratosphere. Will there be enough fish? Will Tsukiji Market 築地市場, the biggest wholesale fish market in the world or its successor survive?  

Scary thought indeed.

Images: At the Tsukiji Market 築地市場 May 2013.
Top: Wasabi ready to be grated on the shark skin with soy in the black pot
Bottom: Assorted Sashimi

Friday, September 27, 2013

Simple Fare. Complex Connections


One does not associate vegetarian fare with Japan. Yet, should you have meal in a temple complex that is what you will get: simple and delicious vegetarian food surrounded by gardens that are hundreds of years old or even a thousand years plus. 

On a warm spring day at Hasedera Temple 長谷寺 in Kamakura 鎌倉 that was my fare. Perhaps it was the first time that I had had something to eat in a temple in Japan. Hasedera is one of the great temples of Kamakura and houses the famous wooden statue of Kannon and is part of the pilgrimage circuit to Goddess Benzaiten. 

Kannon of Japan is known as Guanyin in China and Avalokitesvara in Nepal, all in the Buddhist tradition. But here is the thing, svara in the name Avalokitesvara shows a strong connection to the Hindu tradition of Shiva.

Benzaiten is one of the seven lucky gods of Japan and is known in this part of the world at Saraswoti. In Japan she holds the Biwa (lute) instead of the Veena from this part of the world. To add to the complexity she has also been integrated into the Shinto tradition. 

One of my favourite teas is Tieguanin 鐵觀音 originating from Anxi 安溪縣 in Fujian province  福建 of China. That tea is named after Guanyin or Kannon or Avalokitesvara. Depending on the processing this tea is either flowery with a delicate aroma. Or if it has been roasted, it will have a strong nutty taste.

So it was entirely appropriate that I should be having a simple vegetarian lunch at a temple dedicated to Kannon / Guanyin to whom Tieguanin tea is dedicated in the tradition established by the person who grew up around my ancestral village in Lumbini, Nepal more than 2500 years ago.

Image: Vegetarian food at the restaurant in Hasedera Temple complex and the surrounding garden. (May 2013)