Category Archives: Tea

Three Faces of Nature

The temperatures in Kyoto are at a rise. June, extending into July, is typically the rainy-season. The continuous downpours raise the humidity in the country, adding to the allover heat. This year, for a change, June hasn’t been very wet, and temperatures have been at an average of about 30 degrees Celsius in the Kansai region, which is still manageable. It is only since the past few weeks that weather conditions have begun to transition into a standard ‘tsuyu’- season.

Murinan is a traditional Japanese garden in Kyoto, selected as one of the few registered cultural landscape heritages by the city. The garden was constructed in the 19th Century by an elite government official, and today the care-taking company of the garden is endeavoring to not only open the garden for sightseeing, but also to allow visitors to partake in cultural activities, in a similar way as was envisioned by its original founders. As one of the first activities held in this fashion, I was invited to teach a 5-section course on Japanese tea, which is held in the main building, gazing out over the garden itself.

Not only is it an honor to share my knowledge and vision on Japanese tea in such a traditional environment, it is also the most suitable atmosphere to speak about one of Japan’s oldest cultural heritages, tea, while in a relaxed way savoring tea and a moment with different people in a way that is likely to be similar to how the facilities were used after their initial construction.

When yesterday’s session commenced, the mid-day sun was strong. The previous days too had been dry, and the moss in the garden was about to turn crisp showing signs of dehydration. It was indicative of the heat that we all had to endure, and thus the perfect atmosphere to begin the lesson with a cup of cold-brew Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea. The session was themed around Japanese ‘fragrant’ teas with a focus on Oolong-type and black teas manufactured in Japan. By the time we had reached a second kind of oolong, suddenly lightning and thunder struck, followed by a long awaited intense squall.

The rain was a gift from the heavens. For an instant, it cooled the air, but what was more important, was that it provided the nourishment that the garden was in sore need of. With all participants standing perplexed at the mystical appearance of the garden in this heavy summer rain, we paused the lesson briefly to gaze out. The care-keepers of the garden complementarily explained that the originator of the garden, Yamagata Aritomo, too enjoyed looking at his garden most when it was raining. In this sense, it was one of the most unique experiences, and a valuable addition to our cultured afternoon.

After approximately an hour, the air had cleared. The garden, bathing in a revitalized green with thick raindrops on the surface of the leaves, sent a scent of wet but warm plants upward into our classroom; a pleasant addition to the delicious aromas of the teas we at the time tasted. This made me realize that the aromas and flavors we experience with a cup of tea are not always strictly from the brew itself. The scents of the surroundings do too play a large role in how we taste an experience a tea, and in addition, make it only possible to have the same cup of tea once.

In just two hours, we had tasted 5 teas, and watched 3 different gardens. I couldn’t have thought of a more unique tea tasting myself. The taste of the teas we savored may never be the same again; and the occasion, shared with all attendees, will never return. This afternoon has turned into a treasure to be kept in our hearts forever.

Visiting The Shapers Of The Japanese Tea Of The Future.

Last month, a tea expert from Belgium consulted me regarding a visit of the most renowned tea producing regions in the Kansai area. The three-day tour we put together was not what you’d call the most conventional visit of tea manufacturers the region has to offer. What we did was instead to see Japanese tea in a broader perspective, looking to what it has to offer in terms of future opportunity and progression on a global scale.

The way Japanese tea is contemporarily seen in Japan – and simultaneously how it is introduced in the West – is but a narrow focus on ‘green tea’ categorized in a handful major variations, while leaving a large group of products in the dark, or alienated as mere byproducts. While this focus on what tea in Japan has to offer today has allowed tea production to survive and expand on large scale, it is my belief that in this process the true tradition of Japanese tea has become disregarded.

Since approximately 60 years ago, machinery has accelerated and simplified the mass production of tea. Additionally, in order to maintain the production output and maximize the outcome, farming has become dependent on the use of artificial fertilization. And in effect, by means of protecting the crop from bugs and diseases, this demands from growers to rely on mostly chemical products. While this vicious circle of maintaining levels of produce has affected contemporary farming standards, it has also influenced our preference of taste. Nowadays, a green tea must contain high levels of umami flavor to be considered delicious, and any hint of fragrance due to withering or oxidization in the leaf is considered a fatal flaw to the quality of the crop.

