Monday, April 20, 2015

Travel and tea in Japan, versus Korea

I've recently visited both Japan and Korea, with this post covering travel and especially a tea search in Japan.  I didn't do that search justice given places like Disneyland were a higher priority but I still managed to come across a few interesting teas.

It seems as well to start with general impressions.  People tend to ask which country I liked better, and how the two countries differ.  Of course it really doesn't work to summarize the second; the two places and cultures are far too diverse to really compare in that way.  But still the questions are valid, so I'll make a start.

sakura in Yokoham, Japa

sakura and other blooming trees in Seoul, Korea

To me nowhere in Asia looks like Japan; it's the only fully developed country in Asia in the same sense America and Europe are completely modern.  You can even drink the tap water (take that Europe!).  Korea is not far behind, even ahead in some ways, like internet infrastructure and speed.  It's not as if there are things you can't find in Korea that they have elsewhere (ok, possibly some Japanese things, but it's pretty much all there).

giant Buddha

Aside from that Japan has its own style, something impossible to describe, so that buildings and designed areas have a great look and feel (of course the gardens are unique; I mean everything else), and even nature as well.

I noticed something similar in Bavaria, German, where the country was so tidy that even the woods you could see from roads were a bit landscaped (not seemed so, they were).  But Japan takes it to another level.  Cities have a carefully planned style, even nature does, clothing, etc.

amazing miso ramen
Food is taken to another level in Japan.  Even here in Thailand where Japanese food is popular you can't compare what you can find of it here to there.

A hole in the wall ramen shop near where we stayed served the best ramen and the best gyoza I've tasted (fried dumplings), and we've tried versions from dozens of restaurants between Hawaii--which has more Japanese residents than "white"--or Bangkok, which also has a significant Japanese population.

I keep having the experience of a food not really making sense to me until I try a great version.  This happened on a trip to Japan two years ago related to Japanese food, and especially buckwheat noodles (and related to Korean barbecue and kimchi as a condiment a bit over a week ago, but that's a different story).

Of course people are asking me about the culture and the people more than level of development or landscaping or architecture.  A lot of them are now huge fans of Korea because of K-pop (music) or Korean drama.  Of course those exports don't really relate to how one would interact with the average person in Korea, which is more relevant to a visitor.

Japanese people seemed a bit reserved, so it stood out moving on to Korea when people again started commenting on how cute our one-year-old daughter is (essentially like a doll-baby come to life, really).  But then being a bit quieter isn't so negative, and we ended up in some relatively populated places, which would tend to result in people keeping to themselves more.

happier than most commuters
My son's favorite part of the vacation was the trains in both countries, and the rail system in Japan is more developed and extensive than anything I've seen, sort of the opposite of the US.  Then again the rail system around Seoul is fairly complete too, which was all we needed to use on this trip.  In Japan it's different though, lots of different networks, different types of trains, local and express versions to go everywhere, high speed trains, customized luxury touring trains, on and on.

one of many local train networks; in any other country this would be all of it

 English language use is helpful for us when travelling, and it's not so common in either country.  At least in Korea signs were converted to English, which helped a lot, but in both places down to the last person every by-stander we asked for instructions went way out of their way to help us.

For a typical traveler books like Lonely Planet would cover a lot of step-by-step directions anyway, and use of tourist SIMs (phone cards) and Google Maps could help a lot with pointing the way.

Tea in Japan

Maps knows!  some, at least.
I'd hoped that tea would be so prevalent that it would be easy to find in Japan, and didn't do a lot of prior research about it.  Of course it was common, and I did eventually stumble across some less common teas I'd hoped to find, like Japanese black tea.

Given the limited use of English I wasn't sure Google Maps could identify tea shops (as in Thailand business names aren't always identified in English wording) but it did turn up many.  Cafes--places to get a cup of tea, not bulk loose teas--tend to mix with other shops, so it would be nice to get input ahead of time of just the right place, not so easy to do.

I tried finding tea in Chinatown in Yokohama (which of course worked), and only there it occurred to me they would only sell Chinese teas.  Of course I'm not basing that on visiting a lot of shops; given conflicting time demands I was only in and out of a few places.  So I bought four Chinese teas there instead--strange, but based on trying two so far great value for decent, inexpensive teas.

tea shop in Chinatown

Grocery stores sell tea, of course, but in any country there's the concern that they are usually relatively low grades of tea.  In Japan the language issue made it more confusing; with packaging written only in Japanese I'd be buying it almost completely at random.

I did buy a package of "roasted green tea" in one based on getting help from the staff.  I'll research what that means and add more on it in a separate review post.  It was interesting that most seemed to sell teas from other countries as well; nice they could show such diverse tea appreciation, given the range and quality of their domestic products.

I finally found Japanese black tea in a specialty tea shop, the second such shop I found (essentially just on the way to other places, so the plan to invoke luck sort of worked).  The first shop had sold relatively little Japanese tea, focusing more on sales of teas from other countries.  I never would have found it if I hadn't known the Japanese name for black tea (wakoucha; more background on that here).  It was interesting they seemed to be calling black tea "red" tea (from the Chinese convention, of course), so along with the rest of the language issues asking for Japanese black tea might not ever have worked.

Ordinarily when someone would write about tea in Japan they'd move straight into numerous types of teas Japan is famous for, essentially variations of green tea (for the most part, but of course it's not that simple).  I started on drinking loose tea in the form Japanese green teas years ago (maybe four or five?), but only started going overboard with research and tasting in the last two years, so I never did really completely know what I was drinking.  And I still haven't circled back to that, although I expect to eventually.

To make a long story short I've since preferred Chinese teas, especially more oxidized oolongs and black teas, and tried others from lots of other countries.  To stick to more familiar scope and still try something different I wanted to find Japanese black tea, which did work out.  Japanese grocery stores in Bangkok stock an entire aisle of green teas so really I wouldn't need to get on a plane to get back to basics, when I get around to it.  Of course that assumes that Japanese people could somehow counter the curse of almost all grocery store tea being awful.  After seeing the miracle of their rail system I'd think they might be able to, or maybe it's still asking too much.

Conclusions about Japanese teas

fascinated, and not thinking about tea

I never will be able to settle on objective conclusions based on my limited experience, but even limited findings will need to wait until I actually taste the teas I bought.  I've only been back a few days and I was too busy for tea tasting in Japan and Korea.  Shocking, right?  Probably not to anyone routinely traveling with two young children.  I managed to make tea most of the mornings but it was rushed work, not the right time for breaking out the most interesting teas.

I will write more of my impressions in more standard review posts.

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