Beyond Matcha: Tea & Community in 2019 Japan - tearebellion

Beyond Matcha: Tea & Community in 2019 Japan

Japan and I:

I was apprehensive about travelling to Japan. Why? My prior experience in 2005 creates some personal baggage, allegorically speaking. In 2005 I attended an international development meeting which took place in Tokyo, and then took the weekend to venture out to Kyoto by myself. Of course, I was mesmerized by the culture. Yet I also felt so incredibly foreign and helpless. The simple task of boarding the Shinkansen and later finding my hotel in Kyoto was, well overwhelming!

Japan in 2019

By contrast my trip now in 2019 was a bliss! I knew exactly where I was going. I came to spend time with people I trusted. Oh, and I also had downloaded google translate and printed my Japanese Trip planner train schedule. 

AND wow had Japan changed in terms of accessibility to foreigners. There are English signs anywhere and I am actually able to communicate at a basic level with people (and that is not because I learnt Japanese!).

Other things changed too. Fukushima happened in 2011 and has shaped the national psyche towards modern technology and food safety. People want to be close to their foods and make sure it’s healthy.

Arrival in Fujieda

After my smooth three- hour train journey (2 stops nevertheless but all so easy!) I was picked up by Tamiko in Fujieda. Tamiko is my main contact within the Kinezuka family, the founding family of the cooperative NaturaliTea from whom we buy our organic Genmaicha and Kukicha. Tamiko is responsible for quality control and runs final tea processing. I was shown into a beautiful all wood guestroom with traditional carvings and futon inside the main Kinezuka family home – what an amazing invitation for a foreigner!

Programme on the Farm (aka a different type of Easter)

It was Easter weekend back in Toronto, however here in Japan there is no Easter tradition so the weekend was packed with important tea events: 

  • Friday,go to Spring tea auction in Shizuoka,followed by visit to a final processing factory and sampling lots of different quality Matcha
  • Saturday,helping with community event preparation followed by tea rolling, soba-noodle making, bamboo cutting, dinner and speeches
  • Sunday,hand plucking and machine harvesting, witnessing of initial processing facility
  • Monday,weeding mulched new tea plants and machine harvesting, tea tasting to select new teas 
  • Tuesday, visit to final processing factory and departure to Narita airport to return home

Tea Community building 101

Mr. Kinezuka (or called Kinezuka-san) is the head of the family and an organic tea farming pioneer. He converted to organic tea farming in 1976 and made a real splash. At the time, no one believed it was possible and he was barred from the farmers’ association. With much trial and error, the family has learned the trait and now has over 40 years organic tea farming experience. That is more than anyone else in Japan. 

How it all began…

A few years back, the Kinezuka family realised that working within a community was essential to growing the movement for organic tea in Japan. This is when they formed NaturaliTea– which stands for People, Environment and Community – a cooperative of tea farmers that market their products together. This involves training tea enthusiasts and existing farms to learn the trait and get set up. 

More recently, NaturaliTea started a new project to restore organic tea farming locally. The region is famous for tea production, yet most farms are not organic and thus forced to sell to the local auction tea market. However, the price for tea within Japan is falling every year and so older farmers are abandoning their fields and young people decide to pursue other opportunities. NaturaliTea trains (new and existing) tea farmers to produce high-quality organic tea and restore abandoned fields for organic cultivation. This allows the farmers to fetch a higher price. 

Perfect timing

My arrival time could not have been better to witness community building 101. The 10 NaturaliTea farmers where hosting 40 guests from Tokyo and other cities on the long weekend. Guests arrived on Saturday morning, and were going to sleep in a large longhouse on futons, learn how to roll tea, make soba-noodles and bamboo nick-nacks. The next morning, they would hand-pluck the first tea of the season (Shincha). The whole family had been planning and preparing for months.

Tea Rebellion_Community Activities_Naturalitea

The day was amazing! Packed with activity and community spirit. In the evening there was a big dinner (which we had prepared in the morning) with sake and beer and lots of speeches. As each of the farmers and guests got up and shared about what it meant for them to be there, I was thinking “I love that this community event is free of any political or religious motivations” – instead it was all about how to support and learn from one another to build successful organic tea farms. During the evening, Mr. Kinezuka formally passed on leadership of the cooperative to his son Kasuke (pictured). 

How to make premium, organic tea with little labour

NaturaliTea is extremely focused on quality. So much so that I was told I could not enter the final processing facility as my mere presence would affect the smell in the room… Yes, that is right! The buyer in me is happy!!

The same attitude to quality applies to everything NaturaliTea does. This is tough in the 2019 rural Japanese economy! Organic farming usually requires more manual labour – most notably for weeding. If you add to that the usual tea farming labour of pruning and harvesting it becomes quickly apparent that growing tea today in Japan holds an inherent labour challenge. Rural labour is in very short supply in Japan. Yet, japanese tea farmers have found a workable solution by adapting to semi machine harvesting. Fields are designed so that you can go through with hand-held cutter (or in some cases even drive through with a small machine harvester). 

When it comes to processing the freshly harvested tea – there are two options a) hand roll (3 hours at a time usually done for very small batches) OR b) machine processing (120kg minimum is required)

By hand we had plucked about 5 kg yet we did not have the time to roll all our tea that Sunday, so we had to semi machine harvested more to be able to run a full batch with the machines. In the end, we had 150 kg both from both harvesting times and moved the fresh tea to the facility.

Japanese tea processing is divided into two stages – initial and final tea processing. After the first stage the tea is called crude tea (Aracha) and usually cooled until orders are flowing in to warrant the final processing which turns the crude tea into Sencha, Kukicha, Genmaicha, Hochjicha etc. Matcha actually has a different processing all together and often is a blended tea.

This was my first time witnessing steamed green tea processing and it was fun and entirely different to what I saw in Nepal.

Initial green tea processing

This has 7 core steps, some of which are repeated:

  1. Harvest(hand or machine)
  2. Weigh(in this case 150kg- at least 120kg is needed to use the machines)
  3. Steam (Note! No wilting is required for the Japanese method)
  4. Blow/air(to avoid the leaves being too wet)
  5. Roll (large steel rollers, similar to the rolling in other countries)
  6. Straighten(making the leaves long and thin, characteristic of Sencha)
  7. Dry(this is done in big drums just like those in other countries) 
Tea Rebellion_Initial Japanese steamed tea processing steps

The length of this process depends on how wet the leaves are and how much tea is harvested… The first day we only did 150kg so that only lasted till 9 pm. However, the day after (the big first premium harvest Shincha) we harvested 1.3 tonnes which was only finished at 1 am. 

One of the amazing opportunities about getting involved in harvesting tea on a great farm like NaturaliTea is the ability to taste the tea you made the next morning. And here is what we tasted –  Aracha- crude tea and yet so fresh, grassy and well distinctly Japanese! Thank you for the amazing time and all the learning dear Kinezuka family and NaturaliTea farmers. We will be back!