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.


Comments

Travel with no tea — 8 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?

  2. You shouldn’t speak as if you’re an expert, when you so clearly are not. You obviously have not traveled to the country-side or the mountains of Korea who dedicate their lives to tea and tea making. I’ve been into tea my whole life. I travel the world to learn their tea traditions and try my best to learn the way they prepare and drink their tea. Tea is like religion. Don’t ever disrespect their customs. And what for? Every style is so unique and packed with history which makes it so wonderful.

    The fact that you stayed in a ryokan meant that you weren’t in Tokyo. You were probably in Kyoto (or the country-side). And the older generation in Kyoto are really into tea. Especially their plum teas and greens. You would’ve gotten tea bags with a coffee maker in Tokyo. Yes, even at a nice hotel. You must visit not just the capitals but take a bus or train to the country-side as well. :) You will find some of the greatest teas that way. But I understand you have a baby and it’s hard to travel so look online, because you will always find tea lovers who usually own a small tea shop somewhere in the city.

    • When did I ever say there are no tea farmers in Korea? I said if you’re a regular tourist in Korea trying to find a good cup of tea in the cities (which is where most tourists are going to be going) is going to take work. I have relatives who live in Hadong, so I know full well what’s going on there. I’m just saying that for the general public, tea is pretty low on the priority list, and getting anything other than a teabag is a challenge. Trying to even get a caffeinated tea in a lot of pretty decent restaurants can be difficult (I’ve had places that told me they don’t have any, and offered other warm drinks instead), and you rarely get anything more than a bad teabag. The contrast with a place like Japan where tea is served almost by default cannot be more stark.

      And no, I was not in Kyoto either. And I think you missed the whole paragraph where I talked about drinking hotel teabags. Maybe you should read more slowly.

      • Oh that’s too bad. I never have an issue finding tea in Korea. And it’s almost never in a tea bag. You should try going to Insadong next time you’re in Korea. They have amazing tea there. My favorite is drinking omija tea. Yes, I didn’t read your blog carefully and that is my bad. Sorry if I offended you :)

      • I actually referred this post to a friend when discussing that good unadulterated tea; camelia sinensis and not a “tea” conflation; seems to be a relative niche. He said “this guy sounds pretty mad about tea.” I think it’s weird, because I always interpret posts on here, especially the ones in later years, as being calm and humble, and merely providing well, what you explicitly say more than insinuating anything or making any affront; It often doesn’t feel like there is any wanton emotion and feels matter-of-fact and speculative. These recent comments remind me of that, and it’s always interesting to see how people interpret what they read and what they assume of the author. I think it’d be very interesting to study this kind of thing from a psychological perspective. That is, studying the personalities of readers and writers, and what is really synchronous between the two in understanding.

  3. Great observation there! Yes, I rarely put myself in the writer’s shoes and just write what I’m thinking and press reply. I should maybe read it over and see if I’m being offensive in any way. Something to work on myself. But if I well knowingly have knowledge from personal experience, I try to speak my mind and share my thoughts. I hope my words do not cause anger or label me as a know it all because I have a lot to learn myself :) Learning is such a beautiful part of life.

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