17m 51s

Japanese tea, a simple pleasure

Living in Japan

Broadcast on June 4, 2023 Available until June 4, 2024

When Oscar Brekell first tried Japanese tea at the age of 18, he found it bitter. He kept drinking it, though, as a way of learning about Japanese culture. Eventually, he came to Japan from Sweden and became a Japanese tea instructor. In the first part of the program, Oscar gives us simple steps for preparing Japanese tea and fun ways of enjoying it in the summer.

The latter part of the program focuses on fireflies. They used to be easy to spot in summertime, but their numbers are said to be decreasing. Faezeh Mahichi, an associate professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, is helping make the city of Beppu hospitable to fireflies. She tells us what the flies like, where to find them, and how to watch them.

Guests: Oscar Brekell (left) & Faezeh Mahichi (right)
Cold tea made by Oscar, and Ruth's favorite glass
Volunteer firefly watching staffs (local community members, APU students and faculties) / A firefly in the Hiya River, photographed by APU student Phonlawan Phonlawat Oak



Living in Japan!
Hello everyone, glad to be back with you. I'm Ruth. And I'm Stuart.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan now or in the future.
We share hints and tips to make the most of your life in Japan.

Ruth, do you often drink Japanese tea?
Yes, I often drink green tea instead of coffee when I'm traveling. I also like hojicha latte.
Hojicha, oh yes. I'm also into green tea, usually at room temperature. And as you probably guessed, that's our topic today. The more you know about Japanese tea, the more you will enjoy it. And I promise you, before this program is done, you'll know a lot.
Then we'd better call an expert. Very good idea.


Okay, it's time for our main section, hints from Senpai.
Sempai is a Japanese word for someone who has more knowledge or experience than you do. Every single show, we welcome a senpai who can tell us how to do things better.

Indeed. And today's guest is Oscar Brekell, a Japanese tea instructor from Sweden. Now, he first experienced Japanese tea at the age of 18 and has been involved with it ever since. Oscar has been living in Japan for more than ten years now. He has his own tea brand, fantastic, and works to introduce Japanese tea to the world. Welcome, Oscar. Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Excellent. Now, you tasted Japanese tea for the first time when you were 18 years old.
I got interested in Japan as a country because of a history class, and I wanted to try something Japanese. And I came across tea. So that's why I started. But it wasn't love at first sip. It's all bitter, you know, and I wasn't used to the green flavors. But then after a while, I started liking the tea, actually. There was something about the freshness of the aroma, and eventually I got hooked.

So how would you describe Japanese tea to someone who's never tasted it before?
At first, if you have this for the first time, you might taste a little grassy, and some people would say like, tastes like spinach. And there's like, the umami, the savoriness as well. Some people perceive it as kind of fishy. Fishy?
Yeah. In order to make green tea, you need to add heat in one way or another. The typical Japanese way to do it is to steam the tealeaves. And that's why Japanese tea get these vegetable notes and sort of nature-like flavor to it.

And I have a question. I know there are many types of Japanese tea, but what are the different types?
So, there are many different ways of dividing Japanese tea, but I think the most simple way to divide it is to think of it as either powdered teas, like matcha, for example. And then there are the leaf teas, sencha being the most common. And leaf teas are obviously teas that you use to brew or steep in a teapot, and you kind of extract flavor. And then there is also hojicha, which is despite its brown appearance, it's actually a green tea, sencha or another type of tea that has been roasted one.

Okay. Mind blown. I did not know that. Completely different. It's not. Exactly.
Well, I like hojicha lattes. Those are my favorite. And I also know that there are many different types of tea throughout Japan. But what are some of the main places where tea is grown?

So, I think the most famous tea growing regions that you're likely to come across would probably be Uji, which is in Kyoto prefecture, and of course, Shizoka and Yame in Fukoka, for example. That's popular too. And Kagoshima. But there are actually a lot of smaller regions as well.

Okay, so after hearing so much about it, I think listeners will want to try drinking it themselves. Now, Oscar, can you please give us a beginner's lesson in making Japanese tea easily?
Okay. A lot of people have an impression of brewing Japanese tea as something difficult, and typically, it's brewed in a teapot, a Japanese teapot, and most people would drink it hot. All right.
However, I actually brought something different today.

What is this? It's a reusable bottle with a whole bunch of green tea leaves down the bottom.
So, this is called Japanese tea, called reicha or mizudashi-cha. This is actually extremely simple to make, to brew. All you need is cold water, tea leaves, and a bottle like this one. Actually, I recommend a cold tea for beginners, because when you're making a cold brewed tea, you don't end up with a lot of bitterness and astringency. You get more of the sweetness and also the umami, the savoriness. So, let's give it a try. She's drinking.

