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.

Comparing Japanese Oolong

The Koshun Organic Oolong, produced in the Shimada region in Shizuoka, has since the opening of my store been one of the favorites. It has proven to be popular with our customers, and it served as one among 5 different teas featured in the many tea sampler packages I have delivered the previous year. In its description, I have described it as a tea with a milky savor that has an especial appeal for young women, and this description has not yet been proven misplaced.

Unfortunately, we have run out of stock from the current batch of the 2015 harvest, and the time has come to move on to a new batch. However, unlike with the more current types and blends of tea available in Japan, the production of slightly oxidized teas is still pretty new to most contemporary producers. In effect, manufacturing methods have not yet been set in stone, and are continuously altered and improved. With the manufacturing of green tea however – even though the quality of the crop may differ from year to year – fertilization and manufacturing methods, in addition to blending practices have enabled contemporary tea vendors to obtain a somewhat steady product all year through.

With the manufacturing of naturally and organically produced teas on the other hand, most of such practices are omitted, and quality and specifications of the crop will vary every year. From my personal perspective, this allows for a pleasant variation and healthy diversity depending on what nature and our surroundings is willing to provide. But, in the case of lightly – and fully – oxidized teas produced in Japan, this variation doesn’t only occur through natural influences.

Since the manufacturing of oxidized tea is still very new, and has seen a gradual increase in the past 3 to 5 years, most producers are yet in the course of developing best practices and solidifying their approach to making a truly delicious tea with authentic specifications exclusive to the region they are produced in or to the vision of the producer himself.

Therefore, when enlisting a new batch of our Koshun Oolong, I feel it is necessary to indicate some of the improvements that have been made to the product, and in effect point out several changes in character of the tea. I have taken a sample of the 2016 harvest and compared it to the 2015 batch, which was current at The Tea Crane.

Tasting notes:

Judging from the color of the leaf alone, it becomes clear that the 2015 tea underwent a longer process of withering. The 2016 tea maintains a greener hue, whereas the previous tea is darker and bluer in tint. This is an understandable alteration since the manufacturing of slightly oxidized teas in Japan currently is leaning towards lighter oxidation in order to maintain and include more traits of green tea. In effect, the final product will be closer to a slightly oxidized green tea, enhanced with a scheme of aromas instilled by the process of withering, than it may actually compare to for example a Taiwanese oolong. Manufacturers believe that it is this character that will distinguish ‘oolong’ – and likewise fully oxidized black tea – produced in Japan, from other regions in the world. But this topic I will save for a later post.

Since the oxidization of the newest batch is less deep, the flavor of the tea maintains a lighter, sweeter, more flowery aroma. Also the flavor reveals more traits of green tea, such as a slight stimulus on the tongue with a younger and slightly greener expression, which becomes apparent in a higher amount of tannins exciting the inner cheeks. This is less the case with its predecessor. The 2015 tea has a more velvety feel and creaminess to it, making it an agreeable tea to drink. On the other hand, however, it wasn’t as outspoken aromatic and flowery as its successor, which brings more diversity in fragrance and flavor to the table.

Overall, where the 2015 tea was softer, creamier and smoother, the 2016 tea is a little more robust and thrilling. The foremost benefit of the new batch is that it has a stronger and more diverse aroma, but this had to come at the cost of a little bit of the creaminess. Of course, this didn’t happen to the extent that the trait has been totally eliminated. Summarizing the comparison in one sentence, I would say that the velvety 2015 tea has made place for a slightly more exciting tea in 2016. I wonder what improvements will be made when this year’s batch becomes available.

I expect the 2016 Koshun Organic Oolong to be available on the store very soon. Please be patient while I update our stock.

The power of acceptance – Dealing with difficult situations

We are continuously being informed that building a business takes time. It requires patience and we mustn’t rush ahead, but what does this actually mean? How doe we become patient if we aren’t yet? And how can we recognise whether or not we are acting impatiently?

I haven’t been too patient myself and I have always rushed ahead. Of anything that I have done, I have always been able to clearly see the desired outcome; the goal I am eagerly seeking to achieve, but have constantly been oblivious to the path that leads toward that image. When I want something, I want it now, and that is how we somewhat have become conditioned in our current society. When we want something, we buy it. Do you feel sick? Take a pill and the symptoms will go away. Want to talk to a friend? Pick up the phone or send a text message.

Everything has become instantly available, and we are slowly forgetting what it means to be patient. But, even in this rapid paced world of today where everything is readily available, there still are things that can’t be obtained immediately. Human relationships and love are things that take time and patience to build, acquiring a skill takes time to learn, and building a business is just as much one of those elements.

The Internet is flooded with guides on creating an online business, or courses and books on starting your own entrepreneurial undertaking. Entrepreneurship has become so prominent a concept in our lives that our younger generation can start a business of their own just as easily as they would take up a new hobby. We don’t want to work for an employer anymore because it limits us in our doing, but we still need the money to sustain our living expenses. Starting a business is in this light a very viable and appealing option.

