My journey started with a two-train trip out into the beautiful Japanese countryside. After the crowded hubbub of Osaka this was a welcome relief and gave a very different view of life in Japan. I left the train and met up with my wonderful host for the day, and we were soon on the way to her office deep in tea country. From the brief car journey her passion for Japanese tea was clear. On arrival, I was quickly made to feel at home.
‘Do you want to taste some tea?’ was one of the first questions to be asked. I can only ever reply to such an enquiry one way, so very soon I was sipping one of their delicious teas.
The first sample was Genmaicha. This unique tea is, in this case, a combination of sencha combined with puffed brown rice grains (made in the same way as popcorn, but much smaller). This gives it a special nutty flavour.
The next expertly brewed tea was Gyokuro. This is a tea that, like their Matcha, is covered in the fields for the last twenty to thirty days before picking. This process creates a sweeter, more aromatic tea.
After the delicious Gyokuro came Matcha. Now, Matcha has never really been a favourite of mine - we were first introduced at a japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto and the un of the situation somehow took away from the taste of the tea. I hadn’t really been converted by the cups I had drunk since. The offering from this wonderful tea garden did not disappoint - I was served a cup that both looked and tasted great. There was hardly any trace of the bitter taste that had put me off previously. I am now officially a fan.
Next came the ‘affordable, everyday’ Japanese tea Houjicha, which is also called Bancha. This is the tea that most Japanese will usually drink on a normal day. It creates a brown liquor and is closer to the taste of a black tea than a typical green tea. Interestingly it is very easy and quick to brew (100°C for just 15 to 30 seconds).
We then tasted two senchas. The first was the one we would eventually choose as our first Japanese tea. The second was Sencha Fukumushi, which is sweeter and mellower than our Sencha, giving a notably different taste. Again it is brewed for a short time of 40 seconds.
I could have sat tasting tea and talking for a day or two, but sadly I knew that my hosts were deservedly busy. I had expected to finish my trip then, but luckily I was to be treated to a tour of the beautiful surrounding area.
I was very privileged to be taken to where the green tea processing method was invented in 1738. This method is still the standard method used throughout Japan today. It took the inventor 15 years to perfect, which is quite a commitment.
Before this, Japanese tea was only in the form of Matcha or Bancha (also called Houjicha). Matcha was extremely precious and produced only in tiny quantities by a limited number of approved merchants. This meant only the Shogun and nobility were able to drink it. Everybody else drank only Bancha, which is a brown colour and although a good tea lacks some of the flavour that green teas have. The inventor wanted the common people of Japan to be able to drink not only brown but also green tea.
So, once he had perfected the processing method he taught it to the farmers, who could then satisfy the new demand. They also became wealthy because of this selfless act. It also meant that the tea industry has had a tremendous impact on the development of the Uji area.
I was taken to the house where it all happened. It is still in it’s original form but now serves as a working museum. The original charcoal fire hearth is still in place and is apparently the only one in Japan. A paper based wooden box was placed above the fire, in which the freshly picked tea was hand steamed, rolled and dried. An immensely time consuming practice that is mostly replaced by machines today. However, every year in November tea is processed by hand on another, more modern, heated table in the house in order to keep this historic technique alive.
Amongst the many fascinating items in the house was a large jar made to hold tea. In the summer it was buried in the ground to keep leaves cool and fresh. It was then dug up in winter and quite often carried as it was to Kyoto to sell.
The Tea Fields
After a tour of the factory where the tea is processed, I was taken to a very special place. This was an area marked by a large sign at the end of a dirt track through tea fields. This small area of land has a diameter of just 600 meters and was the first place where tea trees were planted in the Uji region of Japan. This was undertaken by a Buddhist monk around A.D. 1271. Tea drinking in Japan had originally been made popular by another monk around 80 years earlier.
Even today, this area is known for producing very rare, highest grade Sencha. In Japan, there are only a few places where top grade Sencha is produced. Indeed, Sencha produced in this area was presented to the Japanese Emperors for many years.
What is amazing is that this area has the perfect geography for the production of high grade tea. The fields are located above tiny streams on the mineral rich sloping hills of mountain ravines. Because of this it is always mildly windy, which ‘blows away the frosts’, which would be deadly for tea. In fact farms only in the next valley compensate for their poorer location by using massive fans to replicate the breeze. Days here are warm and nights are cool, perfect conditions for quality tea growing.
Some of the farmers who own tea farms in the surrounding area wonder if the monk had known of these complex geographical features and optimum conditions for tea trees. If this is the case, it is quite remarkable that he understood this such a long time ago, especially as he was the first.
I think of all the tea bushes I have seen, the ones in the tea fields we visited here were the most pleasing. Lines of closely cropped tea bushes arced gently across the sloping ground from the small stream up to the forest edge. I was informed that that the bushes can be plucked from 3 years after planting, last for 40-50 years and can be harvested until they are 35 to 40 years old. Of course this is with a great deal of careful attention.
At Comins Tea House we are strong believers that tea tastes even better if you know where it comes from. This can be just a dot on a map, a photo, a description or even better a memory. Certainly my memory of standing where our Sencha is grown surrounded by such amazing history and beauty will remain with me for a long time, and is ever present when I sip a cup of our Sencha.
We hope that reading this, looking at the pictures and knowing that we have taken great care to visit and “get to know” the origins of your cup of sencha, makes it taste even better!