Whenever I’m recounting a story that’s precious to me, whether I tell it through a text message to my sister or a blog post, I somehow find myself often mentioning drinking tea or coffee. The reasons for this storytelling with beverages are firstly because I drink an excessive amount of tea and coffee every day. But also, talking about the details, to me, adds a tangible layer of warmth, a palpable layer of happiness to the experience I’m trying to describe. I recently explored the beautiful Yahiko
area in Niigata Prefecture
. The village is rather small, with narrow, winding residential streets cut up with little streams. Beyond the village center are vast stretches of glowing green rice fields folding into the looming Yahiko Mountain Range.
Green fields and cool mountains -- Photo by Taryn Siegel
When I think back on this trip, though, the intense natural beauty of the region isn’t what stands out most in my mind. My favorite parts of this trip all took place inside, with my hands wrapped around a little cup of tea and one or more locals smiling at my side.
My first tea chat took place about an hour after my arrival. After dropping my bags at the hotel near Tsubamesanjo Station, another town in the area, I headed to the famous copper factory called Gyokusendo
. On an unremarkable, somewhat bustling street, this little “factory” suddenly emerged. The building looked very much like a humble Buddhist temple, with a serene garden out front. In the quiet, tatami-mat lobby, a receptionist from the curtained-off office came out to greet me. I sat at the low, long wooden table. To my left, a great open window led out to the front garden.
with a view on the garden -- Photo by Taryn Siegel
As soon as I kneeled at the table, my kind hostess placed a handmade copper teacup in front of me filled with a bitter but refreshing iced green tea. She then kneeled down as well and we began to chat about the factory while I sipped. She was the first person I talked to after arriving in this unfamiliar part of Japan. After a few minutes of chatting, I instantly felt at ease in my new surroundings. She beamed with gratification every time I asked a question or took a note and listened with patience to my stumbling Japanese. Even to my rude questions (like “what’s the most expensive copper item for sale here?”) she answered in the confiding, unaffected tones of a friend.
Teacups and teapots made at Gyokusendo
-- Photo by Taryn Siegel
My next tea chat was a few hours later, over lunch. My lunch place for the first day was a family-run restaurant called Yamaboshi
, about a 5-minute walk from Yahiko Station
. The restaurant serves a range of classic Japanese fare (such as tempura (fried foods) as well as soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat flour) noodle dishes), but their specialty is a fish and rice dish called wappameshi
After seating us at one of the Japanese-style tables by the window, our server placed down two teacups of a delicious blended tea.
Charming tea conversations in Yahiko Village -- Photo by Taryn Siegel
As I sipped on the rich, delicious brew, I began chatting with the kind woman who seated us. We learned that she and her husband ran the restaurant together, with occasional help from the elder of her two sons. The younger son, she said, was actually studying abroad in America at the moment. She told me this after learning that I was American, and I excitedly started asking her for details. Before we knew it, the whole family had assembled before us.
The mother nudged her elder son forward to speak to us and the father took an instant liking to my companion’s name, repeating it over and over again in great amusement. The family wanted to know what our plans are here in Yahiko and were anxious to help and direct us. The father gave us some really interesting information about Yahiko Shrine
, the area’s biggest point of interest. The son told us all about the town’s festival that was coming up in a few days. Meanwhile, the mother looked on eagerly and affectionately at the group, and ran behind one of her family members in great distress every time I aimed my camera, terribly afraid that I was trying to take a picture of her.
When our tea and lunch were finished and our chatting came to a natural end, the mother ran into the back and re-emerged with two colorful fans. She urged us to take these as presents and gently bid us a sweet, almost sad, goodbye.
Finally, my last tea chat, which took place on the second day of my trip, was by far my least decadent and most enjoyable conversation. Again in Yahiko Village, my first stop was the Yahiko Cycling Stadium (Velodrome)
. This massive complex includes a huge, circular racetrack, a raised walkway around the track, and an indoor area for placing bets and spectating.
When I arrived, I was a week early for the next race that Yahiko would host. Despite this, quite a few patrons were hanging out at the racetrack that day, almost all elderly Japanese men, sitting alone. Being far outside of that demographic myself, my entrance was met with quite a few confused stares.
I did a lap of the place and then approached one of the receptionists at the front. From her, I learned that a race at a different location was to be televised at the racetrack that day and the patrons were there to place bets and watch it on the TV. So, following the lead of my co-patrons, I deposited my stuff at one of the chairs in the stands beneath the giant hanging TV screens. I then grabbed a cup of free green tea from the vending machine and a fistful of papers from the table near the front and sat down.
Racing forms and cups of tea -- Photo by Taryn Siegel
I couldn’t make any sense of the papers before me. I went back to the kind receptionist, pleading for an explanation, and she came and sat down with me. Sipping on the chilled, sweet tea from my paper teacup, I listened carefully to my guide's clear and precise explanation of the betting procedures. A few minutes in, other patrons, eager to offer their advice and insights, began to join us. One older patron sat down at my other side, flipped over a few betting cards, and began scribbling a series of number combinations. The sweet receptionist on my left looked on, laughing anxiously, and repeating “it’s too difficult for her…”, but the helpful friend at my right would not be deterred and carefully rewrote his scribbled numbers again and again, confident that with each repetition his advice would become more intelligible.
I nodded encouragingly through his enthusiasm. When he finished, I took his scribbles with much solemnity, handling them like precious tokens. I didn’t have it in me to confess that I wasn’t betting.
I really did enjoy these refreshing little tea breaks and the flavorful variety of teas in Yahiko. But, in the end, my three cups of tasty Yahiko tea were actually delicious little props accompanying the true warmth of the Yahiko villagers who guided and welcomed me.