Monthly Archives: March 2017


The genesis of Japanese tea – About Mandokoro

In the late 14th, early 15th Century, Zen monk Ekkei Shūkaku [越渓秀格], at the time the 5th successor in line of Eigenji temple [永源寺] in Shiga prefecture, discovered that the water and soil in the surrounding mountains of this convent was highly suited for the production of tea. In effect, he commissioned the villagers of these towns to take to the cultivation of tea bushes and give precedence to producing the tea that later became known as one of Japan’s most favored brands, the tea from Mandokoro [政所茶]. One verse in the song sung during harvesting season illustrates how highly this tea had become esteemed. It first calls out Japan’s major tea producing area, singing “Uji is Japan’s tea-manufacturing district” [宇治は茶所], then the verse continues “Tea comes from Mandokoro” [茶は政所]. This verse clearly indicates that both regions were just as important places in Japan’s tea culture.

Mandokoro is a small neighborhood in Higashiōmi city [東近江市], situated on the western flank of the Suzuka mountain chain [鈴鹿山脈], which runs through Mié along the borders of Gifu and Shiga prefectures. Eigenji temple is located at the foot of the mountains, whereas the tea gardens are situated higher up at approximately 300 to 400 m above sea level. The bushes rely upon water from the Echi river [愛知川], which leads into Eigenji dam first, and then makes its way to the Yodo river in Osaka.

A farm positioned at this height is bound to experience strong cold winters, and it is said that the gardens in Mandokoro have to cope with thick packs of snow during the coldest seasons, which piles up on top of the tea-bushes putting tremendous pressure on its branches. Nevertheless, these bushes have learned to cope with cold and snow over the years, and have become particularly adapted to this specific environment. The oldest tree remaining in these precincts was planted over 300 years ago. At the time, tea-bushes were multiplied solely by taking seeds from a bush, and sowing them wherever it was desired to begin a new garden.

This practice has become less common since the introduction of selective breeding [品種改良(] and the adaptation of cultivars [品種] for the ease of cultivation and harvesting. Recently, planting cuttings from one particular cultivar in order to maintain the genetic construction of that plant is the more common practice. This practice allows for rows of bushes that develop leaves at the same speed, in the same size, and with the same flavor, allowing for easy manipulation by machines, and a steady and predictable outcome as a finished product. With seeds however, this cannot be achieved. Because, re-planting a garden only from the seeds of even a single cultivar will result in a series of bushes with slightly different characteristics, reverting the species back to its original state as a diverse and adaptable plant.

On the contrary, since reproduction from seeds is the most natural method, it doesn’t surprise that the plants grown this way become more robust and versatile in regard to its environment. In Mandokoro, only native cultivars are in use and this has always been the case, most of which are at least over 60 years old. There are several reasons for this, but the most accurate explanation is that other cultivar species cannot survive the cold winters of this region. The native bushes from Mandokoro grow low to the ground and have extremely flexible branches. When snow piles up on top of them, their flexibility allows the plant to give way to the weight without fainting underneath such pressure. Other cultivars would in this case be prone to snap.

Another reason given is that, in contrast to contemporary practices, gardens are usually not re-planted. When a bush fails to produce the desired amount of leaf due to its age or state of maturation, its branches are cut at the base to allow for young, fresh branches to sprout from the base. This approach allows the plant to stay rooted in its natural environment, while on top prongs may multiply at a height that is accessible to human hands. Observing this practice omits the necessity to plant new trees, but requires patience while anticipating the re-growth of those bushes.

Although the methods that are respected in Mandokoro are distinctly traditional, more contemporary minded farmers may refer to these ways as non-productive and limiting. Nevertheless, what Mandokoro informs us of is that what we perceive as traditional today is not what has been contemporary in the past. When we envision a traditional Japanese tea garden, we are bound to recount the beauty and extensiveness of those gulfing lanes of trees on the mountain flanks around Uji, or on the plains of Shizuoka, but it was only after the mechanization of tea production that tea bushes have become lined up in rows. Prior to this, each bush was a single entity in a patchwork of round dots when seen from afar, and this is how the farms are still laid-out in Mandokoro today.

