If you head north out of Kyushu - a city that lies at the southern tip of Japan - a journey of 45 minutes or so will bring you into the tea country of Hoshino. As the road carries you through the concentration of closely packed factories, hotels, golf practice nets, houses, offices, and overhead criss-crossing of electric and telephone wires and cables so typical of Japanese towns, it is hard to imagine that after a short drive you will find yourself climbing through hills where bamboo trees densely cover the higher ground and in spring the cherry blossom splashes color among the green, and curving banks of tea bushes grow in profusion on all sides.
As we travel, my Japanese companions explain the six main categories of Japanese green tea and tell me that the research centers are also experimenting with blacks and oolomgs. Green tea is made by immediately applying heat to freshly picked leaves and then drying them. Leaves that are used for producing 'Tencha' (the green leaves that are ground up to produce the fine powder called ﾔMatchaﾕ that is used in the Japanese tea ceremony), and 'Gyokura' (Jewel Dew), are plucked from shaded tea fields. Leaves that are used to make 'Sencha' (infused tea), Tamaryoku-cha (Jewel Green Tea, with rounded leaf shape), Bancha (lower grade, coarser tea that is also mixed with roasted and popped rice to make Genmaicha, or roasted to make Houjicha), and three lower grade teas that are made from imperfect leaves and buds are picked from fields that are left to the open air and light.
Most sections of tea gardens that lie all around as the road twists and turns upwards are plucked smoothly into neat waves that undulate over the landscape, but although the main Gyokura harvesting dous not start until the middle of May (and it was March when I visited), some sections of bushes were already covered with canvas, or black or yellow netting, to shade the leaves.
This system of shutting out most of the light for three weeks before picking protects the plants from any frosts and increases the amount of chlorophyll in the leaves, creating a darker leaf and a much sweeter, more concentrated flavor. The very best grades of Gyokura must be grown in 95% shade for 20 days or more just before the harvest, the second best grade for 15 days in 90% shade, and the lower grade for 7-10 Days in 80-65% shade.
The timing of the positioning of the shade cover is also vital. For the best, the straw or black canvas is laid over the metal or bamboo frames (that stay in place all year) when 0.5-2 new buds are showing. For the second grade, there should be 2-2.5 buds; for the lower grade, 2.5-3 buds. The shade cover is not put in place all at once, but gradually over a period of several days in order to gently slow down the growth of the new buds. The best grades must be grown outdoors, but lower grades can be grown in greenhouses.
To discover more about the production and amazing flavor of high quality Gyokura tea, we visited a small tea plantation owned by Mr.Fujio Fuete, where the tea has won the first prize for the past three years. He is the ninth generation of his family to grow tea, and he and his wife have the most smile lines around their eyes that I have ever seen; they obviously love their work and talked enthusiastically and with great humor about their tea. Fueta produces approximately 75 Kg . per year on the smallholding that surrounds his house. The harvest period for him is in May, so we were a little too early to see the straw covering in place on his bushes. Although many of the farmers use canvas, Fueta says that the very best quality Gyokura is achieved by using only layers of rice straw (sumaki) to shut out the light. Then, if it rains, the sweetness from the straw filters with the rain water into the ground and adds an extra quality to the tea. He assures us that he really can tell the difference.
Plucking enough leaves and buds to make the four Kg. of competition tea each year takes 30 pickers one day, and then the rest of the crop is picked over the following five days. For Gyokura, closed leaf buds are used as the younger leaves give a stronger, sweeter flavor. For Tencha (which becomes powdered Matcha), the leaves must be open. So after plucking one bud and four or five leaves, a careful separation of closed buds from open leaves is crucial to the final quality.
The leaves are processed at the local cooperative factory, with each farmer strictly overseeing the processing of his harvest. The competition judges teas from all over Japan, and the Fuetas are thrilled and proud have won several cash prizes, cups, and trophies. Their tea fetches ｣150 per Kg. and, when Mrs. Fueta brings a pot of the tea for us to try, we agree that it is worth every yen. It is truly delicious.
After the plucking is finished, the bushes are pruned right back, the leaves are stripped from the pruned stems, and the bare twigs and branches are spread over the bush stumps to protect them. Each square meter must have a covering of 90 stems until the plants come back to life and start pushing out new shoots in the early spring. The bushes grow much more loosely than bushes used for Sencha and Bancha and can go on producing quality teas for up to 50 or 60 years. Although most plants in Japan are used for 30 years or so. The maturity of the older bushes is excellent for Gyokura.
INSIDE A GREENN TEA FACTORY:
To see the processing of green leaf in action, we next visited the Fukujuﾕen tea factory in the Uji tea region, south of Kyoto. Before we were allowed inside, we had to put on white coats and hats and swap our footwear for blue rubber slippers. As you go into a green tea factory, the first smell to hit you is the strong, heady, almost heady pungency of the freshly picked leaves that have been steamed (to stop fermentation) and rolled at the tea garden, then delivered in large sacks to the factory where they are stored in a huge refrigeration area.
