The Little Tea Shop That Could

On a whim, my wife and I took our scooter up into the mountains behind our home to visit our most favorite traditional tea and pottery house. The tea service is free, and all of the kettles and pottery are handmade with amazing attention to detail. We’ve got only five weeks left in Korea, so our trip was one of nostalgia. We’ve made a number of trips to this humble, welcoming shop, each time bringing a different set of friends, but this time we went alone. We didn’t expect to stay long, but once we arrived we were welcomed by the owner, his daughter-in-law, and two men we’d never met before. They invited us to sit with them and enjoy some green tea, which we did, and then we engaged in sloppy conversation in mixed English and Korean. All of this was unexpected, but after living in Korea for the last three years, the unexpected isn’t as surprising anymore.

On our first trip to this tea house, we learned that each of the ceramic pieces are not painted, but instead are treated with a glaze that changes color based upon the temperature and location within the urn. No two cups or kettles are the same, and yet each of them are as near to perfect as one can imagine. Their traditional matcha green tea serving bowls are so meticulously prepared that something like one in a hundred are deemed appropriate for selling. My friends and I learned the proper technique to drink the tea, which includes wiping the place from which you drank and rotating the bowl as you hand it to the next person, but the entire time I couldn’t help but think that if I dropped that bowl, I’d owe a ridiculous amount of money. After the drinking ceremony, we were brought back into the workshop to see all the pieces that were in line to be baked. The entire experience was overwhelming, and in the end, my wife and I proudly purchased an entire tea set, which is coated in a beautiful iron-based glaze. When tea is drunk from it, the bottom of the cup shimmers.

On Saturday, when Kimmy and I decided to head up for one more visit, we were greeted by, literally, busloads of people. Streets were roped off, tents set up, and somewhere in the distance we heard some very intense singing. After parking our scooter, we hiked up the small hill that lead to the shop, which was lined with hundreds and hundreds of empty makgeolli bottles (a sort of unfiltered rice wine). We were worried that our beloved shop would be chock full of people, but were relieved to see that it, in fact, was not. So we entered and sat down for a bit of tea drinking and picture taking. The green tea is very good. It tastes earthy, but light, and is like no other green tea I’ve ever had before. I wanted to buy some, but found out it cost ninety dollars, so quickly declined. Soon, a woman and her daughter entered the shop and began speaking perfect English to us. We had a brief conversation about our time in Korea. We mentioned that we leave next month and that this tea shop will always have a special place in our hearts.

Then, one more unexpected thing happened. The hostess, who’d been there at every trip we’d made, began talking with English speaking acquaintances. When she learned that we’d soon be leaving, she rustled through some things, then pulled out two beautifully made cups and began wrapping them in paper. “She’s giving those to you as a goodbye gift,” our new friends explained. We were honored and grateful. These cups sell for twenty dollars apiece and are unlike anything else we’ve seen in Korea. And then, the hostess went back to the green tea, the best tea I’ve ever tasted, and wrapped that up for us as well. “She wants you to take this as well.” This was a shock. She’d just gifted us over a hundred dollars worth of merchandise and all because we’d made a few visits and were now leaving. We thanked her emphatically and bowed and thanked her again. She walked us to the door and bid us farewell and the memory of it won’t soon leave. Korea has been a wonderful experience, and it’s moments like these that are really going to make it difficult to leave.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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