Tag Archives: Tradition

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.

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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.

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.

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.

What is Japanese tea to me?

Already over a decade has passed since I first fell in love with Japanese tea. At the start, I was still studying at the Japanese Studies Department of Leuven University in Belgium, and continuously looked to obtain anything that was even remotely ‘Japanese’. Tea was, off course, one of those dearly obtained and treasured items.

It was sencha – the most common variation of Japanese leaf tea – that I first collected. It instantly changed my perception of this Eastern beverage. Sencha served both as my daily refreshment after long hours of class, and as a boost during extensive periods of study. It was the perfect drink for a Japanophile like me, who didn’t want to become dependent on coffee or energy drinks to stay awake during examination terms for example.

My passion grew with each cup of tea I consumed. At one point I even aspired to write my bachelor thesis on Japanese tea, and proposed to focus on the consumption habits of contemporary Japanese people. I was however advised against, and inevitably changed my topic.

Now I look back at this occurrence, I gladly agree with my advisor that it would indeed have been a difficult – if not impossible a task – to find sufficient material for the compilation of this work at that time. Even now, after approximately ten years of enduring study I am still uncertain whether I could be able to write a covering paper on such a comprehensive topic.

While I have continued to learn and practice the rite of tea during my life in Japan, I only recommenced to actively study Japanese leaf tea a few months before I was accepted in a sales staff position at a traditional Japanese teahouse in Uji. From a cultural point of view, the rite of tea is revered as one of Japan’s highest forms of cultural heritage. When we speak of Japanese tea, we tend to first think of ‘tea ceremony’ and picture a bowl of frothy matcha.

Probably because my first encounter with Japanese tea was the leaf variation sencha, I have continuously found it peculiar that only powdered tea, or matcha has become this prestigious, while there are so many other perfectly delicious teas of Japanese produce available otherwise. It was this interest that inspired me to study more on what Japanese leaf tea actually is and how it is commonly perceived.

Study to obtain a certification as Japanese Tea Instructor (‘Nihoncha Instructor’ [日本茶インストラクター]) was one method I took. The other approach was to actually gain first-hand experience at a traditional tea vendor. And, although I gained plenty of knowledge on how tea is observed, produced and treated today; on the reverse side, it raised more questions as to what a traditional tea actually is.

My decision to study more about regular tea was founded in its function in opposition to the culturally elevated position of matcha, and its standing in the rite of tea, and therefore it couldn’t have been that unexpected that I also began to question the tradition of leaf tea. My foremost concern is whether or not what we are drinking today can actually be understood as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’.

What I learned was that the landscape of tea production and manufacturing has largely changed. Simultaneously, this also affected the preferences of contemporary consumers, and in the last 30 to 50 years, not only the way tea is produced has become altered; also the expectations of its drinkers have become considerably transformed.

Directions for 2017

Dear reader,

First of all, I want to wish you all the best of health and happiness for 2017.

 

2016 WAS THE YEAR OF TEA.

I have focused on assembling an assortment of the most reliable, natural and authentically Japanese teas and offered them through my web store.

I have also been active as an instructor in tea ceremony and have taught Japanese residents on a weekly basis, in addition to conducting introductory workshops for foreign travellers and tourists in Dutch and English.

During these sessions, I have experienced that merely translating information from one language to another is not enough. Where this is especially the case with tea ceremony, I have learned that cultural concepts inherent to one language are not evidently understood when translated to another. It takes deep understanding of the matter in the source language, and demands an understanding of cultural concepts in the target language in order to provide an understandable approach or explanation with familiar examples.

I believe that on most occasions the essence of information is not transferred sufficiently between languages, not because of a lack of translation, but due to a lack of understanding about the cultural background of either source or target language.

Especially when the number of foreign visitors to Japan is growing exceedingly each year, insufficient attention is given to localizing translated information. This leaves the target audience oblivious to the message’s central meaning, and thus fails to present an authentic representation of the conferrer’s intentions.

 

FOR 2017 I HAVE CHOSEN TO GROW.

I have rephrased The Tea Crane’s motto to: ‘Japan’s tradition in a cup of tea.

I strongly believe that tea is at the essence of Japanese culture and tradition. It also allows us a temporary relief from worldly stress and boundaries and provides a moment to relax. Therefore, I will continue to serve you as your main source of authentic Japanese tea.

From this month forward, I will in addition provide translation and localization services to foreign businesses and travellers, as well as to Japanese businesses and nationals looking to reach an abroad audience. In the same respect, I will also offer my services on language education, writing, localized design, assistance with accommodation of services locally, and related managerial activities for the benefit of travellers and businesses to Japan.

It is my belief that your target audience has the right to fully grasp the essence of your message, even when the cultural background or language is different. The services I provide are based on a cultural and linguistic understanding of Japanese, as well as English and Dutch, accumulated and nurtured over the years of study, residence and participation in cultural circles in Japan, and during my upbringing in Europe. Based on a thorough understanding of both cultures and languages, I aim to provide a localized approach to successfully convey the essence of your message.

