Higashiyama Village Tea

In November I had the pleasure of visiting the tea producing village of Higashiyama, in Kakegawa City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. What immediately caught my eye as I approached the tea fields was a gigantic character for the word ‘tea’ emblazoned near the top of Mt. Awantake.

This symbol lords over the tea fields making a bold statement about local sense of pride. We have not seen such an ambitious endeavor before in Japan, China or Taiwan, and I was impressed by the sentiment and pride that such a strong symbol conveyed. I later found out that the symbol is spelled out in cypress trees that were planted in 1985, which makes the effort even more astonishing. Around the other side of the mountain (on a clear, sunny day) Mt. Fuji can be seen in the near distance.

I soon realized that I had arrived at a very special tea producing place. I met some amazing tea people here, and spent a day with them learning about their delicious tea. As soon as I arrived home Bob and I placed an order for these teas, and are proud to add them to our stellar line-up of unique Japanese green teas.

About Higashiyama Tea and Sustainability
In Japan, bio-diverse landscapes (healthy landscapes that function undisturbed by man and that contain a diverse group of native plant, insect and animal species) are being studied for the positive value they bring to local environments. In these landscapes, farmers work in a manner that supports a healthy ecosystem by incorporating traditional farming practices along with modern methodologies. These intact environments are referred to as Satoyama, which in Japan means mountains, woodlands, and grasslands surrounding villages.

Unfortunately, many of these once plentiful grasslands are gone from parts of Japan because of urbanization and development. But, here in Higashiyama village, tea farmers carry on traditions begun 100 years ago of protecting the grasslands – chagusaba – and of utilizing the grasses to improve the soil and provide essential nutrition to the tea bushes.

These grasses – chagusa – are vital to the tea farmers, who believe that the quality of their tea depends on their usage of chagusa in the tea fields. For them, chagusa is so integral to their tea that to them no chagusa means no Higashiyama tea. This beneficial partnership of landscape and sustainable farming upholds a tradition and way of life that is no longer commonly found in modern Japan while maintaining a quiet beauty to the natural landscape.

The chagusaba are protected by the tea farmers who also work diligently to re-plant chagusa where these grasslands once existed but have been destroyed. This laborious form of natural agriculture is scarce now even in Japan, making the tea fields – and the tea – in Higashiyama a rare specialty.

Chagusa – Natural Straw Compost Fertilizer

In Higashiyama village these semi-native grassland areas grow in small patches amid the well-delineated and orderly cultivated tea gardens. For those who are familiar with the customary rows of well-manicured tea bushes planted in orderly Japanese tea gardens, the Higashiyama landscape of grasslands scattered amid the tea gardens is a lovely mosaic of color and texture. A drive up to the top of Mt. Awantake shows clearly that the landscape surrounding the tea gardens has a harmonious appearance, something that is missing from tea areas that have not maintained native grasslands.

In return for maintaining these grasslands, the chagusa – thought of as ‘grasses for tea’ – gives the farmers an annual supply of straw compost fertilizer to harvest and spread in the tea gardens. The chagusa is a variety of tall silver grass (along with bamboo grass other naturally-growing native plants) that thrive in this protected area. The chagusa is cut in the fall, tied and hung in bunches to dry, then mechanically chopped into spreadable-sized pieces.

The chopped straw is laid down between the rows of tea bushes after the last tea harvest of the year (the bancha harvest ) in October. This work of harvesting, cutting, and dressing the tea gardens continues into the winter: new straw is added over the old straw and the furrows between the rows are built-up with a healthy quantity of compostable material that breaks down to enrich the soil, inhibit weeds, and control erosion.

The Tea Farmers
Only 90 tea farmers are allowed to grow tea in Higashiyama, and with this privilege comes the commitment to carry on the traditions of farming, preserving the grasslands and sharing in educational activities that support their agricultural work. The tea farms comprise about 420 acres and the grasslands comprise roughly 274 acres. I was told that this is a nearly ideal ratio of tea gardens to grasslands which allows the tea farmers to make a sustainable living from the land. As long as balance is maintained and the grasslands are preserved, sustainability will continue.

Farming began in Higashiyama sometime in the Edo Period ( 1603-1868 ) with land that was granted to Kazutoyo Yamanouchi, a vassal of the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Some 130 years ago in the Meiji Period ( 1868-1912) tea farming began in the vicinity of Higashiyama and Awantake mountain. The importance of chagusaba was understood in the past and its value is still appreciated by tea farmers in Higashiyama today.

Note: customers and friends sometimes ask us why we find it necessary to travel to Asia to purchase tea. They wonder why we just don’t buy it from importers or wholesalers …like everyone else does. Our response to that is this: we believe that one will only find the most extraordinary teas if one goes looking for them in their country of origin. The best teas are bought and sold face to face to those who go the extra mile to search out the small producers making extraordinary teas. Visiting a tea producing country is always about the relationships one develops and the little moments that occur between people from different cultures when they communicate over a shared passion. The stories that one carries back cannot occur if one is not there to experience them. If I had never visited Higashiyama village, I would not have discovered this lovely tea, nor been told the story of the chagusaba. Nor would I have been treated to a delicious lunch prepared by the ladies of the village. For us at Tea Trekker it is a matter of believing that when one reaches out to others, that action comes back with a bonus.

Please click the links below to view Tea Trekker’s selection of these exclusive teas

            Sencha Fukamushi Kakura           Sencha Fukamusha Mt. Awantake 

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.