"A Perfect Matcha" is one of my first ever card designs, featuring an illustration that was actually drawn in 2008 when I taught English in Japan. Back then, I lived in a sleepy little town called Iga-Ueno, a place of high importance in Ninja history. (This fact is proudly celebrated by the town, which is known throughout the country for its ninja-themed trains, ninja-museum, as well a month-long Ninja-festival in April. Iga's other claim to fame is being the birthplace of Matsuo Basho, the famous master of the haiku.)
As soon as I moved into the neighbourhood, I noticed that the streets were steeped in the fragrance of matcha (powdered green tea). The scent was so concentrated that I wondered how it was possible. "Oh, that's from Murai-san," I was told. "He makes the best matcha in town. You must visit his Ninja Tea-house. He loves foreigners."
(A few months later, I would catch Murai secretly stooped behind his shop, holding a pot of fresh green tea over the fan and sending the fragrance drifting down the street. Talk about free advertising tactics pre-social media era!)
Eventually, I did go visit Murai-san, an eccentric man who claims to be the descendent of the last ninja of Iga. Upon seeing me, he disappeared mysteriously into his shop, then emerged in full ninja costume. After showing me a few tricks with his sword, he made me his infamous "Shuriken Matcha".
Delicious and with a beautiful presentation, the Shuriken Matcha features gold flakes topping the ninja star. I could keep writing, but the whole experience is really much better explained in the video below.
The Shuriken Matcha is actually infused with milk; this is different from traditional matcha, which is served by itself without milk or sugar, as in the photo below (on my second visit to Murai Banko-en when I brought a friend). Sweets are always served alongside the tea, in order to balance the bitterness of the matcha.
Here is Murai-san himself posing with Pocket Ninja, who traveled with me from Canada. (Little fun fact: I actually bought Pocket Ninja at Propaganda, the previous incarnation of Labour of Love, a gift shop that years later became one of our first stockists in Toronto!)
Cabinets full ninja-relics from Murai's grandfather decorate the shop's interior.
The shop is really quite charming, dotted with eccentric and antique furnishings and gadgets. I especially loved the walls filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of tea.
Iga-Ueno is lush and green and tucked away in the province of Mie, about two hours away from Osaka. It's amazing how, even now, when I dig out these photographs, I can still hear the deafening crickets and the town clock chiming at 12pm and 6pm. If you do ever go to Iga-Ueno, please visit Murai Banko-en and try the Shuriken Matcha. I promise Murai won't disappoint.