Oh, wow. That's really good. You get that depth of the tea taste, and there is a little bit of bitterness on there, but it's very smooth. I love it. Yeah, thanks.
So how do you do it? You put the leaves in that bottle. What do you do?
Just put the leaves in the bottle, add cold water, and then you turn it upside down a couple of times, just to mix the tea leaves, and you let it sit for a while in the fridge. Depends a little on the type of tea, but typically, for a sencha, I would recommend six to eight hours. Okay.

So, this is the one, the lid has the tea strainer inside, right? Okay.
So, this bottle has 750 milliliters of water and 15 grams of leaves. 15 grams.
Using teaspoons, that would be about five teaspoons. Okay.
And for those who are not familiar with milliliters, this would be the same size as a wine bottle. Okay.

Can I make cold tea with tea bags of Japanese tea sold at supermarkets and convenience stores, also in hotels, they have those?
Well, you can use anything, but I recommend going to a tea shop or search online for high quality teas. Tea is a very simple beverage in the sense that it has only two ingredients, namely tea leaves and water. So, the better the quality of the tea leaves, the better result you get.

Okay. Today, our guest is Oscar Brekell, sharing various things about Japanese tea. Now, could you also give us a beginner's lesson in making simple cup of hot Japanese tea?
So, I recommend using a Japanese teapot or a kyusu. First, you boil some water, and you wait for it to cool down a bit. The key is not to use boiling hot water. The ideal temperature is about 70 to 80 degrees Celsius or 160 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. And then you put tea leaves in the kyusu, and you pour in the hot water, and you leave it for about 1 minute. In this way, you can get a perfect balance of the bitterness and the stringency, but also the umami and also the sweetness.

Okay, so I never knew that about the boiling water. Thank you very much. And I definitely think that drinking hot tea is good for relaxing, but in summer, I still want to drink something cold. Yeah.
Do you have some ideas other than the cold tea in a bottle that you already told us about?

Sure. How about cold tea served in the wine glass? In a wine glass?
Yeah. It's not just a matter of style. Wine glasses are made to maintain the temperature and also to enhance the aroma, to make the aroma more enjoyable. And this works for cold tea too actually. It's a good way to impress your friends too, when they come over, or to at least to surprise your friends.

Wow. Oh, Oscar has kindly brought along a couple of lovely wine glasses, and he's now filling it with this gorgeous green tea. Oh, hang on a second. I have that. Here we go. Kanpai, my dear.
Okay. It's softer than when I drank it in the other cup. It tastes softer, and like you said, aromatic. This is perfect because I actually don't drink alcohol, and I have a lot of friends that don't drink alcohol. So when other people are having wine, this still looks really beautiful in the wine glass.
Yeah, it's a good way to blend in at any venue. It looks like you're having wine, actually.

It does. But the greatest thing about a wine glass, of course, is you get the aroma first, right? Because lately sake, Japanese sake, is being served a lot in wine glasses. That's because the aroma and temperature are the thing that are so important with that as well. This is divine because the aroma comes first and then the flavor. Oh, it's lovely.

I mean, I'm a little embarrassed, but I actually used to hesitate serving Japanese people Japanese tea in my house because I felt that I was not gonna be able to make it right. I wasn't going to make it the correct way. But I think the way that you have just described it has freed me from my worry about tea. Congratulations.
I'm going to be brave, and I'm going to try and give people Japanese tea when they come to my house. Please do.

Any other recommendations for drinking Japanese tea in the summer? Oh, yes. Let's go with on the rocks. Ice is fine for Japanese tea. You make a slight pot, a slightly strong Japanese tea, when you make it in the kyusu or teapot, and you pour it into a heat resistant glass filled with ice. Make sure it's heat resistant. You don't want the glass to break when you pour hot water in there. Then you stir the hot tea quickly with a muddler. The astringency and bitterness should just right, and the aroma will be somewhat different. Perfect for taking the edge of a hot summer. Nice.

And there's one more way you probably haven't thought of Japanese tea with carbonated water. Carbonated water.
So basically, you put as many leaves in a cold tea bottle as you would for a cold tea, but you only fill it with about half the amount of water. After that, add the same amount of carbonated water when it's ready. I usually use a wine decanter when I make it. It bubbles a lot, so pour the carbonated water slowly. And this type of tea is actually best served in a champagne glass.
Oh, yes, indeed. Oh, perfect for summer.
That's going to make me feel like a queen or a princess. I love it.

Now you're working, Oscar, to promote Japanese tea, both domestically and internationally. How exactly do you do that?
So, I offer tea classes and tea tasting sessions mainly in Japan but also overseas whenever I get a chance to do so. And I also guide visitors from abroad in tea growing regions. And I've written some books that actually have been published in three languages. Three languages? English, Japanese, and French. And French.
And recently, I've been making videos whenever I go to tea estates, and I'm planning to edit them and release them on social media soon.

Fantastic. We promised our listeners lots of information on tea today, and I believe we've certainly delivered on that. Today's guest was Oscar Brekell. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you very much for having me.


