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Japan Tea Tour, Spring 2024

Japan Tea Tour, Spring 2024

Our first morning in Japan began with a drive up to the Haruno Mountains in Shizouka Prefecture. It was a perfect blue sky spring day. The narrow road spiraled up into mountains that were wooded and matcha green. Wherever the woods were absent the slopes were carpeted with rows of perfectly manicured tea bushes that gleamed in the sun. The place was a tea paradise!

It was the first week of May. The spring harvest had just begun, and you could hear it. Tea farmers using motorized clippers were harvesting the tea leaves. Very different than from China or India where human tea pickers wade through the bushes plucking leaves. Here the shortage of labor has forced the industry to mechanize.   

"ic: Tea being picked by a machine. It was a sweet sight to see the small boy help his family."

Shizouka Prefecture produces nearly 40% of all Japanese green tea. So this region has plenty of tea gardens, small and large. You see them in unlikely places, not just in the mountains. A small patch by a river bank, or beneath a highway bridge, or even by train tracks and in urban neighborhoods can catch you by surprise.

Back in Haruno we stopped at an organic aracha factory where the first stage of tea manufacturing is done. This type of factory is usually operated by the tea farmers themselves. Aracha is considered a "rough" tea that will require a secondary level of processing. This secondary or finishing process is done by tea manufacturing experts who know how to bring out the best qualities of the tea leaves. You will see a video of that process in a bit.

Green tea must be processed quickly after the leaf is picked. The distinctive process of Japanese green tea making is the steaming and use of machines to give the tea leaves a needle-like shape. What was interesting was that although the factory was mid-size by Japanese standards, there was still only one person who was handling everything. The scale of mechanization is remarkable indeed.

We did spot a farmer drying his tea leaves in the sun. He said he would make oolong out of. This was interesting to us. Japan in recent years has been trying to break the mold of being an exclusively green tea producing nation. In the past couple of years, Japan has made considerable progress in producing premium black tea. In fact we have a Japanese black tea currently in our store.   
ic: Fresh tea leaves being withered in the sun.

In another part of the mountains we saw where tana had been laid over the tea bushes. This kind of shading is done for gyokuro and matcha. A farmer who was weeding in the vicinity informed us that the tea she was growing was for matcha. The shading has to be done for at least four weeks. The procedure reduces the bitterness while increasing the umami flavor.

ic: Tea bushes for matcha being shaded.

Down in the town of Morimachi, on the banks of Ota river, the aracha from the mountains is received by our Japanese partner, Natsumi-san, whose shiage factory will do the second and final processing in his modern factory. 

The first step in shiage is to evaluate the farmer's tea. Natsumi-san and his team intently look at the tea leaves on a metal dish that is dark and deep. They toss the leaves around with their hands. Three grams of tea is then steeped with boiling water for 3 minutes. Then they take some of the infused leaves and smell them and finally they scoop some tea into a small cup and sip it. The offered price is then communicated to the farmer, who is standing around anxiously, with an abacus.

Then the rough tea goes through a cleaning and sorting process, where stems and other undesirables like extra-large leaves are removed and the leaves of uniform sizes are gathered together. The leaves eventually go through a final roasting process where the moisture content in the leaf is brought down to 3%. Different levels of heat will determine the level of roasting for the tea, which runs from 1-10. This is where the skill and expertise of the manufacturer is tested. A tea can taste very different depending on the levels of roast. 

ic: The abacus in the tasting room. It is used to communicate the offered price to the farmer, to keep things confidential.

We also have to mention that the level of cleanliness in the factory was very impressive. We had to change our footwear twice. The machines looked state-of-art and they were all in good shape.

ic: Going through a Cleanroom before entering the processing area.
ic: Inside the shiage factory.

Tea being roasted in the shiage factory.

On a visit to another tea farm, near Shizouka city we got to drink an award winning spring tea from last year. It was still very tender and we were invited to eat the leaves with some seasoned oil. It was delicious both ways!

During this trip we also got to visit a tea farm in the Wazuka area, which is in the southern part of Kyoto Prefecture. This area is part of the Uji-tea growing region. Uji is highly regarded in Japan especially as a place where tea was first grown in the country. From the nearest train station we took about a 30 minute car ride through the hills which looked lush and beautiful in the rain and mist.  

ic: A village on the way to Wazuka.  You can see rows of tea bushes on the hill side between the houses and the trees.

The tea farm took about an hour and half to reach from Kyoto city. In this area we also saw some tea farms that had been abandoned, as a result of a rapidly declining population where there weren't enough young people to take over.

ic: A lot of tea bushes in this area were wrapped in black fabric. This was to make Kabusecha, or shaded sencha tea.

But in a sign of the country's abiding pride in its tea traditions, we found a young family who had moved from Tokyo to take over one of the abandoned gardens here. They were also escaping the bustle of the city and their corporate jobs to connect with nature. 

ic: Leaves of tea bushes that are wrapped are much greener than those left exposed. ithout.

Notwithstanding the few abandoned tea gardens, the Japanese tea world in general seemed still very robust. Every town and city we went to had plenty of tea shops and tea cafes that were full of locals. Besides traditional teas these places offered plenty of innovative tea-based treats. It restored our faith - tea was not only alive and kicking in Japan, but taking new forms while still steeped in tradition. We will leave you with images of some wonderful tea treats we enjoyed.     

ic: Green tea parfait in Uji town.

 ic: A stout with Houjicha, roasted Japanese green tea.

ic: Gyokuro with nitro. In Kyoto.
Tea with tea-themed treats. ic: In Kakegawa train station we found this kiosk that was selling tea in what looked like cigarette packets. Hence the notice on it!
Check out our YouTube video to see a short roundup of our trip.
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