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Japanese Green Tea: A Cup Full of History and Mystery
Since around the 9th Century, when tea was first introduced to the people of Japan by traders who sipped the beverage in China, green tea has evolved into a national obsession and become part of the country’s culture. Keep reading to learn more about the history of this magical drink.
The beginning - China (From 6000BC)
- The Chinese were the first to discover the health benefits of green tea 8000-9000 years ago.
The legendary emperor Shennong, who is also the father of Chinese medicine and agriculture, is said to have discovered tea around 2700 BC which is a well-known myth. In Lancang valley in Yunnan tea plants were discovered and confirmed in 2012. The Hemudo tribe cultivated tea between 6000-3500BCE.
- Evidence in Emperor Jing of Han in Xi"an's mausoleum indicates that tea made from Camellia, green tea, was drunk by emperors of the Han Dynasty back in the 2nd century BC.
- Around the 1st century BC, scholars compiled herb lore into a book called “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” it included tea among the herbs.
- In 59 BC, Wang Bao from the Sichuan Province wrote “A Contract with a Servant,” the first known book to describe how to buy and prepare tea. “A Contract with a Servant” is also the first known book to mention tea utensils. During Wang Bao’s time, tea was still considered a luxury.
- During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the cultivation of green tea throughout China began. Back then, the leaves were dried and then pressed into a solid cake. This made it easy to carry without damaging the leaves.
- Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing or “The Classic of Tea” (AKA Cha Ching) around 760 AD during the Tang Dynasty. In his book, Lu Yu described how to brew green tea and how to cultivate it as well. He talked about the tools for brewing and cultivating the tea. Also, included in his book were the health benefits of green tea that were known by the Chinese at that time. It was from this book that the style of the tea ceremony evolved.
The Classic of Tea written by Lu Yu in 760 AD
The Present and Towards the Future
Today, people who succeed Nagatani Soen’s will continue manufacturing high-grade green tea.
Please take your time to experience the aroma and taste of the green tea.
Sen no Rikyu’s tea ceremony room was firstly built in Ujitawara
A tea ceremony room called Dokurakuan has been restored in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture. The restoration work was conducted under the guidance of Mr. Masao Nakamura, an honorary professor at Kyoto Institute of Technology. It is said that the tea room was once built in Ujitawara.
Sen no Rikyu was bestowed Nagara-no-hashigui (bridge piers of Nagara Bridge) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Tensho Period (1573-1593). Using the bridge piers, Rikyu built a tea ceremony room with an ornamental alcove of two tatami mat size in Ujitawara Town. After Rikyu’s death, the tea ceremony room was relocated into the residence of Nakamura Kuranosuke, a friend of Ogata Korin, in Kyoto. After that, it was transferred to a wealthy merchant Awaya in Osaka, and then obtained by Matsudaira Fumai, the lord of the Matsue Domain and a tea ceremony expert. Fumai established a tea garden park of around 66,000 square meters, in which eleven tea ceremony rooms were scattered, at his villa in Osaki, Edo. Dokurakuan was built in the center of the tea garden park. In the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Dokurakuan was relocated to Matsudaira family’s villa in Fukagawa as artillery batteries were installed in Osaki to defend the nation. However, the relocated tea room was suffered from the tsunami caused by the Izu Earthquake. During the Taisho period, Muto Sanji, a businessman who inherited articles related to Matsudaira family restored Dokurakuan in Kita-Kamakura using old building materials from Kofukuji Temple. Today, the tea ceremony room has been reconstructed inside of a traditional Japanese restaurant in Hachioji, Tokyo.
In 1991, Dokurakuan was restored at the Izumo Cultural Tradition Hall in Shimane Prefecture, a region associated with Fumai. The tea room has been faithfully reproduced along with other tea rooms, including a tea ceremony room of Funakoshi Iyo who offered tea to Tokugawa Ietsuna, the fourth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, and two tea ceremony rooms of Taiso, the sixth generation grand master of the Urasenke chado tradition.
