Christmas Traditions in Japan

Col. Sanders are Santa in Japan

A New Japanese Tradition: Kentucky for Christmas. Photo by Flickr User ‘rumpleteaser’.

Would it surprise you to know that Christmas traditions in Japan are a reflection of American and European culture? For this huge tea producer and a nation with less than 1% of its population identifying as Christian, it celebrates the holiday with same gusto as America. It turns out a mix of good timing, similar cultural stories of big bellied men, and American marketing made this possible.

Santa and Hoteisho

The story of Santa is not that different from the story of Hoteisho. A large bellied, jolly Buddhist monk with a curly mustache that is said to have eyes on the back of his head to see whether or not children are behaving. Hoteisho travels with a large sack full of good fortune to pass out to people as he spreads cheer and good fortune to all. He is one of the seven lucky gods in Japan and a product of a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism that occurred in Japan in the 13th century. As it turns out, Japan had its own Santa Clause long before exposure to Europeans.

This may also help explain why the Japanese culture had no problem adopting this European tradition. They saw Santa as the European version of Hoteisho.

Christmas Decorations and Gifts

After World War I, Japan became was the largest manufacturer of Christmas decorations purchased in Europe and America. Dresden, Germany had held that title previously, but was so decimated by the war that it never caught back up to Japan’s manufacturing. World War II shifted this again, but the legacy of making Christmas decorations stayed with the Japanese culture. The glass balls on Christmas trees where not that different from the paper ornaments hung by the Japanese in celebration of spring. So Christmas trees, lights and ornaments can be found all over Japan during the month of December. It is very popular to take evening walks along the malls and parks to see the Christmas lights and ornaments.

Gifts in Japan are actually exchanged on New Year’s Day as a way of wishing your loved ones well for the new year. So Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are reserved more for parties, family gatherings and outings than actual gift exchange.

The Emperor’s Birthday

As it turns out December 23rd is a national holiday in Japan to honor the Emperor’s birthday. This is one of the few days that the inner grounds to the Imperial Palace, which is currently located in a park in Tokyo are opened to the public. Many people gather there to wish the Emperor good health and happy future. Think of it like President’s Day in the US, only we have a tendency to focus the deceased Presidents more than the living ones. Since the Emperor’s birthday is so close to the week before the New Year, it marks a time when many Japanese go on vacation to visit family and celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. Schools are closed between the Emperor’s birthday and the new year. This makes it convenient to slide in Christmas, and Christmas traditions, which is what KFC did in the 1970s.

Fried Chicken Christmas Eve

When KFC entered the Japanese market in the 1970’s it was looking for as many ways as possible to get the Japanese into their fast food restaurants. In 1974 they launched their Kentucky for Christmas campaign, which worked beautifully. It was targeted at dating couples to celebrate their blooming relationship and experience a little US hospitality Christmas eve. It took off and is still very popular in country. You have to actually put in for a reservation for a spot Christmas eve, and now you can order for pick up that afternoon to consume at home.

Though a bit quirky, Christmas in Japan is not all that different from Christmas here in the United States.

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Raku Pottery: Art Fashioned by Tea

Raku Style Pottery

Raku Pottery – Photo by Flickr User Tony Alter – CC BY 2.0

Raku pottery finds its roots back to the later part of the Ming Dynasty in China (1500’s CE), but was fully developed by the Raku family in Japan. This pottery technique has spread the world over and has taken its own form in the United States and Europe. However, the fundamentals are still similar and they all go back to the influence of Sen Rikyu, the buddiest monk who created the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Raku Pottery – Early History

Sen Rikyu heavily influenced the first Raku potter, Chojiro. Chojiro’s father was originally from China. He brought with him to Japan the Chinese pottery method of Sancai. This method uses the three colors of off-white, brown, and green to decorate pottery. Chojiro was taught this method and used it in his own works. He was commissioned by the Buddiest monks to make the clay tiles for a temple in Kyoto. It is there that Sen Rikyu and Chojiro met and together brought about what is now called Raku pottery.

