Travel with no tea

Normally when I travel overseas, I bring my own tea. This way I have an assured supply of decent tea, so long as I can find hot water. On my most recent trip, however, I decided to not bother and see what happens. Granted, I was going to Japan, so things are a little easier in that it’s a tea drinking country. I know I’ll be able to find tea here and there. With a one year old in tow, it’s just easier to travel with as little as possible.

It also ended up being a good look at how normal people can consume tea. I think doing this across many countries can also tell you, generally, how much tea that place drinks. In Japan’s case, the answer is obviously a lot. The kinds of tea that I ended up drinking include a large number of bottled teas – from cheap roasted oolong to sencha ones, bought from vending machines or in some cases convenience stores. I consumed a number of hotel teabags, which include a Lipton Darjeeling (doesn’t taste like anything from Darjeeling), a Lipton Ceylon (what you’d expect), some unbranded oolong tea (cheap Chinese restaurant tea) and some unbranded sencha (meh). At various restaurants tea is offered as a matter of course, with hojicha being the most likely beverage given.

One of the rooms I stayed at, this one at a ryokan, also gave me this

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Which is a basic sencha kit. You can see the kyusu is cheap, but if you’re going to let regular guests use it, it’s probably wise to use cheap kyusus. It has everything you need – two cups (more if there were more guests, I believe), a pot, a water container, two chataku, a towel, and two types of tea – a sencha and a hojicha. The sencha is bagged, while the hojicha is not. I suspect it mostly has to do with the fact that the sencha was going to be difficult to clean out of the kyusu so they bagged it for convenience. The teas are actually decent quality.

Now, this is all in a country that produces a large amount of tea, where every hotel room has a water kettle, and generally is friendly to tea drinkers. If I had brought my own tea, I would’ve just drunk those plus maybe some bottles, which is not too bad.

Contrast that with Korea, though, and you can see that Korea, in general, is not a tea friendly place. Hotel rooms at two pretty decent hotels have no provision for good hot water – you need to either use the coffee machine, which is mostly a horrible idea, or you ask the hotel to bring hot water to you, which they do but in carafes that have carried coffee before, thus defeating the purpose of asking for water in the first place. Restaurants do not routinely offer caffeinated tea as a beverage. I brought my own tea there, but it was a frustrating experience. Your best bet is to go to the nearest coffee shop and buy that anonymous black tea they have. It’s a much sadder place for a tea drinker. It’s at more or less the same level as traveling to the US. Koreans drink coffee.

From my experience, if you’re not happy drinking anonymous bagged black tea all day long from paper cups, only Japan and Taiwan are safe places to travel without any tea of your own. Even mainland China is dicey – you need to hit tourist spots to find those tea stands that sell you cheap but decent green teas. Although at least in China, good hot water is to be had everywhere, so bringing your own is made much easier.


Travel with no tea — 3 Comments

  1. This is enlightening and affirming information. With what I’ve read from this blog and other sources, I’ve been convinced that tea is a relative niche, even amongst other niches, and as you said, dicey even in China. Perhaps that is one reason I find tea so cozy and, again relatively, untainted in the sense that in my experience, the people that really enjoy tea are good company even if they are different from oneself. The worst we have is probably the mystical marketing around tea and the pervasive lower quality stuff, but I think that’s easy to figure out and serves as a thoroughfare to serious tea drinking. I enjoy the level of respect tea receives as a whole compared to other interests, and I see it staying reasonable for a long while given the type of people a fine cup of tea attracts.

    However nice the benefits of the tea niche may be, it is definitely difficult to get by without your culled leaves and ideal brewing tools. As readers here are aware, even the water itself is reasonably important to the seasoned drinker, which can make it tempting to pass up brewing outside of your tea hideout. I do believe that tea is tea, and will most often be pleasant regardless, but I certainly do crave my ideal tea situation after a short departure. I find myself grandpa’ing the relatively anodyne and expendable, but pretty good and wholesome teas in a vacuum flask for travel. It’s funny how valuable boiling, “uncharacteristic-of-other-drinks” water accessibility becomes.

    There’s a certain charm to caring for your own special leaves as much as they care for you out in the cruel world, and, as you said in an older post from who knows when, looking like you’re doing an odd experiment when you ask for hot water for your cup of leaves, no?

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