Twelve days might sound like a long time to spend in just one city after a 12 hour flight. But in 12 days my tea pilgrimage to Kyoto was really no more than taking a deep breath of the fragrance and warmth of a cup of tea. I will have to return again to drink from the cup.

It was a mild November day as I stood at the gate on the path where the barefoot monks who planted and tended the first tea plants of Japan in the early thirteenth century had walked. The sun’s early-winter light illuminated delicate but brilliant, red Japanese maple leaves suspended by their invisible braches above the perimeter of the small plot. The tea plantation, which was first planted by Saint Myoe with tea seeds brought from China by the monk Eisai, resides peacefully in these woods. For many visitors it is a small point of interest noted by a stone marker for those who can read the kanji on it. But for me, it was a highlight of my pilgrimage. I gazed at the current botanical residents, wondering if I saw any original plants or just their progeny, infusing myself with the history of the place.

Today the tea plot looks a little unkempt and mostly forgotten. But through the late Kamakura and early Muramachi periods, tea produced from the leaves of these tea plants was considered the premier tea in Japan. The tea plants at Toganoo flourished, eventually spreading to what are now the major tea producing areas of Japan.