Sen Rikyu commissioned Chojiro to make tea bowls that reflected the philosophy of wabi-sabi. This philosophy was focused on the beauty in simple items. Rikyu wanted the tea bowls to be a single color and simple form that reflected simplicity. Chojiro worked in red and black glaze. The red was a reflection of the original color of the clay, while black was a humble color. These bowls became the center piece of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and were shared widely by Sen Rikyu. Both Sen Rikyu and Chojiro worked for a leading warrior statemen, Toyotomo Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi so loved the tea bowls that he presented Chojiro with a golden seal containing the Chinese symbol for Raku. Chojiro took that as his surname and it has been past down through the family ever sense.

 Raku Pottery – Current Times

Fifteen generations later, the Raku family still practices ceramics in Japan. Their home, rebuilt in the late 1800’s, is a museum that houses a collection of the older pieces of Raku ceramics. The current generation is active in preserving the Japanese Tea Ceremony in Japan as well as more modern art and interior design.

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5 Different Teas for the New Year

An exploration of different teas means puerh is a must.

Puerh Cakes and Bricks available at our Purcellville, Virginia tasting room just outside Washington, DC.

Here are 5 different teas worth trying in the new year if you haven’t had them before. Why should trying new teas make it onto your goals list? Very simply, it will teach you more about yourself and your tastes than you give the simple cup of tea credit in doing each day. New taste experiences, even if they are unpleasant, help you understand which flavors and mouth feels you like better and helps you appreciate your favorite teas even more. So now on to those teas.

  1. Puerh – This daily tea in China is not drunk as often in the United States. Puerh (a.k.a. pu-erh) is a fermented tea that comes in two forms: ripe (black tea) and raw (green/white tea). This earthy and vegetal tea is an experience that may open up a whole new world of tea for you. Here are a few more posts to learn about puerh in case you are curious and need more convincing: Intro to Dark Tea and Raw versus Ripe Puerh.
  2. Bai Hao Silver Needle – This simple and elegant white tea is often over looked because it has a very delicate smell and brew color. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. This first flush tea is made from the bud of the tea plant and is prized for the silver hairs that grow on the outside as a protection mechanism for the plant (bugs have a hard time chewing through the hairs much less standing on them as they try to eat).
  3. Kukicha – This Japanese tea is made from the stem of the tea plant. It produces a light creamy brew that is slightly salty. It doesn’t have the history of our previous two picks, but if you are a fan of efficiency and using every part this could be your new favorite tea.
  4. Single Estate Ceylon tea – We are all familiar with Ceylon teas. These are usually beautiful black teas from Sri Lanka. What most people don’t know is that they are made at shared manufacturing plants on the island as most of the farms are too small to support their own facility. So finding a single estate Ceylon tea, like Vithanakanda, is a true joy.  Vithanakanda Estate is in southwestern Sri Lanka, and they produce a beautifully complex black tea that has notes of caramel, licorice and a slightly floral nose
  5. Oriental Beauty Oolong Wet Leaf Up-Close

    Oriental Beauty is just one of many different teas to try in the new year (shown here after infusion).

    Oriental Beauty – This beautifully complex oolong from Taiwan is created with the help of green leaf hoppers. The tea leaves are harvested after green leaf hoppers pass through the tea fields and munch on the tea plants, which causes the plant to produce additional polyphenols.  These polyphenols give the tea a smooth mouth feel and a complex flavor.

Enjoy the new year with 5 different teas and learn more about your favorite beverage and yourself at the same time.

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Kukicha: Japanese Stem Tea

Photo of Kukicha leaf and infusion.

Kukicha ‘Stem Tea’ Leaf and Infused Liquor

Kukicha is a uniquely Japanese Tea. Made primarily from the main stem of the tea plant, this tea has a light salty and creamy flavor.

Kukicha History

So the tea industry loves the mythical stories about the creation of tea. Yet, Kukicha doesn’t have one. In fact, this tea is barely reviewed or talked about in the troves of books about teas. It may get a small review of how to brew it and what it is made of but no one talks about where it came from. This is a shame, but it is also an indication this is a more modern tea. So while we too have no origin story, we have a reasonably good idea of when this tea appeared.

