Tea from the Shizuoka Organic Tea Farmers Union

Mary Lou recently represented Tea Trekker on an invitation by the Japanese government to visit tea farms in Kagoshima and Shizuoka Prefectures. She met four incredible tea farmers who individually and collectively produce astonishingly good and meticulously-manufactured organic tea. Known as the Shizuoka Organic Tea Farmers Union of Japan, these tea farmers are located in neighboring regions of Shizuoka Prefecture in southern Japan. The Four Musketeers, as we like to think of them ( all for one and one for all…regarding their organic tea ) are, from left to right:

  • Katsumi Saito ( Honyama, Shizuoka-shi, Shizuoka)
  • Tadatsugu Tsukamoto ( Yainaba, Fujieda-shi, Shizuoka)
  • Shinobu Iwasaki ( Ryougouchi, Shizuoka-shi, Shizuoka)
  • Minoru IIzuka ( Sukemune, Fujieda-shi, Shuzuoka)

Each farmer brings at least 20 years experience growing organic tea to the group, and several of their young adult sons are now learning the skills necessary to continue the family businesses. These men produce many different Japanese green teas as well as black tea. They explained to Mary Lou that they are proud of the fact that their teas are Jien-cha, a term that means that their teas have been grown, processed and packed by the tea farmers themselves.

This is an uncommon situation in Japan regarding tea. Most Japanese tea is manufactured in a factory by companies both large and small that do not own their own tea gardens. Instead, the factory’s tea blenders purchase aracha ( stable, semi-processed tea ) from various tea farmers, either privately or at the wholesale tea auctions. The experts at each tea factory blend these different lots of aracha together to arrive at the flavor that their company is known for. These teas are sold under the label of the tea company and the origin of the tea is usually unknown to the consumer.

While it is very unusual for a tea farmer to process his own tea, this is an accomplishment that each of our new-found tea farmers are proud of. This garden-to-market supervision gives them total control over the finished tea, and allows them to put all their years of knowledge about tea cultivation and manufacture into crafting truly delicious, artisan tea.

For the past 20 years the Four Musketeers have been exchanging ideas and pursuing the best course for cultivating organic tea. All are in agreement that this begins with good soil management, which results in healthy soil and the development of strong, healthy tea bush roots. Mr. Tsukamoto conducts yearly soil tests for all members of the union for biology, chemical, and overall composition.

He shared his philosophy with Mary Lou: ‘ good roots make good tea’ and that good roots absorb as much nutrient as is available from the soil. Replenishing this nutrient is the job of the tea farmer. He made her especially understand that just reducing fertilizer does not make good roots. It is the job of the organic farmer to condition the soil and maintain natural soil health. These farmers believe that it is important to use fermented fertilizers, so Mr. Tsukamoto has devised an apothecary of many plant, seaweed, and tofu water extracts.

These beautiful tea gardens are lush and healthy, proving that it certainly does pay to respect the natural ecosystem of the environs of the tea gardens

Healthy tea bushes growing in abundant sunshine

A shade covering in place in Mr. Saito’s tea garden. Mr. Saito will turn the leaf from the tea bushes growing under this covering into his stunning Gyokuro Saito.

Our interest in premium tea and in tea farmers who possess this level of dedication to their craft  meshed perfectly with their philosophy, ethics and delicious tea.
After a bit of discussion and tasting tea, it became clear that we were meant for one another. And that we should all work incredibly fast in order to have these teas represented in our store for the holiday season.

This is the first time that these teas have been sold in the US, and we all made it happen in just 20 days. We are thrilled to introduce these teas to our customers. You can be sure that we will be adding many more teas from these tea farmers next year when we visit them during the spring tea harvest.

Please click here to view Tea Trekker’s selection of these exclusive teas

Gyokuro Saito

Sencha Fukamushi

Sencha Three Notes

Mount Fuji

This is an image of Mount  Fuji that I took on a perfectly clear, cool and breezy fall day. We were told that one does not often get such a glorious view of Mount Fuji because it is usually obscured in clouds. In fact, just  the day before this we arrived to Shizuoka in a rain and wind storm that nearly diverted our aircraft to another airport, so no eyes fell of Mount Fuji that day.

We had our view of Mount Fuji from the top of this mountain – Mt. Awatake – which overlooks the Higashiyama region tea fields.

It does not look like a very high mountain, but it is. Can you see the character for the word ‘tea’ spelled out in cypress trees near the top of the mountain?  It must have been quite a project to cut away the trees from the slopes to shape this character. This character stands to let the world know how important tea is to this region. And I would add to that, how utterly delicious it is, too.

What I do in Japan when not buying tea

The life of a tea buyer is not all work – with some serious tea buying meetings looming large in the next two day, today was a day for goofing around.

Somehow, much of it still involves tea!

Eat some yummy grapes

Admire beautiful flower arrangementsSinging along with snow globe Santa

Eyeball-to-eyeball with a bowl of matcha

Take on a matcha challenge with my friend Yousef, the tea buyer for Harrods in London

Uhmm…..so good

Uh oh…….everyone wins and goes back to Edo period!  This is what happens when you drink too much matcha!

Kagoshima Japan Tea Fields

The Kagoshima region of Kyushu Island is stunningly beautiful. I am in Chiran, the premiere growing area of Kagoshima. Here, the tea fields lie flat and straight, from a high vantage point one can see small tea gardens of various sizes laid out in a grid pattern. The deep, rich color of the tea bushes is accentuated by a matte finish that the tea bushes have acquired from the final clipping that they have been given in October and from the deep green color stage that they are in this time of year.

The final clipping is not turned into tea but is done to simply trim the bushes and ready them for their upcoming rest period. Tea harvesting will begin again next year in April or May, depending on the location of the tea farm and how quickly the warm air and heat buildup in the soil stimulates the plants to send out new growth.

As in most regions of Japan, tea harvesting is carried out by machine clipping, and the Kagoshima region is no exception. Some small farmers with only 30 or so hectares of land ( approx.. 74 acres ) have invested in the ownership of a massive leaf cutting machine that they use to obtain their fresh leaf in four different plucking times throughout the spring and summer months from June thru August. For me, it is a completely different sight to see these machines out in the fields as compared to the hand-plucking that goes on in Chinese tea gardens, or in a high-mountain Taiwan tea garden where the land is seriously sloped and sometimes almost vertical.

Differences in the contours of the land and the various approaches to tea harvesting and production are just one part what makes tea so interesting. It did not take too many days of meeting these people and listening to their stories and tasting their teas for me to become a big fan. We are excited about the future prospect of having some of these teas in our shop and on our website.

Good Morning Mr. Volcano

This is a 6 AM photograph of Sakurajima from my room. Brooding clouds hover over the top of the volcano and present an onerous appearance. I can detect a little whiff of charred/burning smell in the air from outside on my balcony. It is windy and very chilly….and a dramatic wake-up scene!

According to someone on my team who grew up on the island where the volcano is located in the bay, this smell is always there and only a cause for worry when it intensifies.

The entire panorama of the bay is ringed with mountains as far on the horizon as I can see and it is very peaceful and serene in that early morning blue silhouette-light.

7 Am…the light is changing and the sky brightening.

Breakfast is calling and so are the tea fields…………