But, considered that prior to the industrialization of tea production in Japan, unnatural fertilizer didn’t exist, and harvest and manufacturing was done by hand, and thus took much longer, it is difficult to accept that the tea we drink today is a righteous representation of Japan’s centuries old tea tradition. To me this is the main reason why I look to naturally produced tea products, and also seek out native cultivars for the teas I offer at The Tea Crane. Naturally produced teas rely on no unnatural fertilizers, and in effect obtain their flavor and aroma directly from their immediate precincts. In addition, native cultivars have grown in a particular region for decades, having thus become adapted to the specifications of the surroundings, which allow us insight in the qualities such an environment has to offer.

But what is most important, is that such a tea also allows us a glimpse of what it traditionally tasted like, and what it as a natural product has to offer. This is why the tour we designed mainly focused on young organic farmers, breaking with the status quo and through their vision and belief continue to offer a solution and an out from contemporary standards. It is this group of producers that is shaping the future of Japanese tea, and that will put it on the map as a diverse and culturally correct product, meeting the standards and interests of Westerner consumers.

I believe that tea is not suited for mass production. On the contrary, it must be savored and treasured with great care and compassion, as it is the life and energy of the bush that we are allowed to receive.

Identifying The Crux To True Tea-Farming

Tsukigase Kenkō Chaen a farm situated in Tsukigasé, Nara Prefecture.  The farm has been producing organic teas since 1984.  The owners nurture their bushes without using either pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and thus provide teas that are both safe and unsullied: free of anything known to be unhealthy, and uncontaminated as to flavor.

After thirty years of serious experimentation, and having realized that Camellia sinensis (the plant from which green tea is obtained) needs no artificial nourishment, they have in short rethought the essentials of tea-cultivation – these farmers concluding that it cannot but be a healthy environment and naturally-supportive soil that together can best encourage tea-bushes to put forth truly-delicious leaves.

In 2011, however, in quest of an even greater purity of quality, these growers abandoned use of animal-waste as fertilizer, thenceforth employing only forest-litter.  Since then, this unusual tea-plantation has – gradually yet steadily – become transformed.

A dense blanket of natural litter is now spread along the harvesters’ paths running between the rows of bushes, this there left gradually to reach that degree of decomposition which allows tea-plants to absorb the nutrients thus provided.  In other words, having managed to reject false agricultural “common sense”, and having instead learned indeed to trust even robust branches to decompose of their own accord, and into a source of sustenance for whatever grows nearby, these devoted cultivators have by now identified the crux to true tea-farming.

Two further factors, both decisively characterizing the region in which this tea is cultivated, are the length, and the sheer severity, of its winters.  These decree that harvest is appropriate only a fortnight – or sometimes even a whole month – after the rest of Japan has started to pick its tea.  These hardy plants are, however, deliberately left without the slightest of artificial aids that might insulate them from the damage that frost can inflict.  Hence, they are left to rely upon their own, natural powers of resistance; and this only strengthens their innate sturdiness.

To specify, nurtured in this Spartan manner, the twigs supporting the leaves grow more densely, and this is how each tea-plant is encouraged to utilize less energy, increase in robustness, and put forth leaf that does that plant – and the eventual drinker – full justice.

 

Iwata Fumiaki – President at  Tsukigase Kenkō Chaen

Tea Doesn’t Need Us To Help It Grow.

Wazuka, a small country town in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture is where there is annually produced approximately half of Kyoto’s renowned Uji-cha tea; in addition, because most of its mountainsides are covered in row upon row of tea-bushes, the area has been officially registered as offering one of the Prefecture’s most notable landscapes, thus constituting part of Japan’s national heritage. And this is where, on the outskirts of the town, the Chaburaya tea-farm is to be found.

The name ‘Chaburaya’ punningly alludes to this farm’s two main agricultural activities, one which is production of tea [cha], and the other cultivation of sunflowers as a source of sunflower-seed oil [abura]. Here, both types of plant are cultivated employing exclusively natural methods.

While what use of the terms ‘natural methods’ and ‘organic farming’ tends first to bring to mind are the benefits thus afforded to the environment and human health, Mr. Noike, the owner of this farm and its chief cultivator, has chosen natural production primarily because he believes that, in order to bear a delicious leaf, the tea-bush has not the slightest need of human interference. Moreover, he points out that, while many may believe that producing a tea according to natural methods involves increased labor, this is far from the truth.

Eschewing use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides means that the work required by spraying bushes and tampering with soil-composition is eliminated, thereby not only reducing labor but also avoiding the expense of purchasing unnatural additives for the tea-bush. And it happens that this approach at the same time results in an unaltered product notable for purity of flavor, and endowed with the traits and strength of nature itself.

