Tag Archives: Farming

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.

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.