While doing the restoration work, Professor Nakamura pointed out that Dokurakuan was unique in its composition for having triplex roji (the garden through which one passes to the tea room). As one enters the main gate and passes through soto-roji (the outer garden) and naka-roji (the middle garden), one’s view is blocked by a high fence. When one arrives in uchi-roji (the inner garden), however, natural scenery finally spreads out before one’s eyes without any obstruction. Such composition of roji can be seen as an arrangement to connect one with "the path outside of the secular world" and invite one to the world of the tea ceremony.
The tea ceremony established by Sen no Rikyu regarded Uji tea (Matcha) as the top priority, requiring continuous improvement of its quality. A tea house can be said as the stage for the tea ceremony, and an architecture for entertaining guests with green tea and meal. There are many invaluable cultural properties still preserved today, such as Myokian Tai-an (Oyamazaki Town, Kyoto) which is attributed to Sen no Rikyu, and other tea garden parks and tea ceremony rooms owned by the Japanese tea ceremony schools (Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakoji Senke).
History of Japanese green tea
We all know green tea in Japan now is historically from China. The tradition-rich drink made it travel from China to Japan centuries ago and very early since then, has built its status in Japanese culture. However, though originated from China, Japanese green tea is quite different from Chinese green tea in many senses.
The beginning in China
8000 to 9000 years ago, Chinese people were the first group that discovered the health benefits of green tea. There is a well-known myth that Shennong, a legendary emperor, also the father of Chinese medicine and agriculture, had discovered tea around 2700 BC. In 2012 tea plants were discovered in Lancang valley, Yunnan, China, confirming the fact that local tribe Hemudo cultivated tea between 6000-3500 BCE.
Green tea made from Camellia was also enjoyed among emperors of the Han Dynasty back in the 2nd century BC. Evidence in Xi”an’s mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han has indicated this fact.
Around the 1st century BC, a book called “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” was introduced by scholars. Tea appeared in there as an herb.
In 59 BC, there was a man from Sichuan Province named Wang Bao who wrote the book “A Contract with a Servant.” This is known as the first book ever that showed people how to buy and prepare tea. Tea utensils were first mentioned in this book too. During Wang Bao’s time, tea was still considered a luxury.
In was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that green tea was cultivated throughout the country of China. At that time, to make it easier for carrying and avoid damages during transporting, people got the tea leaves dried and pressed them into solid cakes.
Around 760 AD during the Tang Dynasty, a writer named Lu Yu finished his book “The Classic of Tea” (Cha Jing) in which he wrote about green tea growing and brewing method. He talked about the health benefits of green tea known by Chinese back then as well. Also included in his book was knowledge about the tools for brewing and cultivating green tea. The evolution of the style of tea ceremony started from this book.
The travel from China to Japan
The first seeds of tea plants traveled to Japan during the Tang dynasty (around 618 to 907). This period was the time when the two countries exchanged their cultures, which included green tea.
During the Nara period in Japan, from 710 to 794, tea plants were grown and used only by noblemen and priests as medicine. The transforming of tea from medicine to beverage didn’t happen in Japan until a long time after its first move in China. In China, around the end of the Tang dynasty, tea started to be consumed as a daily beverage instead of just a kind of medicine.
Japanese Emperor Saga (786-842), who ruled the country during the early Heian period, is said to be the one that encouraged the tea growing and consuming. Tea made its first presence in 815 in a book written by Nihon Kouki. The book told the story of Emperor Saga visiting Suufuku temple to worship the Buddha in 815. Soon after that, in a meet with Eichu- the highest-ranked monk at Bonshaku temple, the Emperor Saga was offered the tea Eichu, himself, had brewed.
Buddhism came to Japan during the Nara and Heian period. Back then some Buddhist monks traveled to China and visited various schools to learn about Buddhism. Upon their return to Japan, they founded their own schools. It was during this time, around the beginning of Heina era (794-1185), the two Buddhist monks named Saicho and Kukai, brought the tea seeds from China back to Japan.
A few months after the emperor Saga knew the news of tea seeds arriving Japan, he ordered tea plants to be cultivated. He even asked his people to grow tea in the imperial palace land. Since this order tea cultivation of Emperor Saga, tea became popular in Japan.
Unfortunately, later due to financial problems brought by his many concubines and 49 children, the Emperor Saga had to renounce his throne in 823. Tea cultivating, for this reason, was hindered. Many droughts also caused the suffering of tea in Japan back then.
