Tea has been a dominant beverage in Japan for centuries although recent years they have experienced major shift in styles of tea consumption. I had an opportunity to visit famous tea regions in Kyushu and Okinawa to learn their way of tea production, quality control and tea as part of food culture.
Japanese are known for their politeness and perfectionism with a touch of wabi sabi (imperfect impermanent beauty) and zen in many aspects of their culture. Maintenance of their tea fields is no exception. Everywhere I go, tea fields are precisely manicured and the flush can be machine harvested to exactly 2 leaves and a bud.
Large fields are very common and designed for easy harvester access. Transport systems and processing facilities to work together in timely manner to keep the tea leaf fresh and in optimal condition.
Fukamushi (deeply steamed) Sencha
Green tea made in Kagoshima is mostly fukamushi or deep steamed for lower astringency and a more thick green liquor and they are now developing a new style of tea making for use in the cold brew. Cold Brew tea is especially well received in hot summer months. I was surprised to see regions which traditionally produce lightly steamed tea are now producing fukamushi too.
Although fukamushi is becoming more the prevalent style of sencha now, excessive fertilizer use which enhances the thick flavor can be unappealing to some people. Mountain teas are traditionally light in flavor with a residual distinct aroma. Some Japanese tea experts also emphasize reduced use of fertilizer (chemical or organic) to retain good aroma in green tea. Although fertilizers increase yield and flavor their use often results is loss of aroma.
Teas entered at the Kagoshima tea auction are all tested for volcanic ash, radiation and pesticides and records are kept for future reference.
Due to the proximity of the Sakurajima volcano, the presence of volcanic ash is very common. It’s only a matter of which direction the wind blows and processing factories are required to wash their leaves prior to processing.
Is it safe? This is ultimately for the consumers to decide. Kagoshima has not seen any tea affected by radiation unlike Shizuoka and Sayama. The Japanese government prohibits the use of dangerous pesticides. Perhaps the question we should be asking is “Is Japanese green tea beneficial to our health and well being?”
Challenges in Japanese Tea Industry
Efficiency in Japan’s tea production has lowered their production cost and increased their yield dramatically. At the same time, efficiency and perfectionism in farming encourages farmers to spray frequently to avoid crop pests and disease. A challenge of todays fast lifestyle is that younger generations are drifting away from tradition, and this lowers traditional tea consumption in favor of bottled RTD (Ready-To-Drink) teas. Now people who do not want to pay for a cup of traditional tea but may still pay for convenient tea.
While some Japanese tea cafes are reviving old traditions and adding new dimensions to the Japanese tea culture, a major shift is still needed to change the way Japanese see tea culture. A lifestyle change may even be necessary to re-discover slow foods, bringing a re-invention of the traditional tea time.