Now we move on to Good to Know. Fireflies are certainly something good to know about summer. Ruth, where do you see them?
Here in Japan, I have wonderful firefly memories from Onogawa onsen in Yonizawa in Yamagata Prefecture. Yeah.
I remember going out in the evening in my yukata to see them after enjoying the hot spring. So lovely.

Oh, that sounds wonderful. When I lived in Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture, I'd turn off the lights at night and drink sake on the balcony while enjoying the fireflies' light.
That sounds so pretty. It's brilliant.
Unfortunately, the number of fireflies is said to be decreasing, and there are fewer places to see them. Unfortunately, but we've got someone on the phone who's working to turn that around. Associate Professor. Faezeh Mahichi of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University from Iran. Professor, hello.
Thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me.

Professor, can you tell us about what you're doing to revive the firefly population?
Certainly. This is a collaborative and inclusive project that brings together community volunteers in this host city, also prefecture, where I am with the students, faculties and the staff volunteers from the university. We work to create an environment in which fireflies can fly. They mostly operate along the Hiya River in the school. The Hiya River. Yes. Very good.

That's amazing. So, what exactly do you do? Fireflies are very sensitive creatures, and pollution in water, stone, and even artificial light can keep them away. Their presence is an indicator of the health of our environment. But the first step is to maintain the natural conditions for the river. When you clean the river, you come across some surprising trash. We once came across a very large mat. A large mat?
The Hiya River is partially covered with concrete along its banks and some part of the riverbed to prevent for erosion and for the safety of residents along the river.

This results in the river running fast, making it difficult for some snail called Kawanina to live. This is very important because the fireflies feed on Kawanina. We have restored a wetland alongside the river as natural habitat for Kawanina. That's wonderful.
Another concern is also chemical pesticide and fertilizer that we usually use in farming. They can also pollute the river. We have assumed responsibility for the land from people who were no longer able to farm due to aging. With the students, the group is growing vegetable and other crops using organic regenerative and other firefly-friendly farming methods. We call this the Web Two Volvo Garden BBC. I love that.

So, in this way, very little by little, not only fireflies, but other creatures are also returning to the river.
That's fantastic. By the way, did you say that fireflies are sensitive to light?
Yes, fireflies are very sensitive to artificial light such as city lights, house lights, car lights, and even cigarette lights. This is why we ask occupants of the buildings near fireflies' habitat to turn off as much lighting as possible during the time fireflies are around.

Wow. So, do you go to see them without lights?
As little light as possible. Fireflies show themselves as early as mid-May to as late as the end of July. You'll find them in natural areas in rice paddies and rivers where the currents flow, and in grassy area. They usually begin to fly after sunset and prime time is eight to nine at night. They don't like rain or cold.

Flashlights, cell phone flashes, and camera flashes are no good. If you must have some illumination, please use a red light. A red light.
Children, of course, should always be accompanied by an adult because it could be very dark. Right.
Fireflies respond to human bumps. So, if you are so lucky, one may perch on your arm. But please don't touch it or try to catch it. Just enjoy it and leave it be so that it can freely fly away. That's so beautiful.

This is exactly the time to see fireflies, of course. What activities does your group have planned?
This time of the year, we conduct firefly counts every night starting at eight p.m. Between 2013 and 2022, the number of fireflies in Hiya River has increased sixfold. Wow. Wow. That's great.
We are very happy about it. Yeah.

And this year, our firefly watching festival is on June 7th, Wednesday. It features food stalls, student performances, and a firefly study session, and certainly firefly watching. I hope everyone can enjoy viewing fireflies in a fun and considerate and safe space.

Yeah, that sounds like so much fun. Firefly related events take place across the country. Please search the internet or ask around in your neighborhood to find information about them. For example, you might be able to see fireflies by taking a moonlight stroll along your regular daytime walking course.
That's what I'm going to try to do like starting now. Professor, do you have any message?

Yes. Like lighthouses in dark night showing the path to the ship, the health state of fireflies as indicator species shows us how healthy and clean or strong the environment is. Let's together protect these valuable species and enjoy their wonder, magical sparkle, sparks, and safeguard them for the next generation.

You're doing absolutely wonderful work. I'm so, so impressed with your work. Thank you so much for coming on the show. We've been talking with Faezeh Mahichi, Associate Professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. Thank you, professor.
Thank you for having me.


I really hope listeners will receive all kinds of hints and tips through this show and enjoy their daily lives here in Japan.
Wherever you may be, we hope you'll always feel right at home with our program. You can listen online too. Go to the NHK WORLD-JAPAN website, click on On-Demand, choose Audio and find Living in Japan.

And if you want to tell us anything or ask us anything, please send us a message through the website. We'd be delighted to hear from you. And be sure to come back next month for Living in Japan. Bye everyone.

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