Buddhist monks engaged in drinking green tea since the drink helped them stay awake during long meditation sessions. Zen monks in Japan nowadays still love green tea and consume it to soothe the body and mind.
Eisai, the father of Japanese tea culture (1141 – 1215)
Eisai took two trips to China to learn about Buddhism and after his second trip in 1187, he finally received certification to be a Zen teacher. That time he followed Master Xuan Huaichan of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. After 4 years of being his disciple, Eisai became the first Japanese monk to be certified as a Zen teacher.
In 1911, Eisai returned to Japan, bringing the Rinzai Zen teachings and tea seeds. He planted the seeds in Mount Sefuri at first. He also shared the seeds to Myoue Shounin, a Kousanji temple monk of Kyoto. People believed that Eisai gave her 3 seeds and also taught her how to grow them.
When Eisai returned to Japan in 1191, he brought the Rinzai Zen teachings to Japan as well as tea seeds. At first, he planted tea seeds in Mount Sefuri. He also gave some tea seeds to Myoue Shounin, a Kousanji temple monk of Kyoto. It is believed that Eisai gave three tea seeds to Myokei Shonin and also taught him how to cultivate the seeds. With his growing the tea plants near his temple in Uji area, the monk started practicing tea drinking. Soon after that, tea cultivation spread to the north of Japan. The now-famous Uji Tea originated from here. Myokei even wrote a poem about planting the first seedlings in Uji, which was later engraved on a stone tablet at the entrance to Manpukuji Temple.
A written document came out in 1214 also refers to a story that says Eisai offered Shogun Minamoto tea to drink when Shogun was having a hangover. Eisai also gave Shogun a book he himself wrote named Kissayojoki (also known as Tea Drinking Cure). In this book, he wrote down knowledge about the health benefits of tea and how to cultivate tea, how to prepare it.
He mentioned in the book that bitter foods are good for the heart. He promoted drinking bitter green tea to improve heart health and boost energy. He stated his belief that prior to a zazen meditation session if the monks drank tea, it would be easier for them to enter enlightenment.
With Eisai’s introducing tea to Japanese culture, people from lower classes began to enjoy this drink, which used to be a practice popular just among nobles and monks. That is also why Eisai was known as the Father of Japanese tea culture.
Eisai passed away in 1202. Japanese people credit him for making tea and tea ceremony popular in this country. It is believed that the Japanese tea ceremony is derived from a Buddhism ceremony where the monks drink tea in front of the Bodhi Dharma.
Japanese Green Tea: Organic vs Powder
The kind of Japanese green tea people should drink varies on their own preferences in taste and aroma. However, in terms of benefits, some may be more suitable than the others. It will take a rather detailed explanation about each green tea type&rsquos composition to fully comprehend their functions but just being able to understand the difference between organic, whole-leaf tea and powdered tea is enough for tourists visiting Japan.
It has become common sense that consuming anything whole will provide one with all the nutritional values present in the product. Many matcha sellers have used this to promote the idea that powdered green tea has more antioxidants, specifically 137 times more, than organic green tea. This figure comes from a study done by the University of Colorado back in 2003 but is a bit flawed as it compared low-quality green tea and high-quality matcha.
The truth of the matter is, there is no actual evidence to support that being able to consume the leaves along with the tea is better than just drinking the tea infused from it. Figuring out which is better basically just depends on personal choice. Interestingly, some reasons or theories considered by people around the world when choosing between loose leaf and powdered tea include:
- The insoluble components of tea leaves are made of proteins, carbohydrates, and fibers that contain a limited nutritional value. The Chinese believe this to be harmful.
- Tea leaves may be infused as many times as possible until the produced tea reaches a state where it already tastes bland. By doing this, one can extract every bit of the leaves&rsquo nutritional components.
- Powdered tea may contain contaminants from the soil and water its plant was exposed to.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
Before the development of the modern tea ceremony, tea was seen as an
opportunity for the upper classes to showcase their wealth. They held gatherings in opulent tea houses around Kyoto to showcase their exotic tea and teaware.
Then a man known as Sen no Rikyu came along with a more humble vision for what a tea ceremony should look like. Rather than a gold plated façade, Rikyu advocated for a rustic and small tea house away from the noise of the city.