 

Would you prefer a mere translation of your word from language to language? Or will you choose to convey your message from heart to heart?

 

—– Your Japan specialist, Tyas Sōsen

Tea Gathering for The World Forum on Sport and Culture

The rite of tea – aka Japanese tea-ceremony – is what I believe to be the core of Japanese tradition and culture. It combines a variety of arts and crafts, and brings them together in a coherent praxis that is the service of tea. Calligraphy, pottery, woodwork, architecture, and many more are at the basis of this praxis, but what is more is that the rite of tea expresses a true form of Japanese-ness. An adept in the art of tea, performing such a service, employs forms of bodily composure and movement that are authentic to this rite, and have come to be believed to be intrinsically Japanese.

It is from this perspective that in modern Japan, the rite of tea has on many occasions served as a means to introduce Japanese culture to the world. An example of this is the international EXPO in Paris in 1937 where a Japanese pavilion was erected, holding tea ceremony demonstrations and geisha performances.

As a high school student I was introduced to the diversity of Japanese culture through practice in Japanese fencing or Kendō. During my further studies on Japan I also attempted my hand at Karate and Jōdō (the way of the staff), and briefly practiced song and dance for Nō theatre. But it is the rite of tea that allowed me deepest insight in the background, meaning and philosophy of Japanese tradition.

Starting in April this year, we opened a workshop for foreign visitors in Kyoto, offering a thorough introduction in the praxis of warrior tea. Most “tea-ceremony experiences” in the same city are either overly simplified and commercialised, or are presented with a lack of decent explanation in understandable English. We started our endeavours with the goal to relay a truthful and deep-going idea of what the rite of tea is to our guests, with understandable and educated explanations of the underlying ideas in comprehensible English.

20161020-wfsc-6We were invited by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and the Grandmaster to aid with the smooth progression of the service and to provide translation to our foreign audience from an educated insider point of understanding. Having learned the art for approximately 10 years, and Stephen Sōshun, my mentor and partner, currently for 25 years, we have gained insight in the intrinsic values of the rite, and also have a thorough understanding of what aspects of Japanese culture are easily understood or difficult to grasp from a foreigner point of view.Last Saturday, on October 22nd, we were enabled to further employ our expertise in Japanese culture and the rite of tea when the Grandmaster of our school, Kobori Sōjitsu Iemoto (小堀宗実家元) – head of the Enshū tradition of warrior tea (遠州流茶道) – hosted a tea-gathering for foreign officials and business leaders, participating in the World Forum on Sport and Culture, held in Kyoto and Tokyo. The gathering was held in the presence of Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado (高円宮姫殿下) after a viewing of her personal exhibition of netsuke (根付) accessories, currently on display at Tokyo National Museum.

We did not just literally translate. Conducting workshops for foreign visitors, and having learned the tradition from a foreigner point of view, enables us to learn from the questions and remarks our guests present us with about Japanese culture, and in effect enables us to form comprehensive answers and explanation to those questions. Some aspects that are culturally common sense in Japan, may leave a foreigner completely oblivious, and it are those aspects that require further attention. In our translation, we embedded that additional information, to allow our guests a deeper understanding of tea ceremony and Japanese culture as a whole.This knowledge is what I feel to be our foremost asset.

Before moving into the main building where the actual service was conducted, the group was led to a smaller tea pavilion called Tengō-an (転合庵), designed by the founder of the Enshū school, Kobori Enshū. Specific detail about this tea-hermitage will follow in a separate entry. Here the Grandmaster gave a brief lecture about the history of the hermitage and various aspects of what makes such a building specific to the rite of tea. It was my duty to provide translation into English. Later on, Stephen Sōshun took over and translated the Grandmaster’s lecture before and during the service of tea, while I assisted with carrying in bowls of tea and individually guiding guests in drinking procedures and related formalities.

I believe that this skill, is a product of having resided in Japan for an extensive period of time, having engaged with a cultural practice that is as extensive as the rite of tea, and having worked with various foreign guests who allowed us the opportunity to develop a comprehensible and more educated way to explain what for most Japanese – and for us mostly as well – is perceived as common sense.

Last Saturday’s gathering was an opportunity to re-evaluate our understanding of the rite of tea, and our ability to relay its meaning properly in English, taking the words from the Grandmaster and re-producing the essence into comprehensible English terms. The experience in itself was also highly satisfying to the extent that I wish to put more effort into introducing the beauty and depth of Japanese tradition internationally.

Read more about the World Forum on Sport and Culture here:
http://wfsc2016.mext.go.jp/en/programs/#event04_04

More information about our Tea-ceremony workshop in Kyoto can be accessed here:
http://www.the-tea-crane.com/pages/tea-ceremony-workshop