Tag Archives: Organic

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
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.