Because of this random, natural arrangement of the farm, the tea cannot be harvested by machine and thus has to be picked by hand. The way this is conducted is again illustrative of the tradition and special character of the tea produced in this region. The more orthodox practice is to pluck only the top two to three leaves using the soft part of the thumb and forefinger to grip, bend and snap the soft twig. For Mandokoro tea, the whole hand is wrapped around the twig at the height of the fifth or sixth leaf counted from the bud, and in an upward motion, the leaves and bud, with inclusion of a part of the twig, are ripped off.

Since Mandokoro is located high up in the mountains, winters tend to get cold and temperature differences between day and night are large. This creates an ultimate environment for tea bushes to grow, and renders an unmatched sweetness in the flavor of this tea. During the coldest seasons, the plant generates natural sugars in the roots in order to survive. These sugars enter the veins of the bush in early spring, eventually making their way through into the leaf rendering them with a highly delicious cloying aroma. Moreover, no chemicals are used for the cultivation of these bushes, and also no unnatural fertilizers have been employed. What has been bestowed onto the roots is limited to pampas grass, fallen leaves, and in some cases the remnants of Cole seed for the production of Canola oil.

All the above-mentioned elements imbue the tea from Mandokoro with a very exclusive character. It is a tea that is produced, closely observing traditional procedures, and applying only natural cultivation methods without giving way to contemporary policies as mass-consumption and over-production. The native bushes are ingrained with the fragrance of the soil and nurtured with the water of Echi River, which springs in the mountains where this small cultivation area is situated. Mandokoro tea allows its drinker an insight in the true tradition of Japanese tea manufacturing and provides us with a fully unique experience to enjoy the genuine taste of this area in specific; one that may not be obtained elsewhere.


What do you perceive as the traditional landscape of tea production?

As an exercise, please take in mind that heavy machinery only became employed some 50+ years ago, but that the production of tea has already been part of Japan’s agriculture for centuries. Now, I would like you to use your imagination. What does a traditional tea farm look like? Try to draw a picture of this in your mind.

What did you see? Do you picture long lanes of bushes, spread out widely on the planes of Shizuoka? Or did you see rows of bushes, stacked one above the other on the hills and mountains around Kyoto? These images are indeed what is referred to, and promoted as the ‘traditional’ landscape of Japanese tea production. Now I invite you to take a look at the following image of a 19th Century traditional tea garden in Kyoto in the vicinity of Tōji temple. Feel free to let me know what you saw or felt in the comments.

[View the image]

Wow! What did you just see? Now what do you believe is the shape of a genuinely traditional tea garden?

Since the advent of machinery, the landscape of tea production has drastically changed. And with the eye on mass production, a lot of tradition has in actuality not only been eliminated and covered up; it has also been replaced by new depictions of what this tradition is.

While in the past, machines were not available to tea farmers, harvesting had to be conducted exclusively by hand, and this was no doubt a tremendously labor intensive activity. Because a tea bush is actually an individual tree – and I am certain that many of you hadn’t yet realised this – they were grown one besides the other as single entities forming a wide area of small dot-like rounded bushes. The space in between allowed producers to move around the tree and effectively pick the leaves during harvest.

The lanes of bushes we see nowadays are in fact a cluster of similarly placed bushes, but for the ease of machine harvesting have been allowed to grown into one another. Continued trimming has resulted in the smooth surface we know today.

This is just one example of how our perception of a traditional tea has become changed.

What is Japanese tea to me?

Already over a decade has passed since I first fell in love with Japanese tea. At the start, I was still studying at the Japanese Studies Department of Leuven University in Belgium, and continuously looked to obtain anything that was even remotely ‘Japanese’. Tea was, off course, one of those dearly obtained and treasured items.

It was sencha – the most common variation of Japanese leaf tea – that I first collected. It instantly changed my perception of this Eastern beverage. Sencha served both as my daily refreshment after long hours of class, and as a boost during extensive periods of study. It was the perfect drink for a Japanophile like me, who didn’t want to become dependent on coffee or energy drinks to stay awake during examination terms for example.

My passion grew with each cup of tea I consumed. At one point I even aspired to write my bachelor thesis on Japanese tea, and proposed to focus on the consumption habits of contemporary Japanese people. I was however advised against, and inevitably changed my topic.

