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 Yoshitomi① 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.
① Yoshitomi, Hitoshi. 1995. “The Forefront of Mechanization in Tea Industry.” Journal of the Japanese Society of Agricultural Machinery 57 (5): 79–82.