Nevertheless, what we tend to forget is that it takes time and effort to build a successful business, and it requires the patience and persistence to make such an undertaking profitable. Not understanding this sufficiently means that when things don’t look as good as you had initially anticipated, or sales are insufficient and there is a shortage of cash flow, you may quickly loose faith and confidence, and quit. But, it is in dealing successfully with these down times, that we may find the key to success.

But, how can you stay calm on such an occasion? I believe that since we have become too used to being able to get what we want instantly, that we have lost our patience and willpower. To be patient means to accept the situation and to be satisfied with what we have at that current moment. Willpower drives us to continue striving for our goal no matter what the difficulties we encounter. Acceptance is an important factor here, because it is only in being able to accept the current situation, that it is possible to take steps in the right direction. When things don’t go well, I often use the phrase ‘I accept that things aren’t going as I would want them to. What do I do to make things better?’ Realizing what the situation is you are in, and accepting the fact that it is what it is, provides you with the strongest steppingstone to start moving forward.

But how do you maintain this tranquility of mind when your world appears as if it is about to fall on your head and squash you underneath its weight? I find meditation to be extremely powerful. Meditation is the art of acceptance. As you sit, and focus on your breath, you let your thoughts flow, let everyday activities rest, and take time for relaxation. In this moment, you take your mind off the thoughts that circle you deeper and deeper into the difficulty of the situation, and may even lead to extremely harmful doom thinking. You practically distance yourself from what is troubling you, and in effect get a broader view on the situation, making room in your mind for new ideas or solutions to enter.

As Einstein said it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Abraham Lincoln adds to this “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, wise people have advised us not to jump onto the problem at once. I meditate to sharpen my mind before attacking the problem, and simultaneously devise a different mindset from which to approach the problem. Meditational practice is a powerful tool to prepare us to stay calm in any situation, but I am not urging you to start practicing the art of zazen, or tea ceremony, or yoga as I do. Similar results can be achieved through going for a swim or a run, or engage in another physical activity, go on a short holiday or short break, read a book, etc. Do something relaxing.

The first step in dealing with a difficult situation is to temporarily let go of it and accept that it exists. As a wise Zen master once said when a pupil entered his quarters with a million questions, “Sit. Let’s have tea in silence first!

Meditation in Hospitality; Hospitality in Meditation

What is the rite of tea? Some refer to it as a meditational practice, others point to the considerate alertness it nurtures within the practitioner to the needs, comfort and delight of others; in short, the hospitable face of this praxis. Although these two sides are seemingly opposite to one another, it is my belief that the true value of what we can learn from the praxis of tea is hidden in the paradoxical combination of simultaneously the meditational aspect, which works on the individual, and the hospitable side, which nurtures mutual respect and consideration for others.

Both items indeed seem to work against each other. When we are in meditation, then how can we be considerate of others? And when we are working to serve others, how can we also be in meditation? I believe that it is exactly this paradoxical combination – of unbroken meditation with considerate alertness to the needs, comfort and delight of others – that characterizes this rite as something of which I feel contemporary society is in sore need.

The point in the seeming impossibility of combining meditation, and consideration for others in one and the same praxis, lies in how we perceive meditation. Meditation is most commonly seen from a Zen perspective, in which an adept sits cross-legged for an extended period of time. We see this exercise as a means to ‘distance‘ ourselves from what is current, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Through meditation, the learner practices ‘being present’ in his current environment. The exercise gives means to train his/her mind to become free from conceptions, and to focus on exactly what is actual in our direct environment, seeing it for what it in essence is without distinguishing between right and wrong.

Meditation is an activity that trains us to nurture inner peace and to accept. And I have consciously chosen to call it an ‘activity’ for two reasons. 1) Obtaining peace requires an effort. 2) Meditation is not limited to only sitting quietly. The practice of sitting was originally selected from a wide range of Yoga exercises by Zen monks, from the belief that it was the most effective practice to nurture inner peace and train in the objective observation of our surroundings. But this practice can in fact come in various forms, ranging from being focused and present in the most difficult of Yoga poses, to sneaking out of the office for a 30-minute swim during lunchtime.

The rite of tea is meditation in practice. It is only through the exercise in hospitality that this rite becomes meditational, and it is meditational because the activity and environment demands the practitioner’s full attention and focus. Through meditation, an adept trains in 1) introspection to understand and accept his/her true nature, and 2) selflessness to take peace with who he/she in essence is to enable oneself to fully commit to love and give to others. It is this component of meditation that is essential to the rite of tea, for without the ability to unconditionally love and give to others, a service of tea cannot come about.

The Habit of Stocking Tea Well

Drinking tea is a habit, and many tea drinkers I know like to sample different teas instead of drinking the same tea all the time. But people are habitual beings as well, and when we have found something we really like, we tend to stick to it. Quite a few of the customers that drink tea from The Tea Crane come back to buy the same tea they liked, and some of them have actually asked if they could purchase larger quantities at once.