Japan started to mechanize the harvesting and production of tea in the early 1900’s. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that this process took off and became the norm in the tea industry for the country. Anyone who has studied business or modern history will have heard of William Deming and his profound effect on the Japanese manufacturing sector after World War II. His focus on quality through consistency of production is often pointed to in the automobile industry as to why Japanese car makers overtook American car markers by the 1980’s. The automobile industry was not the only industry that implemented Deming’s processes, it was adopted everywhere in Japan.

Kukicha makes sense as a product of this era. It uses the leftover materials from the production of Sencha, Gyokuro or Hojicha. The stems are cut to uniform size and blended with the leftover leaf. The uniform size of the stems is a key component to assessing the quality of the tea. The more uniform the stems, the higher quality the tea. A beautiful representation of the care needed in proper manufacturing of any product.

Brewing Kukicha

As mentioned above, Kukicha can be made from the leftover stems of Sencha, Gyokuro or Hojicha. Each produces a slightly different flavor. All must brewed at a lower temperature, like other green teas,between 165-185°F. They can steep for up to 3 minutes, but are quit good with multiple short steepings. Kukicha, like other Japanese teas, is a perfect tea for a Kyusu.

This beautiful tea is often overlooked, but it deserves your attention. So give it a try!

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Thanksgiving Traditions in Asian Countries

Rio Grande Wild Turkey - Star of American Thanksgiving

Wild Turkeys

Are there Thanksgiving traditions in Asian Countries? Thanksgiving is thought of as a true American holiday that started with the Pilgrims celebrating a bountiful harvest with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The celebration of the fall harvest is not something new and could easily be found in other countries. So let’s look at the Thanksgiving traditions in some of our favorite tea growing countries.

Mid-Autumn Festival in China

China does not have a holiday that corresponds to the US Thanksgiving. They do have a Mid-Autumn festival that has been around for about 3,000 years that celebrates the first full autumn moon, which happens to correspond with the fall harvest of crops. The Mid-Autumn Festival does includes big dinners with family, but those are the norm for most of the important Chinese holidays. The food of choice for this festival is mooncakes. Not to be confused with the American Moon Pie cookie, mooncakes are a small pastry with a dense filling. There are different fillings and flavors based on the region of China that you live in. They are always served with tea. So we will save a more in depth discussion on mooncakes for a later blog. The Chinese government does recognize American holidays and encourages local businesses to make turkey available around the American holiday where there are larger numbers of American’s are living in China. Currently there are believed to about 100k Americans with green cards living and working in China (The US government does not count US citizens who live aboard that are not associated with the US military or diplomatic operations, it is done by other organizations).

Vietnam… And American Thanksgiving Dinner Feasts

The Vietnamese, much like the Chinese, have a Mid-Autumn festival that celebrates the moon and the fall harvest of crops. Many of the Vietnam holidays follow the Chinese, so this isn’t a surprise. However, Vietnam has a large and growing American tourist trade, so finding an American Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and cranberry sauce is a little easier. You just have to book reservations about a month or two in advance in Hanoi at some of the higher end restaurants to get your turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Labor Thanksgivig Niiname-sai dance Katori Jingu Shrine, Katori City, Japan

Niiname-sai,traditional Japanese dance by Wikimedia user katorisi.

Japan Labor Thanksgiving

Japan has a formal Thanksgiving holiday on November 23rd every year. It is called Labor Thanksgiving and was introduced into the country after World War II during the U.S. occupation. The Japanese put their own twist on it by using the holiday to honor each others’ work through out the year. Labor unions use the day to hold festivals focused on human rights, peace and the environment. Labor Thanksgiving was combined with the ancient celebration of the fall harvest of rice, Niinamesai. It is documented that Niinamesai was first celebrated in 678 C.E. During Niinamesai, the Emperor presents the first harvest of rice to the Gods and partakes of the rice himself.

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