Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Stringing Tea": Intro & Chapter 1

Intro: Just How Does One “String Tea”?

[This is the first of a series of postings about my recent tea-buying expedition in Japan. Stay tuned for further installments.]

On a recent tea-finding trip through the wilds of Kyushu, Japan, I was followed by a three-person film crew from Europe’s Arte TV network. They were filming a 1-hour documentary on Japanese green tea for Arte's "Geo 360" series.

The subject of this installment of "Geo 360," which is due to be broadcast in September or October, is Japanese green tea. Arte chose Kyushu—and in particular Kumamoto—because of its natural, unspoiled environment. And they chose me because Kumamoto is where Mellow Monk's Green Teas are grown.

I was honored to have been chosen by such a prestigious public television network.

But filmmaking is serious business. And busy business. The shooting schedule was über-tight. The film crew and I lived out of a suitcase. Each day we drove far enough and fast enough to alter Earth’s rotation. We had to — we were under constant pressure right up until the night before we all went home.

On this three-week adventure, I was a tea-buyer second and a stringer first. No one is sure of the origins of the word stringer, but if I had to guess based on my own experience, I’d say it derived from an ancient word for “slave.” Or maybe “punishment.”

A stringer is a film crew’s interpreter, travel agent, interviewer, negotiator, luggage carrier, and all-around gofer. It may sound complicated, but a stringer's job is exceedingly simple: A stringer’s job is to Make It Happen.

For instance, if the director says, “We’re going to spend the next two nights in Hitoyoshi and film the tea fields there,” then the stringer books the rooms, clears everything with the tea grower, and finds the hotel on a map. The stringer Makes It Happen. If the cameraman says, “Can you get him to do the same thing again so we can film it from a different angle?” the stringer Makes It Happen. If the sound engineer wants the gardener to shut off the leaf blower for the next ten minutes, then the sound engineer Makes It Happen (in that particular case).

Anyone who’s ever translated between two languages knows that an interpreter is also a diplomat. Actually, this is true of anyone who communicates a message from one person to another. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is an invocation that isn’t always successful, and so a messenger with a strong survival instinct always softens the message.

So, when the director says in English, “What the hell is he doing? Tell him to do that again and not to bounce all over the place when he’s talking,” a smart stringer will put it slightly differently. Such as: “Wow, that was great. Just great. But the electromagnetic pulse from a solar flare zapped the camera, so could we do that one more time?” Such diplomacy is absolutely consistent with the Make It Happen directive. After all, as we say in America, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. (To which some may retort, Yes but you can catch more flies with scheissen than with honey.)

Chapter 1: This Is Not Possible

“This is not possible,” Mr. Matsuzaki said to me in Japanese. This shy, soft-spoken man — who had hardly made eye contact with me at all during the long hours we had spent together that day — was now staring me dead in the eye. Through thick, nearsighted eyeglasses he gave me a dumbstruck look, as if I had just asked him to cut off a finger or give up his firstborn.

Confused, I responded weakly. “You can’t?” What I was really thinking to myself was Can’t do what? Can’t pour hot water on tea? How the hell else do you make tea?

We were filming Mr. Matsuzaki making a hot cup of tea in a beautiful tea room — like a cross between this one and this one — on his tea farm. But when we got to the part where he was finally supposed to pour hot water into a teapot full of tea leaves, he balked.

Unaware of what we were saying, the film crew waited patiently. The cameraman, Chris, raised his eyebrows curiously. Manuel, the sound engineer, bedecked with wires, cables, and other sound-recording accoutrements, paused with his usual tired, oh-what’s-the-point-in-complaining look. The director, Ilka, stroked her chin pensively. The much-feared Furrow had yet to appear in her brow, which meant I might actually live to see tomorrow.

But I couldn’t explain to the crew what the problem was: There was no time. And I wasn’t even sure myself what the problem was. Besides, I was the stringer. The stringer’s job is to Make It Happen. And when things don’t happen, that means trouble. Such as dinner at ten o'clock instead of eight or nine.

I decided to play dumb with Mr. Matsuzaki. “All you have to do is pour the water into the teapot,” I smiled as pleasantly as I could.

“It’s not possible,” he repeated. “That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.”

“Then how are you supposed to do it?”

“You have to cool the water first. You can’t pour it directly from the kettle into the teapot.”

A sharp, loud voice shattered the quiet. “What’s the problem?” asked Ilka. The Furrow was near. I could feel it.

“He says he has to cool the water before he pours it onto the tea.”

“There’s no time for that!”

Chris chimed in helpfully. “Tell him you can’t even see the kettle in the closeup. Only the stream of water flowing into the pot.”

I translated. I added my own pleas. But Mr. Matsuzaki was adamant. “That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.”

But there was no room for negotiation. Once the director and cameraman had made up their mind, my job was to Make It Happen. Period.

“It’s okay,” I said to Mr. Matsuzaki. Desperation had crept into my voice. “The kettle won’t even be in the shot. It’s a closeup, so no one will know.”

With a little more prodding, Mr. Matsuzaki finally relented and poured hot water from the small silver kettle into the earthenware teapot. As he did, Chris filmed, Manuel recorded, and Ilka watched intently on the small monitor. The pour was perfect. No second take necessary.

The next shot was to be of the brewed tea being poured into a small white teacup. Once Chris was finished repositioning and refocusing the high-definition Sony movie camera, just enough time had passed for the tea to steep.

Mr. Matsuzaki poured the green infusion into the cup. Everything looked fine to my untrained eye. But Ilka was clearly unhappy.

“This is not possible,” she said in her Teutonically accented English. What’s not possible? I thought to myself. That tea leaves turned hot water green? What the hell else is supposed to happen?

“This is not possible,” Herr Direktor repeated. She locked her gaze on me. This was obviously my fault. “The tea is too dark. Much too dark. Why is it not bright green?”

I turned to Mr. Matzuaki, who, although he had no idea what we were saying, had paused instinctively, sensing the bad vibes in the air. “It’s the color,” I translated. “She says it’s too dark.”

“Of course it’s dark,” he responded matter-of-factly. “The water was too hot. When the water’s too hot, the tea comes out dark.”

I explained this to Ilka. “Oh,” she responded with uncharacteristic meekness. “Then . . . let’s do it again. With cooler water.”

“Can we do it again?” I asked Mr. Matsuzaki.

“Yes,” he replied softly. “This time we’ll brew the tea correctly.”

This is the kind of yuzamashi (literally "water cooler") that Mr. Matsuzaki used to cool the hot water when we decided to make tea correctly.

—Mellow Monk

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