When I walked into the teahouse, from the strangely cold, gray, and slightly raining form of the natural city world, from walls of graffiti and nature spilling onto the concrete against vacant storefronts, there were only two people in the line in front of me. It wasn’t a line as much as a small crowd. The teahouse is relatively small, and even four people seem like a lot inside of it. But honestly all of West Berkeley can feel like that. Sometimes I really don’t know how everyone survives.
The man behind the counter was a tall older man in his seventies, who I had never met before. Some of the people in the tea shop have been working there for decades. I remember them from long ago, and they’re some of my favorite people. I used to think they just had their own thing going on. They’re into tea, the experience of it, and I was just looking for the easiest way to get a mango iced tea at the time. We just had different priorities. It took them a few times to realize that wasn’t what I wanted anymore. The barista and teahouse craftsman creates patterns for your behavior within a few instances. That’s how after you’re the 80th person in line they can remember your needs. It’s a wonder to behold. It’s a real skill.
I’ve already gone there more in the past month than I ever went in a year before. It’s hard to get to and honestly I just never had the time to devote to it, but I have a little bit of time now, so I’m not taking it for granted.
I asked him if he had Genmaicha, recommended to me by a friend, and he said that he did. I went and sat down. I had second thoughts. The previous day someone told me I should just let the staff decide for me, since they are the experts. I asked him if he had any recommendations other than Genmaicha. He offered me something incredible, when I read about it, but I quickly changed my mind again. Could I get Genmaicha, I asked again. It was an interesting conversational three part act. It started with Genmaicha, moved on to the mystery tea, and then returned to the beginning again at the end. It’s not indecisive. It is a complex narrative of discovery, contemplation, and revision. It is an iteration of inquiries. And also, yes, I couldn’t make up my mind. It seemed like a really important decision, and it was. I went and sat down again.
He brought out a small pot, a decanter, and began to teach.
Like the green teas I have had before, this one had a really fast brewing time, somewhere between 30-45 seconds. A decanter was used to hold the tea after brewing, and there was a fairly hearty sized cup to drink from.
Genmaicha is a peasant tea. Rice is added to the mixture to save cost, not unlike chicory coffee in the South. The only people who could afford whole tea leaves were emperors. To the Japanese, Genmaicha is like a comfort food. It reminds them of home, and it’s something passed on from generation to generation. It really does feel like that. The flavor of the rice is very strong, and it absolutely feels like a comfort food. The way the flavor interacts with your body is like a warm hug. It really made me want to curl up with a blanket and watch vintage anime.
The color was pea green, which had the added western connotation of a pea soup, something my Mom would have given me when I was sick. It has the taste of the care of a family member to you when you were in need, and that ability coming from a tea in a shared cultural experience of family is something that is somehow transmitted in the experience of drinking this warm tea. I daydreamed that my car is the catbus from Totoro, which I regretted I returned to too soon. It’s super friendly tea. It’s inclusive, and it really does feel instantly like a family member.
And that was the profound experience of the tea to me. I’m just getting accustomed to the experience of tea, but for the first time I realized something. Tea can change your entire psychology from drinking it. I was instantly placed in a completely different world from the place I came from. Through the tea, I reconnected with memories of my Mom, and the care and love she showed to her family. Knowing that I can access those memories through the interaction of plants and my body is profound. Tea can change your entire experience, if you’re open to it, and there is a sea of experiences you can contact through it.
The man said he didn’t actually know that much about tea, and said that he was only a grasshopper. As he turned, he said he would be going in the back to take care of something. It is possible that this was not in fact, a man, but was in actuality a grasshopper spirit, returning to the shop backroom to lie in a bed of grassleaves, sleeping until the next tea pot should be given; a new teaching to take place.