Before moving to Japan, I had had exactly one cup of tea in the 18 years, 1 month, and 20 odd days since I was born. It was from a pack I bought in Montreal’s Chinatown the previous year and it tasted like wet cardboard. Regardless, while I was in Japan I had more cups of different blends then I could possibly count.
In one evening my host mom made seven or eight different types and we sat there sampling each of them for quite a while. They came from Asia, from Africa, from different regions and different plants. This was, however, still quite early in my stay, so it ended up being a lesson more in Japanese language than a tasting of world teas.
But by the time my year was out I was doing much better. I knew my regular ocha from matcha, my uuroncha from my mugicha. I didn’t know what any of these things were in English, but I at least knew what I was talking about when I used the terms. I was communicating well enough that I could not only ask what the tea was but also understand the answer.
There was one particular type of black tea I had while living with the Kusano family. It was excellent all by itself without pollutants of milk or sugar, and it did not turn bitter even when left to steep a little too long. It was light in colour yet rich in flavour. I asked what it was but did not recognize the word—it was not Japanese. Shown the silver tin I saw it written in English: Ceylon.
Upon my return to Canada in 2003 I still remembered this word and saught it out. All I could find for ages was something called “orange pekoe”. Bitter, dark, disgusting orange pekoe. My disappointment was only compounded by the failure of everything marked “green tea” to be anything like green tea. Sure, I found the occasional relief when I discovered Earl Grey, but the taste of Fruit Loops is always just a little less than desireable in my drink. (Can anybody confirm or deny that Kellogg’s Fruit Loops contains bergamot oil? If not I must be going crazy.) In almost four years I was only ever able to find one small jar of Ceylon tea, but overpowered with the flavour of orange rinds and only enough for a few cups.
Then, finally, a newcomer in the tea aisle at my grocery store! Ceylon tea, and lots of it. I considered getting the small 25 bag box, but who knew when I would have the chance again? Was Ceylon seeing a surge in popularity? Had it been here all along, avoiding my gaze year after year? Or was it just a fluke, a random stocking experiment to test market demand? I couldn’t take the risk. I bought the biggest box, carried it back home through the deep snow against cold winter winds, and prepared myself for months of warm delicious quality time with my old friend from the East.
I dropped the groceries on the floor, took my new box of tea, and went to straight for the kettle. Within minutes I was sitting comfortably on the couch warming my hands around the mug, and took my first taste of — orange pekoe! The box may have said Ceylon, but it was a far cry from the fine quality of tea I had shared with Kusano-san that summer four years ago.
So to this day I have still not found it, that perfect blend of tea to make a day complete. I know of only one place where it can be found in the entire world—inside a little silver tin, in a house on the side Kagashira Mountain, half a world away.