After a few days in the incredible Tokyo, we headed west to Fujieda hoping to discover the enchanting world of Japanese tea. Whilst on the Shinkansen (bullet train), we noticed the change in landscape, moving away from the neon skyscrapers and relentless noise to the iconic and tranquil Mount Fuji…
Upon arrival, the contrast in lifestyle between Tokyo and Fujieda was also striking, no more colossal vending machines stocked with iced tea, but a local economy dominated by agriculture. This contrast encapsulates Japan, a blend of modernity with conservative tradition.
Ayumi Kinezuka was awaiting our arrival at Fujieda, which is located in Shizuoka, an area in which half of all Japan’s green tea is produced. We left Fujieda city for the mountains where Shizuoka farmers grow their tea adjacent to bamboo forests.
Tea fields based in the mountains provide a better quality of tea. Their leaves are not exposed to constant sunlight throughout the day as are those grown in other regions where the land is flat. Ayumi took us to a number of tea fields near to her home. Her family own numerous different strips of land across the mountainous Fujieda countryside, and each tea field is typically divided between several farmers.
Ayumi’s family is part of the Shizuoka Organic Tea Farmers Union (SOTFU). Ayumi’s father has been growing organic tea for thirty-eight years. He was the first tea cultivator to switch to organic production and is renowned as a pioneer and regional industry leader.
The family place their trust in the balance of nature, relying on the insects and other animals regulating each other whilst only adding natural compost. It was easy to see that their tea fields produced healthy, strong plants. The soil was soft and moist, leaves and branches in good condition (i.e. not attacked by insects) and the leaves a distinct bright shade of green.
After having tasted fresh buds, being surrounded by the delicious smell of fresh tea, and understanding how plucking works, Ayumi invited us to her beautiful hand carved wooden house where a cup of iced black tea was waiting for us (a welcome relief in from the 40°C tea fields). Following this, her father amazed us with a precise and ceremonial brewing process. They have a completely different conception of the infusion process, traditionally brewing the tea three times to get all the nuances in taste: 1st time for sweetness, 2nd for bitterness and 3rd for astringency.
They also highlighted the importance of the right water temperature: if the water is too hot, your first tea will be astringent and the first two distinctions will be missed. The water has to be around 50°C at the time of the first infusion in order to conceive the perfect sweet cup, it is only when the leaves have opened that hotter water should be added.
Also, the importance of not drowning the tea in water was highlighted. After absorption of the water by the tea leaves, the water level should be equal to the volume of leaves contained within. I was delighted to learn that they brew it three times, as one cup of this delicate and distinctive tea would not have been near enough!
Finally, Ayumi showed us the family’s factory for black tea and described the process employed. It was explained that the huge and heavy machinery had been acquired from a specialist tea company in Sri Lanka, and are only used two weeks of the year to process their Koucha tea.
The leaves go through a number of steps:
1/ the leaves are withered for 16 hours in a fan room;
2/ the leaves are rolled by a machine that crushes the leaves to expose them to oxygen;
3/ the leaves are placed on bamboo trays for a few hours to further the oxidation process;
4/ the leaves are placed above a high temperature furnace for 15-20 minutes to halt the oxidation process;
5/ the leaves are placed on trays above a low heat fire.
This is a protracted and precise process which is conducted under high pressure as it must be completed in a short window of time when the leaves are at the perfect level of maturity. Ayumi deals with this entire process all on her own!
Every time I drink a cup of tea I now think about the precise steps each farmer goes through in order to provide the perfect taste… from plucking to processing… after my visit to Japan and furthering my understanding of the process, my tea tastes even better. Thank you farmers for your hard work!