Taste and Memory

I made tea today.

In itself, that’s nothing noteworthy; I have tea almost every day.  But today I opened a cask of high-grade green tea that I had bought in Kyoto.  I expected to enjoy a very nice cup of tea, but I got more than I had anticipated.

On my first sip, I tasted a beautiful balance of grassy sweetness, gentle astringency, and rich umami and thought, “Wow, this is the real thing.  It’s been a while.”

And suddenly, I found myself overcome by a rush of memories.  I was resting my legs at a teahouse in Kanazawa, my warm green tea refreshing despite the August heat.  I was in Kyoto, in a half-dozen different temples – old wooden buildings with serene gardens of raked gravel and verdant trees, and dim, blessedly cool rooms with tatami floors and alcoves displaying dew-fresh flowers below ancient, yellowed wall scrolls.  I was in a succession of restaurants, encountering foods I’d never seen before or marveling at the difference in quality when more familiar dishes like sashimi or tempura are done right.  I was at my old school for the first time, being served tea from the good stash as I nervously introduced myself to the principal.

The memories and attendant emotions were nearly overwhelming.  The fact that flavors and scents can evoke memories is no revelation, but I’d never experienced the phenomenon so strongly.  All that from a cup of tea.


The tea, by the way, was “Kaboku,” a top-quality sencha from Ippodo.  (What’s sencha?  From the Kaboku page, use the “Our Products” menu on the left to learn about different types of Japanese green tea.)

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2 Responses to “Taste and Memory”

  1. Nicole Says:

    wow, Kevin – your recount of being flooded with such wonderful memories just completely choked me up – my eyes are still full.

  2. kevinjames Says:

    The whole thing totally caught me off guard. After all, I’ve made matcha (tea ceremony tea) since leaving Japan and had no such reaction. But it makes sense, I suppose.

    Real sencha is very different from the green tea in tea bags that one finds in the US and so the flavor isn’t something you’d readily encounter here. And good sencha is also distinct from bancha, the cheaper (but usually still loose-leaf) tea that serves as everyday fare in Japan. Matcha is even more distinct, but it’s also rarer (as a drink, anyway; matcha ice cream is quite popular).

    Good sencha is simultaneously ubiquitous and a little special (I say “good sencha” because there is also cheap sencha that is more like bancha in terms of quality). For most people, good sencha is a little too expensive for everyday use – especially if you’re drinking several cups of green tea a day – but it’s by no means rare. Mostly it’s served in nice restaurants and when people have guests.

    So I encountered good sencha a lot, but almost always in memorable circumstances, and when I had my first cup in almost half a year, those memories just came at me all at once.

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