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Pretty Good Number One

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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p(blue). Culinate editor's note: In 2009, Matthew Amster-Burton — who penned Culinate's Unexplained Bacon column for two years — published Hungry Monkey, a memoir about eating with his daughter, Iris. For his second food memoir, Pretty Good Number One, Amster-Burton chose to produce, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, an e-book. We were glad to support him at the Kickstarter phase, and we're pleased to run this excerpt now.

h3. From the chapter "Tea"

In 2010, I dragged Iris to a town called Uji because I wanted to go to a particular tea shop founded in 1160. Uji turned out to be a sleepy town devoted to temples and green tea and little else. 


h1. About the book and author

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about food, travel, and personal finance from his home in Seattle. He blogs at Roots and Grubs. 

Pretty Good Number One is a humorous memoir of living, traveling, and — most of all — eating with his family in Tokyo.

Reprinted with permission from Mamster Books. Copyright © 2013.


We went to the tea shop and received free samples of gyokuro, the fanciest kind of brewed tea in Japan. Iris accepted her cup and managed to communicate, in one horrified look, "I know that good manners require me to take this cup, and if you tell me I have to drink it, too, I will literally die right here in this tea shop." 

I drank her cup and mine, and it was great, and then we got lost and hungry trying to get back to the train station. Two years later, if I say the word “Uji,” Iris glares like I’m talking about detention.

So in 2012, I went out for tea by myself, in Ginza. As you approach exit 7 from Ginza Station, the floors, walls, and ceiling transition from concrete and subway tile to sleek black stone. That’s because exit 7 is also the entrance to an Armani store.

I was not, you will be shocked to learn, on my way to Armani; I was headed to Uogashi Meicha, a merely 75-year-old tea shop also known as Cha Ginza. Uogashi is fancy, but not Armani fancy. Wedged into three stories of a slim building on a Ginza side street, Uogashi is the perfect place for an introduction to Japanese tea and is one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

To have tea at Uogashi, you buy a ticket on the ground floor for either the second-floor sencha cafe or the third-floor matcha cafe. I bought a 700-yen ticket for the matcha cafe, and the woman at the counter warned me, “It’s kind of . . . outside.” 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Brewed green tea is called sencha in Japan."]

"No problem," I said. "I brought my hat." It was not that kind of outside. It was a claustrophobic covered roof garden with a couple of modern sculptures that, on another day, I might have been moved to gaze at contemplatively. A fan hummed loudly but produced no ventilation.

The host asked if I wanted matcha or kakigōri. Kakigōri is flavored shave ice, a Japanese snow cone. I reasoned, stupidly, that I had not come all the way to Ginza to eat a snow cone, so I asked for matcha. As soon as I’d put in my order, the host started serving kakigōri to everyone else in the cafe, huge mounds of delicate shave ice topped with freshly whipped matcha, which patrons spooned up with evident delight. 

I tried to remember the Japanese word for “to change one’s mind” and came up empty-headed. It was too late, anyway: the host brought me a cup of koicha, thick matcha, thicker than motor oil but much tastier. Only very good matcha can be used to make koicha; lesser tea will whip up chalky and bitter. I cradled my rustic tea bowl in two hands and tried to ignore the crunch of kakigōri on all sides.

It took me about three slurps to finish the koicha, leaving the tea bowl coated with an emerald film. The hostess traded my empty bowl for a perfect yuzu macaron and then asked me the most wonderful question: next up would be thin matcha (usucha), and did I want it hot or iced?

“Aisu,” I panted. The ice cubes in my cold matcha seemed to have been selected for artistic merit, a large central iceberg surrounded by four little shards, like a family of seals. I downed it quickly and thereby staved off heatstroke.

So what does matcha taste like, if you’ve never had it? It’s commonly described as tasting “green,” which is true, albeit begging the question. Good matcha is naturally very sweet, a plant sweetness quite unlike bad matcha sweetened with sugar, which is common in shelf-stable convenience store drinks and at coffee places. When you’re drinking matcha, even high-quality stuff, you can rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth and feel that it was whipped up from a powder. If you like the scent of newly mown grass, you would probably enjoy matcha. It’s not much like brewed green tea at all.

Brewed tea is what you get on the second floor of Uogashi Meicha. On another day, I took my seat in that second-floor sencha cafe, and the other customers broke out into unrestrained giggles. What a convivial assembly tea engenders! Actually, I had parked my butt on the table, rather than the seat. This is a no-no, according to local customs. 

I moved aside to make room for a cup of gyokuro. Like matcha, gyokuro leaves are grown under shade for a couple of weeks before being harvested, and this makes the plant go crazy, producing barrels of chlorophyll to trap what little sun makes it through the gauzy canopy. This produces a vivid color and unusually intense flavor. Also unusually intense price tags. Gyokuro is brewed at a very low temperature for tea (140 degrees Fahrenheit) and served in a tiny teacup.

I was just raising the gyokuro cup to my lips and hoping not to violate any more social norms when someone asked, “Do you like Japanese tea?” It was a young man sitting with a young woman just next to me. (Sitting on the seats, I should add.) They introduced themselves as Akira and Emi. They wanted to practice their English. I wanted to practice Japanese. I handed Akira my business card and he accepted it with two hands and looked it over carefully, exactly as described in every cultural guide for business travelers to Japan. The book added that it’s considered extremely rude to fold or otherwise mistreat someone’s business card.

Presumably this also means you’re not supposed to laugh at someone’s business card, but mine is ridiculous and incomprehensible, even to native English speakers, because it features the name of my blog (Roots and Grubs) and a quote from Iris that seemed really funny at the time. The more I tried to explain, the more we all laughed. Probably I should order some new business cards with a recognizable job title on them, but that would involve getting a job.

Like most young children, Iris is capable of making friends instantly. You’re approximately four feet tall? Great, let’s hang out. One of the great things about traveling to a foreign place (and I realize every traveler before me has observed this) is that it allows adults to make friends in the same way children do. 

When I meet a new person on my home turf, it’s as if we’re actively looking for reasons to dislike each other. Sure, we can be friends, as long as you’re not guilty of anything on my endless list of pet peeves. I’m the worst about this. Is this starting to sound like a voiceover from '"Sex yet?

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