When required for the production line, the bundles of tea are lifted out by automatic machinery, the sacks opened, and the tea tipped into the first stage of the processing machinery. The pieces of leaf are sifted in a large machine to separate them into different sized pieces and then conveyed to the appropriate next stage.
Depending on the type of tea to be produced, the leaves are then put through various processes of drying; refining into uniform thickness and length; the removal of unwanted material such as stalk, siftings, and large leaves (which are put through another machine for re-cutting); rolling; shaping; twisting; polishing; and firing at different temperatures and for different amounts of time.
In the packing room, 30-50,000 packages of the teas are produced every day by Hesse and IMA high-speed, automatic packing machines which pack the different teas into bags, packets, small cylindrical drums, vacuum packs or cans, and gift packs. A small amount is exported, mainly to the U.S., but most is for home consumption and distributed through the companyﾕs network of 120 shops across Japan and to hotels for use in guest bedrooms.
After our tour of the factory, we found that our shoed had been very efficiently delivered to the next stage of our visit, so we removed the white coasts and hats, put our ordinary shoes back on, and spent a fascinating half hour looking around the factoryﾕs museum of old-fashioned harvesting and processing equipment, huge old pottery storage jars, and equipment that would once have been used by tea retailers and brokers.
AT A MATCHA FACTORY:
While in the Uji tea region, we also visited Marukyu Koyamaen Co., one of the most important Matcha producing factories in the area. We were terribly late arriving; in our eagerness to learn as much as possible at the Fukujuﾕen factory, we had spent much longer than anticipated, but our tardiness didnﾕt seem to matter.
We arrived at about 4:30 p.m., the offices closed at 5:30 or 6 p.m., but owner Toshimi Koyama greeted us graciously and then spent three hours showing us around. First he took us across the road to the family tea garden, where (because unusual weather patterns this vear meant the earlier than usual hot sunshine could affect growth and quality) straw had already been placed over the bushes prior to the Gyokura harvest. We walked up and down rows of shaded bushes examining the leaves of various types of bushes.
In an article for the Urasenke Foundation's Chanoyu Bulletin, Koyamaen explained,"The careful blending of different plant varieties grown on different types of soil is the key to the art of producing unique, named blends of Matcha, whose quality remains consistent over time. Our tea, named 'Unkaku', is blended from five different plant varieties." which are grown in two different parts of the Uji regionﾑthe east bank of the Uji river and the Obaku Mountain region. The company works closely with tea growers to make sure that high quality tea is always produced, despite changes in climate and soil conditions. The plants are treated mainly with organic fertilizers and the fields are constantly improved by adding compost and sand.
Next came a tour of the factoryﾑthrough a large leaf processing area where local leaf is handled in a similar way to what we had seen at Fukujuﾕen, but on a smaller scale. Koyamaen receives 1,500 samples of leaf from local contract farmers and every sample must be inspected at least twice in a room facing north because bright sunlight can make the leaves appear greener than they really are. Teas from selected growers then go though the normal processing of steaming, drying, sorting, and refining before they are ready for the grinders. About 100 Kg. of picked leaf yields about 11 Kg. of fully prepared leaf particles.
Although other processes in Japanese tea production have been modernized over the years, the grinding of Matcha is still carried out using traditional stone mills. The hand-carved mill stone teas, crush, and twist the leaf particles into grains that are about one to five microns in size. A little less than 40 gm. Of Matcha can be produced in an hour from one mill.
The grinding can be done by hand, but at Marykyu Koyamaen, the process has been mechanized. The grinding room is a mass of hundreds of whirring mill stones and the impression is for bright green everywhere. The final product is packed and sold in small tins to individual consumers or to factories that produce soft drinks, and tea-flavored foods such as ice-cream and tea creams for confectionery.
Although the actual grinding area was behind glass, we emerged from the grinding room with a fine layer of green powder on our shoes and clothes. But after a quick dusting down, we were ready for a cup of tea, which we enjoyed while sitting on the rush matting-covered floor of office. We sat sampling different types of ice cream, drinking different teas, and discovering more about Japan's tea industry.
TEA RESERCH & CULTURE CENTERS:
About five miles away from the Fukujuﾕen green tea factory, the company has recently established a research center, Culture Health Amenity (CHA) , which, in the director's words, has been "serving as a source of communication between people and people, between people and culture, and between culture and culture. The center was established with the hope that you will be able to become better acquainted with CHA, which is loved all over the world."
A miniature display of Chinese tea processing and the installation of a typical Japanese processing line-with all the various machines and pieces of equipment-allow visitors to understand just how the leaves plucked from the bushes become the familiar flat, green needles of Sencha or Gyokura.
In the tea manufacturing laboratory, research and development is carried out on 'ryokucha'(semi-fermented tea-or what we would normally call oolong) and black tea. Outside, in the tea garden, there are tea bushes from all 28 tea-producing regions of Japan. A green house on the east side of the building protects tea bushes that are being grown without soil. - they are rooted in beds of volcanic pebbles.