The first step of the tea ceremony begins not when you walk inside the teahouse, but actually on the path leading up to it. While walking along this path, guests purify their hearts and thoughts and leave their worldly worries behind. In a symbolic gesture, guests also purify their hands and mouth in this water before entering the tea house. This allows them to wash away the dust from the outside world. The guests then wait outside the tea house to quiet their mind before entering. The tea ceremony is built on the philosophy Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
An example of Harmony is shown in the gardens around the tea room. The gardens are to be an extension of the flora surrounding it, living in harmony with nature.
The next concept is “Kei” or respect. The guests need to respect all things, regardless of their status or position in life. This is demonstrated at the entrance of the tearoom, where guests crawl through a small door. In order to get through the door, they need to bow. Samurai must bow, emperors must bow and commoners must bow. Once inside the tearoom, all guests are equal, regardless of their status outside.
The third concept “Sei” or purity, is demonstrated by the tea master once the guests enter the room. Through a series of refined movements, the teamaster cleans and purifies the utensils used in the ceremony. The concept of “Sei” does not simply refer to physical purity, but also spiritual and mental purity. The guests need to purify their mind of thoughts and worries when entering the tea house. It is only then that they will be able to enjoy something as simple as a bowl of tea in silence.
Finally, after all three concepts are discovered and embraced, all people in the ceremony can embody “Jaku” or tranquility. This was the vision that Sen no Rikyu had for the tea ceremony, and his teachings still live on, not only inside the tearoom, but outside as well.
The inside of the tearoom is modestly decorated. Each tea ceremony follows a theme, and that theme is simply conveyed through the use of a flower arrangement and a scroll. The theme of today’s tea ceremony is “wood” and the flower arrangement conveys the leaves beginning to fall from the trees.
The scroll on the wall expresses the intention of cleansing our hearts before the upcoming winter Season. The theme of “wood” is also conveyed in the objects used in the tea ceremony. Here is an incense holder made from bamboo gathered around Uji. There is also another small object that is used to produce a specific scent in the tea room. The rest of the objects are used for the preparation of the matcha.
First we have the Hishaku, a bamboo ladle used to scoop hot water out of the Kama or iron pot. A small square is carved out in the tatami mats to make room for this iron pot and keep the water hot throughout the day.
Next, we have the tea bowl or Chawan. This is a clay bowl made by hand inspired by Furuta Oribe, a disciple of Sen no Rikyu. The bowl has a weight to it that conveys the importance of what’s inside.
Next we have the Fukusa, the cloth that is used to clean off the tea utensils before using them. This is a sign of respect for the guests and it is done in a series of graceful movements.
The Natsume or tea caddy is the vessel that the matcha tea powder is kept in. Matcha tea has to be protected from light and humidity to maintain its quality.
The Chashaku is the bamboo spoon used to scoop the matcha powder into the bowl, and the chasen is the bamboo whisk that’s used to mix the powder into water and form a nice foam.
To prepare the matcha for the tea ceremony, the host first must prepare the tea whisk and the tea bowl. She pours hot water from the iron pot into the tea bowl to warm it up. Then, she will take the tea whisk and gently soak each side of it. This does two things, first, it heats up the tea bowl so that it does not cool the matcha down too quickly, and it also makes the bamboo whisk more pliable.
The chasen tea whisk is made out of a single piece of bamboo, with very fine bristles that can break if it is too brittle. That is why she gently moves the whisk through the water first before preparing the tea.
The host then discards the water into a Kensui or waste water bowl.
The bowl is then cleaned with a different type of cloth called the Chakin. Once the bowl has been thoroughly cleaned, it is time to add the matcha. The host adds two large scoops of matcha into the bowl. In this case, the host is preparing Usucha, a normal matcha but she may also use more matcha and less water to create a powerful Koicha, or thick matcha.
Next, water is added to the bowl using the Hishaku. Finally, the host begins the whisking of the matcha. The bamboo whisk is specifically designed to mix the matcha into the water in the perfect way. The whisk also creates small air bubbles in the tea, giving it a smooth and creamy taste. The host starts by scraping off the sides of the bowl, and then moves into a diagonal movement to create a foamy texture.
