Japanese summer revolves around two beverages. One is beer (natch). The other is barley tea, or mugicha 麦茶. Summer is when barley is freshly harvested and at its tastiest, but still — why barley tea, and since when?

According to Japanese Wikipedia, something similar to barley tea has been drunk in Japan since Heian times, but the story gets interesting in the late Edo period, when the drink was known as mugiyu. (This literally means "barley + hot water" and is arguably more accurate since barley tea doesn't actually contain any, you know, tea.) Mugiyu was served in special establishments known as mugiyu mise (among other things, no doubt) and staffed by attractive young girls, maybe like this one. These houses of barleyed debauchery were open late into the summer night, and sometimes there was music and hostessing going on. The Fujiokaya Diary records official disapproval of the industry, partly for moral reasons and partly because they were a fire hazard.

(Aside: I don't think the "fire hazard" thing was the sort of bullshit pretext we would all assume it to be if The Man used it to close down a happening nightspot today. Edo was a city of densely built wood and paper; fire hazards were a very big deal.)

You can read a number of quotations about mugiyu girls (麦湯少女) in this blog post, including the interesting assertion from Kikuchi Kan that the mugiyu mise of the early Meiji period were the predecessor to Japanese cafe culture — in which, indeed, the scandal of unmarried women serving beverages would be repeated without shame or repentance.

So: when did sultry, voluptuous mugiyu become the cheerful and wholesome mugicha of today? Again returning to Wikipedia and its sources, this seems to have happened in the postwar period. Two key developments were required for this shift: widespread uptake of home refrigerator technology, allowing easy storage of cool beverages, and the invention of the mugicha "tea bag." I suppose the analogy to tea was easier to make when the actual plant matter involved was hidden inside an opaque bag, but I also suspect the name change was an attempt to class the stuff up a bit, break the association with shamisen-playing floozies and Edo street culture and create a new link to the respectable, healthful world of tea.

(It's probably worth noting that Wikipedia's main source for much of this seems to be Hitachiya Honpo, who in turn claim to have invented modern mugicha culture more or less single-handedly. I have no reason to doubt their claims but neither have I independently verified them.)

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language hat:

I have no desire to try the stuff, but "houses of barleyed debauchery" is a great phrase.


Aw, don't be like that! It can actually be quite refreshing.

What if we sent a mugiyu girl to your house with a free sample?

(Although I first had it in a small joint in Yokohama's Chinatown, which is perhaps a bit of cuisine semantic oddity there.)


Great post - I've always wondered about the stuff. It is nice during the summer - I frequent one lunch place because it has unlimited mugicha.


I cannot drink mugicha. The scorched barley has a persistent aftertaste that burns my lips and tongue. I feel like I've been sucking on a dirty ashtray. Is that the way it's supposed to taste?


I'd say that's not how it's supposed to taste--I don't get ashtray at all, for one, not astringent enough for that--but then there are some people who think cilantro tastes like soup, so who knows.

Those people are seriously missing out, though, is all I'm saying.

(Those gene therapists should really work on curing that. And then maybe they can work on mugicha/ashtray, if there's a population of that.)

Leonardo Boiko:

Who drinks mugicha in tea bags? Drink it properly loose-leaf… er… loose-grain, in a strainer.

Respectable, healthful world of tea? Weren’t tea-houses in general associated with debauchery? Ok, the ゆ of bathhouses could also mean prostitution, but if I wanted a new suffix to make mugiyu sound wholesome, I woulnd’t choose the same 茶 of 茶番劇、お茶屋、茶屋女、 散茶女郎。。。

Charles: Try someone else’s mugicha—e.g. order at a reputable place or buy a bottle. It’s a handy trick whenever you want to try a new kind of tea or tisane or coffee; this way you know what it’s supposed to taste like. (However, beware of people who overbrew or burn it.)

Leonardo Boiko:

By the way, in many languages “cha” or “tea” (and cognates) have been, or are being, generalized to mean “any hot beverage made by infusion or similar methods”, as in the English “herbal teas”. It’s confusing because then you’re left with no word to refer to tea the-plant proper; Portuguese has underwent this process, and I always take several minutes explaining that there is actually a plant called “cha”.

In the case of Japanese, besides mugicha, think of 昆布茶、甘茶、甜茶、マテ茶、しょうが茶 &c.


I've tried plenty of different sources for mugicha, some of the smoother, lighter infusions and they still give a slight burnt aftertaste. I guess it is a matter of taste. I am pretty traditionalist with tea and coffee. If it's tea, it better be green, and if it's coffee, it better be Columbian. I wish you could try my pourover coffee, everyone says it's the best coffee they ever had.

Leonardo Boiko:

As a Brazilian, I’m offended by your choice of coffee :)


Yeah, I guess that's one of those de gustibus issues, Charles. I feel the same way about some kinds of mugicha (especially the kind you buy in PET bottles) but I really like the loose-grain stuff.

Leo: Good point about the "tea" not necessarily meaning tea-leaves thing. Re the negative associations, I think by the postwar period they were mainly historical, and tea was more something you drank at refined gatherings and/or vaguely believed in as a symbol of Japan (Okakura etc.)


Yes, I do wonder about "cha" being more respectable - I guess by the Post-War period that could be possible. However, when I was researching the Gion poetess Kaji, I found that her few biographers were compelled to explain that her tea-house (the Matsuya) was a "mizuchaya," an actual tea-selling teahouse, as opposed to a "irochaya," a teahouse dealing in . . . passions.


Well, yeah, but she lived in Gion (as you say) in, like, the 17th century... That's a context thing.

Leonardo Boiko:

mizu chaya? As in, a mizu shōbai ochaya? Sounds legit to me…

Philip Seyfi:

Never tasted it, have to try some time! :)

BTW, you should submit the post to this month's Japan Blog Matsuri... http://nihongoup.com/blog/july-2011-japan-blog-matsuri/


Thanks for the suggestion, but those rules and guidelines look a bit more detailed and complex than I am prepared to deal with for something blog-related!


I wonder what relationship might exist between mugiyu consumption (and reputation) in old Japan and in Korea, where hot barley tea remains as ubiquitous in restaurants as green tea is in Japan.

BTW, we regularly keep a large container of mugicha in our refrigerator, brewed with those big bags you just dump in cold water.

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