I have often followed the roads of tea during my stays in Japan. My first visit was in Shizuoka, Japan’s main tea production and transformation area — 70% of Japanese teas are processed in Shizuoka — beautifully settled around Mount Fuji in the center of Honshû island. I was welcomed with much warmth by a tea company in Kakegawa, a major city for the tea industry, to act as a translator for European tourists and buyers. What I loved most about the experience was it gave me the unique opportunity to discover the different stages of the life of tea, from the field to the pot.
A New Appreciation For Tea
After this experience, I never drank tea the same way. In only a few hours, I had gained full understanding of the incredible amount of work needed to make tea, of the passion of the professionals who bring us delicious and refreshing tea cups. I even had the chance to meet the producers who dedicate themselves to the very limited production of high quality teas, the equivalent of famous vintage wines. What a pleasure to listen to their enthusiastic explanations and to savor their delicious nectars, sometimes in the very field where they had grown.
In The Fields
The fields were of course the first step step of my transformation. They are generally of a small scale in Japan, except in the case of teas aimed for cheap quality industrial products. Tea producers therefore often gather in cooperatives, which deal with the tea wholesalers, in charge of the last steps of the transformation process and of the selling of the manufactured products. The highest qualities of teas are hand-plucked, while standard and lower qualities are mechanically harvested. The best teas usually grow in the mountains, on slopes inaccessible to machines.
Although a mechanical harvest is often synonymous with poor quality, the Japanese have succeeded where others have failed in creating machines allowing a quite precise harvest. That being said, the best leaves are hand picked, usually by elderly women. These smiling ladies gaily welcomed me with much laughter when we met one day on a bend of the road. I was leading a tour group through the fields, introducing them to Japan’s fine tea culture. The women were sitting in the shade for a well deserved moment of rest, as tea-picking is a very hard work, particularly when the temperatures and humidity start to rise.
The farmers bring the fresh tea leaves to the cooperative, as only a few of them process the tea in their own factory. At the end of the first steps of processing, the leaves become aracha, a rough tea, which will go through another series of transformations influencing the taste of the product, at the wholesaler’s factory. The wholesaler will then take charge of the packaging and selling of the tea.
A Red Tea Revival
In the past, Japan has produced red tea (often called “black tea” in the West), aimed for exportation; however, this production had almost disappeared by the end of the twentieth century. Still, for some years now, audacious tea producers have tried to revive Japanese red tea, even if the quantities remain negligible compared to those of green tea.
Red and green teas come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. To obtain red tea, the leaves are left getting oxidized during a given amount of time while, on the other hand, a tea is said to be green when its oxidation is stopped as soon as possible after picking green tea. Therefore, it is a non-oxidized tea. Oolong tea is somewhere in the middle, semi-oxidized. There are various ways to stop the oxidation process, the choice of the method having an undeniable impact on the taste. While the Chinese usually cut the oxidation by heating the tea leaves in large metal basins, the Japanese steam the leaves, a method that is supposed to help sustain the best qualities of the tea. In fact, all the steps have a large influence on the taste of tea, from the choice to protect the leaves from the sun before harvest time, to the various techniques of rolling and drying.
It is often said that green tea is better for health, but the latest researches shows red teas have many interesting health benefits themselves. The truth is, all teas have their own unique beneficial qualities as long as they are high grade. Green teas, which are very rich in antioxidants, and wulong teas, which are excellent for digestion, have particularly proven their active role in the prevention or even the treatment of many health problems, from bad breath to cancer. Additionally, more and more tests also tend to prove that red teas could be as efficient, if drank straight, without milk, lemon or sugar.
How You Can Take A Journey On The Roads Of Japanese Teas
Traveling on the paths of tea really gives a better awareness of the amount of effort needed to produce a good quality product, a treasure both for health and for the palate. Such a trip also brings a more human face to tea production and links us to a chain starting with the tea growers. And even if it is not easy for outsiders to visit the tea fields and factories or to meet tea professionals, there are some places open to visitors in the various tea production areas:
The prefecture of Saitama, north of Tôkyô, is famous for its tea, called Sayama-cha. The city of Iruma has opened an interesting section in its municipal museum, to present the history of tea and the various tea cultures around the world.
Shizuoka hosts the most important Japanese tea events, such as the World o-cha festival, and also counts several places to have a glimpse of the secrets of tea production. For example, the World Tea Museum/ Ocha-no-Sato, in the valley of Makinohara, an important area of industrial tea production, presents the history and culture of tea, as well as a garden and a tea house designed by the great artist Kobori Enshû (1579-1647).
3053-2, Kanaya, Shimada-shi, Shizuoka. Tel : 00 81 (0)5-4746-5588.
Also in Makinohara, Greenpia offers the possibility to take a try at tea picking and to visit a factory
1151 Nishi-Ogima Makinohara, 421-0506 Shizuoka. Tel: 00 81 (0)5-4827-2995/ firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Uji, the historical capital of Japanese tea, near Kyôto, it is possible for only 500 yen (about $5.38 USD) to have a short session of chanoyu, tea ceremony, in the Taihô-an, without having to sit on one’s knees for hours. For about 10 to 15 minutes, friendly ladies welcome the guests in a real teahouse, prepare a delicious cup of matcha and are glad to answer questions (Note: These women speak Japanese, so bringing along a guide is recommended unless you speak the local language).
The southern island of Kyûshû is more and more popular for its teas, some of which are of high quality. Yame is famous for its gyokuro, and its “central tea field” is opened to visitors who wish to learn more. There is also a small museum nearby, in Hoshino Yame Tea Museum, Hoshino. Tel : 00 81 (0)9 4352 3003.
About The Author: Born in the North of France, Valérie Douniaux is a PhD. in Japanese Art. She is now an independent writer, travel guide, teacher and curator, and has participated in numerous cultural projects dedicated to the art and culture of Japan, a country where she travels regularly. In 2011, she published the first comprehensive guidebook about Japanese teas in French language, with Felix Torres Editeur.