“Terroir denotes the special characteristics of a place, found in its geology, geography, climate and even cultural heritage, which interact with a cultivated plant species to create unique expressions. Terroir is the soil and weather of a particular region; the geography and culture of the people and their relationship to the plant, and even the local microorganisms. When we talk about a tea’s ‘terroir,’ we are speaking to the unique environment that created it, one which couldn’t be reproduced elsewhere.”
— Global Tea Hut, July 2017 —
Taiwan is an island composed of variant terrain, with many exports including tea. For well over 400 years, tea has been a vital element to Taiwanese culture.
Summer air in Taiwan was heavy, thick and sticky. But amidst the disorientation of a long flight and foreign climate, we had a direct destination: one of the oldest teahouses in Taipei, called Wisteria. Our Rhye liaison, named Cha Cha, had never heard of the old teahouse, probably because the tea practice in Taiwan has been a primarily aging demographic (according to her). However, in the western world, the ceremony of drinking tea as a meditation practice has been slowly gaining popularity.
The day I moved from Big Sur to Los Angeles was my first tea ceremony. I don’t drive, so my best friend Nathalie made the five-hour journey with me, carrying me directly from Big Sur to her friend Baelyn’s sanctuary of a home in Venice Beach. Inside her gorgeous, yet grounded home, Baelyn had dedicated a room solely to her tea practice. In this slow, yet active meditation, I could find silence and depth in a less demanding or strict way than I have experienced in any other meditation practice. Baelyn’s tea practice came from Taiwan, and as I was soon headed there, I asked her recommendation — and that is how Mike and I found ourselves in Wisteria.
Wisteria was located on the corner of a busy Taipei street; so busy that we thought the driver had taken us to the wrong place. Cars and the modern world bustled by its front doors. However, beyond the sidewalk was a lily pond and an entrance sheltered by shrubberies, branches and ivy. The inside was quaint, composed of a sweet scene: a petite desk and lady. She guided us through a restaurant to a back room. Shoes removed, we joined in the floor seating where a few people were engaged in tea ceremony, or post conversation. Everyone was local and paid no attention to us. When we selected our tea, our server sat down and guided us, showing me how to serve gungfu style: how to aerate the tea properly and serve it to my companion. Then the guide left us to experiment on our own. There was reverence for the tea, for the people interested in it, and for a practice that was rare to find in the western world.
This was an experience of Taiwanese culture. And, in that moment, Mike and I made a promise to each other: no matter how long the flight, no matter how fatigued we may be, we must experience something of the culture every time we touch down in a foreign land, as it is an immediate way to drop into deeper contact with the people.
Later that night, we were walking down the street with Cha Cha when she pointed out this old, dimly lit hallway. She informed us that after retirement, older men often open antique shops there as a hobby. We walked into one of the shops and an older gentleman with only two bottom teeth yelled out to us, “Hi, we are actually closing down, but come here. What are your names?”
Under florescent light were windows on either side, illuminating different elements of tea, mostly aged cakes of tea, pots, cups and other pieces that accented the traditional tea ceremony.
We introduced ourselves. He told us his name was Gary and that he used to have a Jazz club in Taipei, and now he ran his little shop. He wore a tropical button-up with red denim pants that he had altered earlier that day with some decorative slits, now capri-ed. He was innovative. Behind him was a charcoal drawing of his Jazz club and a cubicle-sized shop filled with miscellaneous tea accessories and newspaper. We ended up speaking with him for half an hour, discussing culture, tea and music. He brought out a little tea and unwrapped it.
“Close your eyes,” he said to me, “and inhale.”
Immediately, it transported me to a little Japanese restaurant in Sherman Oaks, California. “Wow! This smells amazing. It’s actually Mike’s favorite tea: brown rice. He always orders it when we go out to eat.”
Gary told us that tea masters often lose their ability to distinguish simple teas — having over-saturated their olfactory senses, they lose a sense of subtlety.
We ended up inviting Gary to Mike’s concert the following night, where Gary drew charcoal sketches of us and brought little packages of 15-year-old aged brown rice tea that had been taken from a tree four stories tall. We talked more, swapping favorite films and songs. Gary had no phone, so when we parted he wrote the number of another man in his shop in charcoal on the back of one of his drawings, so that I might be able to locate him when returning to Taiwan. And, I hope I do.
Later, back in the States and celebrating Nathalie’s birthday, Gary’s brown rice tea was, naturally, the only appropriate gift. As I read in Global Tea Hut magazine, “What is valued by the mainstream is often based on different standards than those of the tea lover. Sometimes we value the energy of the tea more than the flavors, especially when viewing tea as medicine.”
Being able to share this tea and story with my best friend reiterated this sentiment to me: that valuing the relationships between history, culture, meditation, tea and stories is what keeps bringing us together over and over again.