Now I look back at this occurrence, I gladly agree with my advisor that it would indeed have been a difficult – if not impossible a task – to find sufficient material for the compilation of this work at that time. Even now, after approximately ten years of enduring study I am still uncertain whether I could be able to write a covering paper on such a comprehensive topic.

While I have continued to learn and practice the rite of tea during my life in Japan, I only recommenced to actively study Japanese leaf tea a few months before I was accepted in a sales staff position at a traditional Japanese teahouse in Uji. From a cultural point of view, the rite of tea is revered as one of Japan’s highest forms of cultural heritage. When we speak of Japanese tea, we tend to first think of ‘tea ceremony’ and picture a bowl of frothy matcha.

Probably because my first encounter with Japanese tea was the leaf variation sencha, I have continuously found it peculiar that only powdered tea, or matcha has become this prestigious, while there are so many other perfectly delicious teas of Japanese produce available otherwise. It was this interest that inspired me to study more on what Japanese leaf tea actually is and how it is commonly perceived.

Study to obtain a certification as Japanese Tea Instructor (‘Nihoncha Instructor’ [日本茶インストラクター]) was one method I took. The other approach was to actually gain first-hand experience at a traditional tea vendor. And, although I gained plenty of knowledge on how tea is observed, produced and treated today; on the reverse side, it raised more questions as to what a traditional tea actually is.

My decision to study more about regular tea was founded in its function in opposition to the culturally elevated position of matcha, and its standing in the rite of tea, and therefore it couldn’t have been that unexpected that I also began to question the tradition of leaf tea. My foremost concern is whether or not what we are drinking today can actually be understood as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’.

What I learned was that the landscape of tea production and manufacturing has largely changed. Simultaneously, this also affected the preferences of contemporary consumers, and in the last 30 to 50 years, not only the way tea is produced has become altered; also the expectations of its drinkers have become considerably transformed.


Thoughts on taking pictures

Photography allows us to do a whole lot more than what we were able to before its invention. Taking pictures allows us to recount moments in the past of which we would otherwise only have a faint memory. Taking pictures of children when they grow up for instance helps us to at a later stage in their lives remember how they looked, and what they were like. It also enables us to show other people an image of what we have seen or done. One example of this is our travel photography, which we use as an illustrative tool when we tell our stories to those that stayed home.

But sometimes we take so many pictures, or become so preoccupied with making photographs that we forget to also register our impressions and emotions at a given site or occasion. When I return home to Belgium, I very often hear people make reference to the stereotype of the Asian tourist who has visited every European capital in just one week. This stereotype traveler is usually so busy with taking pictures that he/she has merely seen these cities through the eye of their camera lens, and that memories of this visit are likely to be only made upon return to their home country during a review of the photos collected.

I believe that taking pictures is a nice to have, but should not go at the cost of first having had a genuine experience of what is going to be registered for later use. At our tea ceremony workshops we have at almost every occasion received the question whether or not our visitors are allowed to take pictures. And while I believe that taking a photograph or two may be useful to later on recount the experience, we have been kindly requesting our visitors to take pictures with their ‘camera of the heart’.

Gradually we have changed our policy however and now more often do allow guests to take a few pictures in the course of a service, and afterward. And, interestingly enough, the majority of participants did take a few shots, but eventually forgot to take pictures of the parts they actually were looking forward to capture, as they naturally became engaged in our activities.

Now, we give the opportunity to take pictures, but at certain times request to place cameras aside and focus on what is going on. Especially during the progression of a service of tea, it is more important to become part of the service and to actually feel and experience what the atmosphere of such an occasion is like. You can find several demonstrations of traditional Tea services on Youtube — we have even uploaded our own. But, you will never be able to gain the same understanding by just watching it, as opposed to actually having been part of one such moment.

That is why we feel that rather than taking images of every motion we make, it is more important to register the atmosphere, the sounds, and the feelings you have during such a service. Two or three pictures may help you recall these emotions, but they will never be a genuine replacement for this once-in-a-lifetime-only experience.

I don’t think that this is only the case with similar experiences, but also with taking pictures of children or sites you visit during travel. An image can only be an aid in recounting an experience if you have actually had that experience. This is why we encourage our guests to occupy themselves with engaging in our activity, and only make pictures occasionally.