In the chemical testing room, the center is in the process of systematizing tea cultivation. In the adjoining sense examination laboratory, tea is teased using all of our five senses, and the quality is graded. In the prototype experimental laboratory, new tea products, including beverages and instant tea, are being researched and developed.
On the shelves of the craft studio are new designs and shapes for tea bowls and cups that have been devised and molded or thrown on the potters wheels. Around the room are paints and materials needed for research into new techniques for producing teawares and utensils by hand. Students or craftsmen can come here to use the equipment, learn about new techniques, and work together on new approaches to tea drinking.
Upstairs, the world tea research laboratory holds an exhibition of different tea drinking styles from around the world and a collection of tea utensils and tea-serving wares. There are room setting from Tibet, Turkey, Russia, Chine, England, and Morocco, with teblewares, tea brewing and serving equipment, and a video for each display showing how the tea is actually made and drunk.
There are various tea rooms and halls laid out in the traditional style with tatami rush matting, wall hangings, and flowers to recreate the setting for the Japanese tea ceremony. The center organizes special tea gatherings and events in the calm and soothing atmosphere of these rooms, or in seminar or lecture rooms. A shop offers wide selection of teas in sophisticated of tea products, including porcelain bowls, tea pots, tea sweets, packets of tea, books, and cards.
In Hoshino, a three-year-old tea culture center sits high on a hill above the village, where we visited Mr. And Mra. Fuetaﾕs tea plantation. The beautiful views in all directions are of tea fields and the plastic or glass tunnels where flowers - the other main crop of the area - are grown. The center houses a large exhibition hall with tea brewing and serving equipment from all over the world, displays of material that explain tea production, replicas and reconstructions of famous tea rooms with a traditional tea house garden, and an area where visitors may try different teas and have lunch. Outside are down-scaled versions of tea processing machinery, with explanations as to their purpose and place in the production line.
Because the Japanese have recognized the health benefits of green tea consumption, there are now a number of food products on the market which include tea in their list of ingredients. Buckwheat noodles flavored with green tea are commonly served in restaurants. Matcha - and Houjicha- flavored ice creams are on sale in most shopping areas and you do see people wandering along eating them as we would a normal ice cream. Wafer biscuits are available that contain a delicious tea- flavored sweet cream, and there are sweets, chewing gums, tea sweets, and jellies.
Encouragement to the general public is spearheaded by the tea companies themselves and the research centers. Marukyu Koyamaen has made a video that shows how to successfully brew Matcha, and gives ideas for its use in recipes. For example, it recommends "spread(ing) Matcha mixed with butter and sugar on toast", "Prepare Matcha with hot water and pour Matcha over Azuki Beans", "prepare Matcha with hot water and pour over vanilla ice cream", "As seasoning for Tempura, mix salt and Matcha".
One lady in particular is pushing the idea of eating and cooking with tea in a big way. She is Mutsuko Tokunaga, a radio cookery personality and cookery writer who has published three books about cooking with tea. Tokunaga has been working very closely with the Hoshino Culture Center to devise tea-based menus for the tea room. You can now try a menu of tea noodles with a kind of seaweed in a thin soup, and rice steamed with Houjicha and topped with various pickled sweet and sour vegetables.
Her recipe books give instructions for using tea to marinade fish, make broth for boiling bacon or stewing beef, flavor rice, sprinkle on fish before grilling, powder into soups and vegetable stir fries, mix into salads, fry in batter as tempura, flavor canapes, shusi, and pates, mix into sauces for vegetables, pasta, and rice, include in sausages and meatballs, and stir into desserts such as sorbets, sponge cakes, pastries, rice flour sweetmeats, and bean curd cakes.
Supermarkets now stock tea seasonings (dry leaves mixed with other herbs and spices) in jars, dry tea flakes for adding to food and 'powdery tea' for mixing into soft drinks and other recipes.
Tokunaga has also devised a covered cup with the Hoshino Tea Culture Center which allows the brewing and tasting of a few drops of the finest Gyokura in the center's tea room.
A tray is brought to your table bearing a covered cup that contains the tea, fresh hot water, a little tea sweetment, and a stick with which to eat it. In the bowl, a spoonful of leaves has already been moistened with tepid water and infused for a minute or two. To drink this, you balance the bowl carefully on the upturned fingers of the left hand, hold the bowl and lid with your right (placing the first finger on the top of the lid that is slightly tilted in order to hold back the leaves), and left the deliciously aromatic drops of liquor roll gently down the side of the bowl into your month.
This concentration of all the Gyokura sweetness has an amazing flavor and a remarkable aftertaste. And, by adding more water to the same leaves, further infusions may be enjoyed, each one with less intensity but still with the distinctive sweetness of quality Gyokura.
So as to get full benefit from the leaves, the culture center then recommends you add a few drops of soy sauce to the infused leaves and eat them. So we did! They really are delicious. You can almost feel them doing you good. I wonder how long it will be before the rest of the world discovers how versatile tea is and starts cooking with it and eating it as part of an everyday diet.