Once the matcha has been prepared, the host presents the bowl to the guest, with the most decorative side facing them. This is a sign of humility and respect, allowing others to enjoy the most beautiful part of the bowl.
When the guest is finished with the matcha, they place the bowl on the other section Of the Tatami mat.
For hundreds of years, Uji was the hub of tea cultivation in early Japan, and it still maintains much of that status today, particularly for matcha. Many tourists come to Uji every year to take part in tea ceremonies at Taihoan tea house, and to visit the many matcha shops between Uji station and Byodoin temple. In the surrounding areas of Ogura and Ujitawara there are also many historical sights to commemorate the invention of Sencha and Gyokuro tea.
In the 1500s and 1600s, matcha was the primary way to consume green tea in Japan, but that all changed with the invention of Nagatani Soen. This tea grower in Uji discovered that rather than grinding tea leaves into a powder, they could be steamed, rolled and dried to maintain their flavor for long periods of time. They could then be prepared in a teapot and poured into a glass. This discovery allowed Nagatani Soen to popularize the use of Sencha tea, now by far the most common type of green tea in Japan.
The Childhood home of Nagatani Soen is now a popular tourist attraction and a nearby shrine was built to commemorate his discovery of Sencha in 1737. Larger Japanese tea companies fund the upkeep of this shrine, in order to pay their respects to the father of modern Japanese green tea. If you ever get to visit Uji, it may be worth the short trip over to Ujitawara to see this site for yourself.
An important discovery in the history of Japanese green tea happened at this site in Ogura. A tea merchant by the name Yamamoto Kahei had traveled around Japan to study tea cultivation and he noticed that certain family farms would cover their tea plants to protect them from the cold. By cutting off the sunlight from the plants, it actually made the tea sweeter. He began to implement this method and in 1841 he created a long shaded tea that developed a green residue during the production process. He named this tea Gyokuro or “Jade Dew”
Gyokuro became famous for its trademark sweet and savory flavor, and this sparked a renaissance in the production of Japanese green tea. Farmers now could experiment with different levels of shading, different steaming, rolling and drying techniques to create the wide array of tea varieties we see today.
In the early 20th century, another important tea production method was discovered and that was roasting. This practice began in Kyoto and later spread out to all of Japan. By roasting the teas, farmers and producers were able to create a completely unique tasting experience, playing off of these warmer notes of coffee, caramel and chocolate.
Starting in the mid 20th century the tea production process in Japan became more industrialized. The harvesting of the tea could be done by machine, and so could the steaming, rolling and drying. This allows the farmers to produce tea more efficiently with less manual labor. Certain tea factories in Japan are almost completely automated, taking in fresh leaves and moving them through the production with a series of conveyor belts.
In modern Japan, the most common way to consume tea is now in bottled form. These ready to drink teas are sold in vending machines on virtually every street corner in Tokyo. They keep the drinks hot in the winter and cool in the summer. Although these teas aren’t anything close to freshly brewed loose leaf tea, these unsweetened bottled teas commonly outsell sugary soft drinks, which is quite an accomplishment. This shows that the love of tea in modern society isn’t going away anytime soon.
The main Types of tea in Japan
Tea plantation in South East Japan
All teas are from the same shrub, Camellia sinensis. What makes them different? Well, it’s mainly their origin and method of manufacture. Read more about the different types of Japanese tea below.
Classic infused green teas: Gyokuro, Bancha and the famous Japanese green tea Sencha
The highest quality tea is Gyokuro tea, also known as ‘dew Pearl’. This tea, whose leaves are temporarily shaded to protect them from the sun, is picked during the first spring harvest. If you want to taste one of the best Japanese teas, let yourself be tempted by the Gyokuro unique and exquisite taste .
Then comes the Sencha tea, which is also usually picked during the first harvest (then it is called Shinca) but whose leaves are not shaded. Shincha tea is popular in Japan and is only available in limited quantities abroad.
Sencha tea is the most common tea and accounts for more than two-thirds of Japanese production.
