For centuries, farmers throughout Japan have cultivated green tea on terraced hillsides and in long, flat fields. Carefully refining a product that has become central to daily and religious Japanese life, the small family farms labor in love, against economic odds.
The number of producers is declining, prices are stagnant, labor costs are high, the next generation wants to move to cities, and consumer demand is satisfied by cheaper versions of green tea from China.
This is a story about the home of green tea and the artisanal farmers who keep the dream of green tea alive.
Shizuoka prefecture is just west of Tokyo prefecture and in contrast to that spectacular urban metropolis, this region embraces nature and agriculture. Vast panoramas of the Pacific, a northern perimeter of the Alps, Mount Fuji.
Equally defining the character of the region and the people are the farms: Wasabi, strawberries, melons, mandarin oranges, daikon, rice, and, most importantly, tea. Forty-five percent of all the green tea in Japan is grown here.
Every five years, the prefecture takes a census to measure who is farming the tea. The most recent survey, in 2005, found that 17,731 households were farming green tea and that 53.6 of these had less than half a hectare while 25.4% had one to five hectares. Only 1.3% of the tea farms–or 489 families–were growing on three to five hectares. Overall, 19,000 hectares grow tea in Shizuoka. This is small family farming at its most critical.
Tea is so central to the identity of Shizuoka that a tea festival, or World O-Cha, is held here every three years.
In the festival headquarters, where all the furniture is bright green, Mr. Oka Atsushi, director of planning, poured tea, explained its history, and spoke of what is being done to ensure the future of farming.
Green tea is made from unfermented leaves, needs cool weather, lots of rain, plenty of fertilizer, and protection from infestation.
How it evolved as a symbol–not just a product–is another story.
“After the Meiji restoration at the end of the 19th century, about 150 years ago,” Mr. Atsushi explained, “the Shogun decided to end the isolation of Japan.”
He was referring to the feudal response to the blockade of Japanese ports by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and the so-called “black ships.” No trade? The Americans said: We’ll bomb you!
“Tea was one of the main items to be imported,” said Mr. Atsushi.
The end of Japan’s centuries old isolation led to the fall of the Shogunate: Vying for power, disagreements about how to deal with the Westerners, and a struggle to preserve tradition while at the same time embrace modernity.
With the end of the Shogunate, vast numbers of samurai warriors found themselves unemployed. Yojimba, Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, showed the havoc created when a samurai finds himself out of work.
To try to limit chaos and violence, samurai were given tracts of land to manage and create tea farms. The green tea grown in Shizuoka has its roots in soldiers who were forced to stop fighting.
In turn, the profit generated from the early cultivation of tea was used to buy warships and build the modern Japanese military. So it was swords into plowshares and then back to swords again!
“Nowadays though,” said Mr. Atsushi, “many of the sons and daughters of tea growers do not want to take over the farms of their aging parents. The old parents find they cannot care for the plants. Less care means less yield. Land is being abandoned.”
Mr. Atsushi turned to the four elements that make up the essential taste of green tea: “Bitterness, sweetness, astringency, and umami.”
Umami is like the long finish of a great wine, the reverberation of taste, the depth of flavor in a white truffle.
“The best green tea has the best umami,” he said, “which comes from the amino acids.”
The tea festival is one effort being made to promote the product. Another is the century old tea research center, founded in 1908, where 20 scientists test insect controls and fertilizers; create new plant hybrids; study growing techniques; and, develop products made from green tea.
At the center, we drank cups of yamano ibuki, a very rounded, almost sweet tea grown in mountainous regions. More than 100 species of tea exist in Japan with each having its own characteristics enhanced by harvest times, processing, and temperature when served. As is true with most Japanese agriculture, nuance is supreme.
Subtlety is exemplified by the Japanese tea ceremony. For a small price, an abbreviated version can be experienced at the region’s tea museum in a tea house replica.
The macha or powdered green tea is whisked into a frothy brew and poured. You turn the cup twice to show humility. You sip until the last drop, which you dramatically slurp in a noisy, happy way.
“This ceremony is often compared to the Holy Communion,” explained a guide. “We think it may have originated when the Christian missionaries first came to Japan. We’re not sure.”
One person too busy to contemplate the spiritual origins of ritual is Hidemi Suzuki, a tea farmer, who begins our interview by saying, “What would you like to know?”
Like most farmers I have met, he’s clear, gruff in voice, and all about the work.
“I’ve been at it 30 some years,” he said. “I inherited the family business. My farm? It’s 1.8 hectares. My parents started it–my grandfather was doing research at the center you visited today.”
Mr. Suzuki’s farm is still family run with a maximum of three people during a busy harvest.
Tea is his passion.
“The general trend these days is for more of a rounded and sweet taste,” he said. “To meet that demand we steam the leaves for longer periods.”
The type of tea he grows is called fukamushicha or “deeply steamed,” grown in shade, “to increase amino acids.”
I wonder when he takes his tea.
“I have my first cup around three in the afternoon when I’m tired,” he said, smiling. “Later, too, after dinner when I’m relaxing with my family. I have to taste all the time, about 20 cups a day, and maybe five or six cups when I’m working in the fields.”
Manufacturers make health claims for green tea: We are advised to gargle with green tea to prevent tooth decay, fight allergies, and prevent colds.
Before telling me what he thought of these claims, Mr. Suzuki asked me to follow him to a small plot next to his house. It was raining, we carried umbrellas, and he clipped a few leaves from the wet, waist high plants.
“You have to be careful,” he said, “otherwise even a few leaves could hurt the plant.”
He put the leaves in cups and poured hot water in. He wanted to prove a point: Untreated tea leaves, the purity of taste.
“I’m like an artisan,” he said, as we drank. “I don’t know if there is terroir in tea, but based on my experience I do know what kind of soil I need to plant my tea in–which plot will create a sweet tea or a tea that is very refreshing. As for when to harvest?”
“Some things you cannot know,” he said. “That much of mystery in life is appropriate. When I’m not sure, I drive my tractor into the field and I just simply feel it. When I was younger, I didn’t know when to harvest.”
OK, but those claims we had been discussing: Does he think that drinking green tea is good for your health?
“The real effect is to make us relax,” he said, “to have good relations with our family members–maybe that’s the best effect it has, maybe that’s what tea brings us. Good conversation, a way to connect to people.”
His harvest is typically from late April to mid-May, but Mr. Suzuki is at work all year on the farm, focused on the traditions imbued in tea and inspired to help create its future.
His business card said it all:
A May breeze is always blowing in my heart.
Harvest green tea, harvest history.
Article by Scott Haas first published in Slow magazine number 48.
Photo: Michael Gie