The farm comprises five separate tea-gardens, together constituting an area of 7000 square metres, but located in different areas of the mountains slopes above Wazuka, at heights that range from 300 to 600m above sea-level. The soil in which their bushes grow is rich in minerals, and contains a large amount of rock and pebble, these allowing air and water to flow through the soil freely. In addition, since this farm produces both natural sunflower oil and oil derived from tea, the lees that remains after extraction provide the only fertiliser that Mr. Noike sees fit to add to the soil, to further nourish his tea-bushes.

The cultivars grown in these gardens are the following three types: Yabukita, which is the most common Japanese tea cultivar; Okumidori, which produces a dark green leaf with a deep and lingering flavor; and Gokō, which is popular among the tea-growers of the Kyoto area, is mostly used in producing Gyokuro and Tencha, and is often said to resemble Okumidori, but has a slightly deeper and stronger flavor.

 

Yuma Noike – Owner at Chaburaya Farm

The Maliciousness Of Agricultural Chemicals.

Kamo [加茂(かも)] is a small town situated on the southern flanks of Kyoto’s most meridional mountains through which the Kizu river [木津川(きづがわ)] makes its way smoothly-curving towards Osaka. As a former member of the Sōraku District [相楽郡(そうらくぐん)] (with member towns Kasagi [笠木町(かさぎちょう)], Minamiyamashiro [南山城村(みなみやましろむら)], Seika [精華町(せいかちょう)] and Wazuka [和束町(わづかちょう)]) this town is the final stop on the border of Kyoto before reaching Nara prefecture, and simultaneously the most southern tea producing area of Kyoto. It is in this area that Tokuya Yamazaki [山崎(やまざき)徳哉(とくや)] manufactures his naturally produced tea.

The name of the farm, Kamo Natural Tea-farm [加茂自然農園(かもしぜんのうえん)], resourcefully alludes to his stern belief in the use of natural methods only, and the specific area where this farm is situated. As the son of a tea farmer, he grew up amidst the tea gardens in this rural area, and quickly became acknowledged with the orthodox farming routines in this region. In between harvests, weeds should be extinguished employing ample extinguisher; in summer, bugs should be prevented bestowing plentiful pesticides on the bushes; and the soil should be kept thoroughly fertilized with artificial nourishment for the best results of harvest. Such approaches have become common sense, and as a young beginning farmer, aspiring to take over certain parts of his family’s plantation, he learned how to efficiently apply these chemical substances as part of his daily training.

It wasn’t for long however, before these practices started to take its toll on Tokuya’s health. During his youth, he had suffered various illnesses, some of which included acute stomachaches, or numbness and trembling in hands and feet. He frequented doctors, but was never able to gain insight about the source of these recurring issues. The puzzling thing was that they somehow appeared each year during the same period in summer; a period, of which he later found out, the application of pesticides, was at its peak. When he started taking over the methods of his predecessors, and began taking chemicals in his own hands, these issues and illnesses began to appear more frequently and more severely. His struggles now also included severe backache, stress, loss of sight, etc. Yet, doctors remained clueless as to what the essence of the problem was.

His issues became so troublesome that it had started to limit his quality of life, and continuously receiving the same response from doctors also started to work frustrating. He decided to singlehandedly look into the source of his suffering and, to his surprise, Tokuya discovered that others had also experienced similar symptoms. Furthermore, distinct research has pointed to one particular source as the reason of this suffering, a chemical component named ‘Dioxin’ [ダイオキシン] that could cause identical manifestations in the human body as he had been coping with. Digging further, he was able to identify this chemical as an active substance that is strongly represented in herbicides of the kind he had been using in excess. Further research pointed out that most of these symptoms were related to a chronic addiction or intake of an agrochemical [農薬(のうやく)] with the name ‘organophosphorus’ [有機(ゆうき)リン] of which the main component is ‘sarin’ [サリン]. To illustrate the poisonousness of this particular chemical, sarin is the substance that was employed by the attackers during the sarin gas-attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 [地下鉄(ちかてつ)サリン事件(じけん)], killing 12 people, severely injuring 50, and causing vision problems for nearly 5,000 other persons.

Having realized that the cause for his suffering was induced by the over-usage of chemicals by himself and the farmers in his surroundings, and having discovered that these chemicals contain absolutely deadly and dreadfully harming components, he felt urged to rid himself and his tea-bushes of these malicious products. As a means to detox and recover his body, he took up sports again and began to rebuild his muscle.

