June 6 2014
In late autumn last year we received an invitation.
Through our recent explorations and discoveries in Japanese teas, we were bowled over by an invitation from the small family run tea garden in Miyazaki – the creators of the Sencha Superior – to not only visit them and their tea fields, but stay with them in their home. Well, how can you refuse?!
We found ourselves on Easter weekend on a direct flight from London to Tokyo, ready for 24 hours of non-stop travel. After 11 and a half hours in the air, we landed at Tokyo Narita the following morning. The approach is beautiful – after hours over the Siberian tundra, the flight takes you over the mountains of northern Japan before approaching the airport over mirrors of rice fields.
Through customs and luggage collected, we took the connecting NEX train to the colossal Tokyo central train station, a multi-floored giant handling over 3,000 trains a day in the centre of the city. From here we boarded the Shinkansen that would take us from Tokyo all the way to Kagoshima in the south of Kyushu (with a quick change in Osaka). We were fortunate enough to travel on a beautifully clear day, and seeing the Japanese landscape hurtle by at 150 miles per hour really was something… From the centre of the Kyoto metropolis, we made our way to the countryside of southern Japan.
At 9pm tired and jetlagged we arrived in Kagoshima, a quite spectacular coastal city built around an island volcano – but no time to stop! At 8am the next morning we were on a train headed across the island for Miyazaki to meet Shigeru and his family.
Rural Miyazaki is a stunning place. The rich, volcanic soil is ideal for cultivation, covered with lush green vegetation mingled with all kinds of fruit farms, vegetables and – most importantly – tea.
Shigeru, Haruyo and their family have small tea fields dotted around their home running right up to their front door. They grow several different varieties of the tea plant, notably the Yabukita and Minami Sayaka cultivars, each one containing different balances of sweetness and bitter notes in their biological makeup. After drying, Shigeru and Haruyo decide how to blend these and other varieties together to create their perfect Toku Jô (extra-superior) Sencha. The first spring harvest had begun just a few days before we arrived – the weather was clear, so after a delicious lunch of okumidori and local produce, including Haruyo’s home made white miso, we set out to the tea fields to see the harvest in action (and pick tea leaves with Yoko to make tempura for dinner that evening).
You will always be able to tell a Japanese tea garden from the gently domed tops of the tea bushes that rise and fall in waves across the tea fields – and there’s a very good reason for this. Rather than plucking the leaves by hand, the preferred Japanese method is to use a tea harvesting machine. These can be driven (like Haruyo’s above) with collecting baskets on the back, or operated by hand being pulled over the tops of the tea plants – these are best for tea fields on steep mountainsides. This means harvests can be collected quickly and precisely when the leaves are at exactly the right stage of growth for plucking – if this was done by hand, the costs would be astronomical, so using harvesters allows small producers greater freedom without sacrificing quality.
What are the fans for?
You’ll see in our video the gently spinning fans spread through the tea fields – and they serve a very specific purpose. Frost can cause many problems for tea gardens, and if a cold spell is particularly fierce, it can have a terrible effect on the tea farm. However, these fans pull warmer air from above the garden towards the cooler ground, helping to regulate the air temperature surrounding the leaves.
Once the harvesting bags are filled, the fresh leaves are taken to the small tea processing plant just a few meters from their front porch to be steamed, rolled, dried, and sorted. After removing your shoes for sturdy clogs outside the door, you can enter the factory. The first thing that you notice is the thick, sweet smell of steaming tea leaves in the warm air – not unlike freshly cut grass. From here the steamed leaves are cooled, rolled, dried, and sorted, with the whole process taking around 4-5 hours.
look out for an upcoming blog post which will take you through the different processing steps and cultivars
We were able to infuse and sample the raw tea that was picked that morning after its first processing – and the leaves were still warm from the factory.
No part of the tea leaf is wasted. Over dinner that evening, Shigeru explained how even their lower grade leaves that would not normally be used are turned into a basic Matcha powder which local farmers add to their animal feed as a natural supplement. The fertilizer from these farms are then used in the soil of the tea garden, creating a natural cycle through the seasons. The family’s pride in their fully organic methods and careful production, their enthusiasm and dedication to absolute quality is an inspiration.
At about 6pm jetlag began to catch up with me, and what was intended to be a quick nap on their wonderfully comfortable tatami mats turned into a full sleep until 9am the next morning, lulled by the gentle hum of the processing machines. Awake (and a little embarrassed at having slept so long – the family found it very funny!) we settled down for a pot of green tea and a plate of natto. The clear weather of the day before had given way to rain which, although it meant that harvesting couldn’t happen that morning, we could all set out to a local ramen place for lunch. Pork miso ramen… Oishii!
The rest of the afternoon was spent swapping tea stories, and chatting about the differences between the Japanese and English approaches to tea over the kitchen table. Shigeru was very interested in the differences between Japanese and English water, and the effect that the different minerals have on tea’s flavour. For instance, in Japan, Matcha can be made with near-boiling water. However, the same Matcha tea in England needs a sweet spot of between 65-75 degrees, or the resulting infusion can be incredibly bitter, purely through differences in the water used. The hard, mineral rich water of Dorset is very different to the soft, sweet and purer water of Japan.
After more tea, okumidori and mochi cakes it was time to exchange gifts – and were amazed when the family gave us a huge bag full of their delicious teas, samples, matcha sweets, locally made matcha soaps, and a beautiful Kyusu teapot. As a gift from the UK, we gave a bottle of Sipsmith gin (which had managed to survive the 6,000 mile journey intact!)
It was very sad to say goodbye, and after many hugs it was time to hit the road again. We headed back to the station at Kagoshima* to take us to our next stop: Kyoto.
Read Part 2 of our trip right here.
*we arrived late in the evening, and when one of the receptionists heard we had been to a tea farm, she gave us a packet of Gyokuro tea to take home. Thank you, JR Hotel Kagoshima!