Finally, Bancha tea is a low-grade tea whose leaves are harvested during later harvests.
matcha tea is all about: the entire leaf will be reduced to a fine jade green powder. That way you can benefit from the nutrients contained in the tea Leaf… but also enjoy its full flavors! In Japan, matcha tea is traditionally consumed at a tea ceremony. The fine powder is then mixed with water thru a whisk… and is not infused like ordinary green or black teas!
This matcha tea powder is known for its exceptional antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties: it contains vitamins C and E, beta-carotene but especially … polyphenols, as in red wine or cocoa! Catechins, the antioxidant molecules found in tea (especially green tea), protect our cells from oxidative stress and aging. Several studies have highlighted the benefits of a daily consumption of green tea, two to three cups per day: will result in decreased cardiovascular risk, prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and many otger benefits…
Matcha powder is also rich in chlorophyll: a pigment found in green plants. These natural pigment is rich in magnesium and is a powerful antioxidant, but also has great detoxifying properties. This helps you effectively eliminate toxins from your body.
How to prepare a matcha tea according to Japanese traditions ?
- Pour a teaspoon of matcha green tea into a tea bowl
- Fill the bowl with water that is just below boiling point
- Whisk vigorously with a small bamboo whisk until the mixture becomes sparkling and foamy
- Ideally, you should consume your matcha tea without added sugar.
For the most enjoyment matcha tea is also consumed with milk. This is the matcha latte, which has become famous for its taste and great appearance! Cow’s milk, soy milk, almond milk …it’s your choice.
Only premium quality leaves are used to prepare a Matcha green tea. They are dried, ground to a fine powder and mixed with hot water.
The culinary grade Matcha is usually of lower quality but can also be enjoyed if it’s from a reputable brand.
Jade Leaf Matcha Green Tea Powder
green tea and roasted brown rice. The fresh vegetable notes of the tea blend harmoniously with the roasted notes of the rice grains, and give it a very characteristic taste that makes it a very popular tea for those who are not accustomed to green tea. Very refreshing, this tea can be enjoyed both hot and iced, and goes particularly well with your meals.
Genmaicha tea is also very a popular drink in Japan and is often served in restaurants and cafes.
Oolongcha tea is made up of leaves that are left to oxidize slightly before being steam dried or roasted.
It’s a popular tea in Japanese restaurants.
Kocha (black tea)
The leaves of Kocha tea are even more oxidized than those of Oolongcha tea, giving the drink a dark brown color. In Japanese “kocha” means “red tea” with reference to the reddish brown colour of the liqueur.
Jasmine flower tea is a very common drink in Okinawa where it is known as Sanpincha.
So, you now know a little more about the history of Japanese tea and the different types of teas produced and consumed by the country. If you have not yet finished your tea break, we suggest you check out more about your favorite drink by browsing our other drink related articles .
Overview of Genmaicha
Genmaicha is a mixture of almost the same amount of bancha (coarse tea) or occasionally sencha green tea heated at high temperatures, and brown rice steamed and roasted until it gets a light ginger color or bursts like popcorn. Some also contain a dash of salt. It is one of the Japanese green teas or Japanese teas.
In prewar times, a chasho (tea dealer), who found the scraps of mochi left after the kagamibiraki (the custom of cutting and eating a large, round rice cake, which has been offered to the gods at New Year, on January 11) wasteful, roasted and mixed them with tea leaves, and this was said to be the beginning of genmaicha.
As a Japanese tea it is ranked on a par with bancha and hojicha (roasted green tea) and is not considered one of the high class teas. It has a delicate taste, and its fragrant smell and flavor are characteristics. When it is served, the best way to prepare it is to use boiling water and infuse for only a short time. When it is infused for a long time it becomes bitter due to the increased tannin.
The quality of genmaicha depends more on the quality of the brown rice than the tea leaves. Its fragrant smell and flavor are derived more from brown rice being roasted until light ginger than from the burst brown rice. Therefore, when the proportion of burst brown rice is high, it is considered an inferior product.
Kanbayashi Shunsho Honten (上林春松本店)
Kanbayashi Shunsho Honten, located in the city of Uji, is a very famous green tea shop with about 450 years of history. It is said that the old tea shop had many connections with famous historical characters. In modern times, the shop is carrying various products ranging from luxurious green tea leaves to inexpensive ones.