The impact of this discovery was so great that he immediately terminated the use of fertilizers, pesticides and any other sort of chemicals to his gardens, this however, to the discontent of the subjected plants. The abrupt lack of nourishment, which the trees were used to, made them weak and vulnerable. Moreover, the fertilization that was still remaining in the soil and thus in the leaf of the bushes attracted a variety of insects, which, since he had also omitted any kind of pesticide, were now free to indulge in a feast. In effect, this sudden act almost left one whole farm dead. Taking this as a learning experience, Tokuya opted for a more gentle approach with his remaining farms and decided to first quit the use of fertilizer, and only in a later stage omit pesticides as well. Now, all of his farms have been transferred to natural cultivation methods, and the farm that had almost gone extinct, has also revived to a healthy natural tea garden.

Today, Tokuya continues his efforts to produce a truly healthy and poison-free tea, and has begun to apply the same method on other agricultural products. His experience, and what this taught him is valuable information, which he thrives to share with others in order to raise awareness about the existence of the issues he suffered. His hopes are that this may aid more people to recognize the source of certain discomforts, and in the long run that no one more needs to endure similar hardship.

The Efficiency of Machines vs. Our Preference of Taste

Contemporarily, Japan is renown for its green tea. Matcha is overtaking the world as a ‘power food’, and is rapidly gaining preference with the more health conscious among us. Gyokuro is favored for its deep and varied taste and abundance of umami flavor, and Sencha is known as the most eminent of Japanese teas in terms of green tea of the whole-leaf kind. What these teas have in common, is that they all are non-oxidized green tea variations of tea.

In contrast to black tea, which is more common in the West, green tea has not been oxidized or left to wither after harvest, but has instead been processed to stop the oxidization and maintain its green color immediately after being picked. Through oxidization, several of the active components such as anti-oxidants, polyphenols, and amino acids change structure and generate a variety of flavors and aromas, but recent research has pointed out that maintaining them in their original state has greater benefit to our health and bodies.

One of the reasons that green tea is gaining popularity in the West, is exactly this discovery. I won’t go in detail here, but green tea has ‘proven’ benefits in regard to cancer prevention, blood pressure lowering functions, propels digestion, and is favorable for weight-loss and dieting. These are just a few of the demonstrated effects of this beverage. So, when keeping the leaves green and fresh can have this many different benefits to our health, then why would we even consider withering these leaves? Well, this certainly is a valid question, if you look to this plant only for its – maybe possible – beneficial functions. (Imagine even how many cups you would have to drink daily to get just the slightest benefit)

Everything comes at a cost. And for something new, something old will always have to make room, as is the case here. The freshness of tea that we consume today has only become possible since recently. From the 1960’s onward machines as an aid to harvesting have been employed, cars aided with transitioning crop from field to factory, and a wide array of manufacturing machines have replaced the arduous traditional ways of hand-rolling tea. We have become able to harvest more leaf at once, transfer it to the factory faster, and immediately process tea in large quantities at a much higher pace. The mechanization of harvesting and manufacturing processes has eliminated the necessity for freshly picked leaves to sit idly during transport after picking, and in waiting to be processed.

In the past, tea had to be transported on foot, and since the distance between farm and factory could be rather far, it wasn’t uncommon that the leaves had already begun to oxidize slightly during this journey. Moreover, since only a few trained professionals could conduct the steaming and rolling, harvested batches sometimes had to wait for several hours before they could be processed. It is obvious that during these periods of idleness, the leaves would gradually continue to wither, but rather than to throw them on a pile, or let them sit in the baskets in which they were carried, it was customary to spread them out on large ‘withering’ and drying beds. This would allow all leaves to dry evenly, and enable manufacturers to process each batch of tea individually without having to rush.

What such a process results in, is not the Japanese green tea we know today, but on the contrary a lightly oxidized variant with a much more outspoken aroma, often referred to as floral or sweet. This tea would be somewhat equivalent to what we know as Oolong, although some of the manufacturing processes are different compared to traditional Taiwanese methods. Nevertheless, should a green tea today even offer a hint of this aromatic character; then it is immediately written off as a failed batch. Why? Because since the advent of machinery and the possibility to maintain absolute ‘freshness’, the new standard has eliminated any room for floral scents and other tastes that even slightly give notion of oxidization in the tea. Contemporary green tea is strictly non-oxidized, and in effect is also un-aromatic.