For those habitual drinkers, I gladly offer bulk packages of one kilogram or half a kilogram each, which does not only save on shipping costs, but also come at much more advantageous wholesale pricing. The question I however am continuously being asked, is how to best preserve such a large quantity of tea? Because obviously such a large batch takes some time to finish.

While I have given some guidelines in a previous post on how to preserve tea, these mostly apply to smaller quantities. But actually keeping a ‘stock’ of tea is again something slightly different. In the course of interacting with those customers, I have tested several approaches, and have learned from their feedback as well. Now I feel that we have found the most beneficial method and wish to share this here for future reference.

Keeping one kilogram of tea on the shelf may cause the tea to become vulnerable to external influences such as humidity, heat, light, odors, etc. and cause the tea to oxidize and loose flavor. For a tea to last, an environment that is free from these perils is mandatory, and that is why cool and dark places are generally recommended. Also re-sealable bags are commonly used, and to extend shelf life, tea comes packaged in vacuum aluminum lined packages with inclusion of one or more oxygen absorbers.

Once opened, these aids become useless, and it becomes necessary to find a different method to preserve the tea. For smaller quantities, a refrigerator may appeal as the ideal environment because it is cool, dark and low in humidity, but odors may affect the taste of the tea. For larger quantities, I have in due course recommended to take some tea for direct use out of the batch, and keep the remainder in a well-sealed bag in the freezer. Providing a cool, dark, humidity free and odorless environment, this indeed is the ideal setting for conservation.

The issue with this solution however, is that when you needed to replenish your supply for direct use, the bag has to be taken out and opened several times. In case the bag is not left to acclimatize for a sufficient period of time, humidity in the air could condense on the inside of the bag and may affect the tea that is kept for later use.

The answer to this problem – and it couldn’t have been more obvious – is to pre-pack the tea in smaller portions in double zip-lock bags for example, and keep them in the freezer. This way a large batch can be kept in cold storage and supply can be replenished without having to open the bag with the remainder several times over. This will allow the tea to stay fresh and unaffected, and each replenishment can be enjoyed in its original state. It may be a small effort initially, but instead of unnecessarily exposing the tea to external menaces multiple times, this solution limits the uncovering to only once.

Do you stock tea in larger quantities of tea for later use? Was this article useful? Or do you have another approach that works well in your environment? Feel free to leave your thoughts or remarks in the comments below.

The hidden minstrel in a cup of tea

Tea is more than just a heap of dried and/or oxidised leaves. Tea is associated with relaxation; taking time to distance ourselves from everyday activity and to allow our mind a moment of peace. Recent research has pointed out that tea contains certain components that actually help us to relax and relieve stress. And more than coffee – which is mostly consumed for its stimulating effects – tea has become identified as the tool to obtain that what we lack most in our contemporary lives.

But tea is not a medicine; and stress is not a sickness. Tea cannot be relied upon the way we do with contemporary medicaments. Whereas with coffee for example, we can drink a mug of black to get an instant boost, tea doesn’t ‘work’ in this magnificent manner. A cup of green won’t give us instant relaxation. It isn’t the wonder potion we sometimes believe it is. But then how does it work?

Tea, as I indicated above, is but the ‘tool’ that can aid us in finding a rare moment of peace and tranquility. It provides us with the means and the opportunity to create such a moment for ourselves, but unfortunately it isn’t going to do it for us. Running to the kitchen to pour some hot water in a mug in which to dip a low quality tea bag, just to hurry back to the computer to continue work won’t do anything more than just quench our thirst. Tranquility is not obtained that easily and, contradictory it may seem, in fact requires a little effort.

It is not the tea that relaxes us, it is the moment; that instant with tea, that provides that well needed break to reset. Now, how does tea actually help us to obtain such a treasured moment? Since we have all become too used to teabags, instant coffee and vending machines, tea does seem tedious to prepare. But it is exactly the time taken in carefully brewing a cup of tea that focuses our attention on doing just that. The care and caution taken in the preparation, simultaneously enhances our drinking experience, because our taste is not just limited to ‘strong or weak’, ‘sweet or bitter’. We can start to recognize less outspoken flavors and scents that – even with the same tea – change with each brewing. It is the understanding of how we brew our tea that allows us to recognize in greater depth what it as a beverage comes to express.

This being said, it isn’t only our understanding of the brewing process that adds to our experience of the tea. It is ‘understanding’ in general that widens our pallet, and the way we get to enjoy our brew. The more we understand, the more we start to recognize the true taste of tea.

It is my experience that – having sampled a great variety of tea – it is not the one that said ‘premium’ on the package that was most delicious; it was the tea that I understood best that appealed most to my taste. If we allow ourselves to fully emerge in that tranquil moment with tea, and open ourselves to listen to it carefully, we may discover that tea can tell us many stories. Some teas tell stories of blood, sweat and tears; the effort that went into their production. Others bring tales from the times of old. Each tea has a story to tell, and listening to this story while savoring the moment in the company of tea is what I believe to be the strongest tool to momentarily forget our daily worries and find that moment of peace that we so strongly crave.

mandokoro-tea

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.