The advent of machinery has once again changed our priorities, and created opportunity for a ‘new’ kind of tea to emerge. ‘Proven’ health benefits have guided us to choose not only tea, but also foods in relation to what it may or may not be able to do for our wellbeing, and such choice even takes precedence over whether or not what we consume is in fact delicious – to give one example, the Japanese eat fermented beans because it is said to be healthy. In doing so, we have chosen for a far more generic taste, because the fragrance and aroma of a green tea in comparison to even a slightly oxidized tea is close to none. An oxidized tea on the other hand, has a much more outspoken and varied aroma, and although it is definitely not my intention to write green tea off in this article, it is my belief that a slightly withered tea appeals to a much wider palette.

I am in favor of re-discovering the true tradition of Japanese tea through fragrance and scent. Do you choose the illusion of health, or are you in favor of sharing in the joy of a truly delicious tea? It is my feeling that the true future of Japanese green tea lies in the possibilities of withering.

How Machinery Changed the Landscape of Tea Farming

On a stroll through the Tea Mountains in Nara, I suddenly paused when I came across a beautifully laid out tea garden with bushes running in rounded curves around the mountain slope. I stood atop the hill and gazed down over the equally shaped and skilfully trimmed rows of trees. In the distance an expanse stretching far and wide, with one or two factories gathered in the center. A feeling of sadness overwhelmed the joy I sensed at encountering this farm. The factories stood too much in contrast with the charm of this almost too perfectly arranged view of a traditional tea garden. Yes, it was nostalgia that made me come to a halt in the first place. I wondered what this place would have looked like in the old days when there was not an industry present yet.

Suddenly I realized that I had been overtaken by an idyllic representation of the ‘traditional’ tea field, as has been imposed on us by the tea industry since only recently. I shook my head, and – slightly disappointed – continued my stroll. On the way I recounted a similar feeling I had when I looked at a pamphlet I obtained at one of the major production regions in Japan. One of the pages featured the title ‘Visit a Traditional Tea Farm’ against the back of a similarly shaped, almost too perfectly laid-out tea garden curving around the mountain slope in equal bands of bushes. I felt bleak because I knew that a tea garden shaped as such, however strongly it may appeal to our taste, can’t have anything to do with the ‘tradition’ of tea in Japan, and is most certainly in no effect representative of the traditional landscape of tea gardening.

The true image of a traditional tea farm is long gone. Only a handful of places either maintain a small area of a truly traditional tea garden as an image of what was current in the past, or – as in Mandokoro in Shiga prefecture – traditional practices have not given precedence over contemporary modes of manufacturing. But, apart from these limited examples, almost the entire face of Japan’s tea production has shifted to what we now look to as the appearance of a tea farm. ‘Then what is different?’ you may ask. A tea bush does not naturally grow in ridges, endlessly stretching across the surface. A tea bush is in fact a tree, which grows towards the sky. For a tree to grow in such beautifully shaped ribs, running parallel with the mountains almost like waves riding up the hill, a reasonable amount of human interference is unavoidable.

Yet, no man can easily format a tea farm as such without the help of dedicated equipment. And if we look to a picture of what a tea farm in the 19th century looked like, as opposed to the farms we know today, it immediately becomes clear that harvesting methods have seen an immeasurable transition in recent years. Whereas in the past tea was almost exclusively picked by hand, contemporarily machines have gained preference, and this leaves a huge mark on the outlook of tea gardens. But when did this change take place? I consulted a research paper from the Journal of the Japanese Society of Agricultural Machinery by Hitoshi Yoshitomi in which he dates the advent of tea manufacturing related equipment and elaborates on the effects this novelty has had on tea production in Japan.

According to Yoshitomi’s paper, the first mechanized harvester was introduced only in 1961. In succession, the prototype of the two-manned portable tea harvester, which is also the widest employed sort of equipment contemporarily, became available in 1965. Almost immediately the effect of this tool became visible, and harvest rates transcended efficiency with over 60 times the volume that could be obtained through hand picking with the same number of laborers.

Where harvesting by hand didn’t require a dedicated shape of bush, machinery however demanded an equal surface in order to smoothly glide over the trees, and gather leaves in a single stretch. Drawn by the promise of a 60 times higher produce, the implementation of machinery prospered, and with it the layout of traditional tea gardens changed forever.

Reference works:
Yoshitomi, Hitoshi. 1995. “The Forefront of Mechanization in Tea Industry.” Journal of the Japanese Society of Agricultural Machinery 57 (5): 79–82.