The arrival of spring brings the start of the first harvest season for green tea leaves, called “shin-cha” or “new tea.” The fresh green of the tea leaves which withstood the fierce cold weather of the winter are vibrant and vigorous and the rich and fresh aroma of shin-cha is a specialty that can only be enjoyed for a short time each year.
In 2022, the DIG THE TEA team will travel with Ryo Iwamoto,a tea ceremony master and CEO of Japanese tea startup “TeaRoom,”to visit various tea plantations around Japan and discover the unique scenes of shin-cha production.
For this article, we visit the region which established tea culture in Japan, Uji, Kyoto. We visited Uji in mid-May to get a behind the scenes look at the production of “tencha (powdered green tea),” which is used to make top of the line matcha.
Uji and its 800-year tencha history
Uji is a leading region for tea production in Japan.
Its history dates back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) in the early 13th century, and it has been the backbone of Japan’s tea culture for more than 800 years.
Uji has produced various teas, including sencha and gyokuro, but in recent years the farmers mostly grow tencha, which is used to make matcha tea powder.
Tencha is a variety of green tea that is used to make matcha. Unlike sencha, which goes through a rubbing process, matcha is made by steaming and drying tencha in a tencha furnace. The leaves are dried and then grinded into a powder in a tea mill.
On May 14, we drove 30 minutes south from JR Kyoto Station to the tea plantation, Tsujiki. Tsujiki is a tencha and matcha brand maker, and they are located on a hill in the Shirakawa district of Uji City.
We often visualize tea plantations as having strips of neatly rounded and trimmed tea trees along the slopes of a hill, however, most of the trees here are covered in a black cloth.
These black clothes are symbolic of the tencha cultivation style in Uji.
Although they are the same species of tea trees, the method of tencha cultivation is different from ordinary sencha. The tencha grown in Uji City uses a method called “ooishita,” which is characterized by shading the leaves from light to suppress photosynthesis. The shade suppresses the production of catechins, which make the tea leaves bitter, and produces tea leaves that are rich in umami inducing theanine.
Kiyoharu Tsuji, the fifth generation owner of the Tsujiki farm, led us under the shade and invited us to touch the tea leaves for ourselves. Tsuji has received various awards for his tea, including the Prime Minister’s Award, and he is known as the “master tea artist.”
Under the shade is slightly dark and cool, and you become surrounded by the shiny and bright green tea leaves.
Because the leaves work harder to photosynthesize in the limited light, they produce more chlorophyll and they become a darker green color. Despite the fact that they are growing under limited sunlight, the leaves seem to be overflowing with vitality.
When we touched the leaves, we were surprised to find how soft the leaves were.
“If you put your hand among the leaves and stroke it, they sort of cling to your hands. We decide on the timing of harvest by checking the extent of which the leaves cling to our hands. This area is ready for harvest soon.”
Following Tsuji’s example, we tried stroking the tea leaves with the back of our hands. The leaves were as soft as organdie fabric. Tsuji tells us that these leaves are scheduled to be harvested the next day.
In Uji City, they prioritize the quality of the tea leaves over volume, so unlike other regions, they do not use machines to harvest the leaves. It is all done by hand.
Nutrient-rich, ‘foie gras of the farm’
Tsujiki makes the top of the line tencha and it has won various awards in tea fairs across Japan, including the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Award.
Even though they have a history of over 100 years, it was not until after Tsuji inherited the farm that they started making tencha. Previous generations made gyokuro tea, but after working part time at a tea wholesaler for two years after he turned 18, Tsuji felt that there would be more demand for tencha than gyokuro in the future and made the bold decision to switch to tencha when he took over.
Tsuji explains that making tencha is very much like making foie gras.
With good quality fertilizers and optimal soil conditions, tea leaves efficiently absorb the nutrients from the ground. In regular conditions, these nutrients are combined with photosynthesis to make the plant grow. However, growth is suppressed under the limited light for tencha, meaning that the concentrated nutrients remain in the tea leaves. This results in a more rich and delicious flavor.
“It is like sitting on the couch, eating potato chips and putting on weight. We add about twice the amount of fertilizer in our soil compared to other farms. If you compare our tea leaves with meat, it is like making the top quality, marbled beef.”
When plants are deprived of sunlight and cannot photosynthesize, they often wilt and die. However, Tsuji’s unique method of incorporating maximum fertilizer and minimum sunlight, allows him to maintain the tea trees in borderline conditions.
In fact, he says that when he was 22 years old and just starting with these methods, he ended up ruining 10 hectares of tea trees on his farm.
“It takes about five years for tea trees to grow, so we couldn’t harvest anything for a while after that year. However, thanks to that experience, I was able to learn what the limits were for the maximum amount of fertilizer I can put in and the amount of sunlight I can keep out. It was a painful experience, but it was a valuable and priceless lesson.”
The tea artist converses with nature 365 days a year
Tsuji says that he goes to his tea trees twice a day, everyday, to check on the tea leaves.
He says that the pores on the underside of the tea leaves open in the morning in order to absorb more nutrients and that they close in the afternoon so the leaves look different from morning to evening.
While checking on the conditions of the leaves, he decides how well they are absorbing nutrients and what fertilizers to add. He says that lately, he is able to control the composition of the tea leaves through his methods of cultivation. This is why he is called the master tea artist.
“It has been 33 years since I became a farmer, but I think it wasn’t until five years ago that I finally mastered my method of cultivation.”
“Still, weather conditions are completely different each year so what we do changes every year as well. I need to think about what fertilizers to give depending on the weather, and try to imagine how the new leaves will grow as I build the soil. When the shin-cha harvest season arrives each year, I am able to see if I made the right decisions.”
“The methods of how my predecessors cultivated gyokuro and my methods of growing tencha are pretty much the same. However, tencha is not brewed like tea and it is made into matcha powder, so all of the nutrients are consumed into the body. My hope is that people will feel the terroir of the tea leaves and think about how it was produced when they drink it.”
Tsuji smiles as he says, “Tea is a blessing from nature, and I only contribute a small percent in order to maximize that blessing.” From the way he fondly looked across all the corners of his plantation, we could sense Tsuji’s love for his tea.
Visiting seasoned tea pickers alongside a wholesaler of a new generation
After leaving Tsuji’s plantation, we headed toward the center of Uji City.
We met with the eighth generation owner of Hekisuien, Hisaki Horii, and toured tea farms in the city.
Hekisuien was founded in 1867. The company produces and sells Uji tea under their registered trademark, “Tengu no Uji-cha,” which comes from their company motto, “Never become a Tengu (meaning: never become big headed).” They purchase their tea leaves directly from farmers in Uji City.
As the young owner of the tea wholesaler company, Horii has been actively involved in creating new collaborations with cafes and promoting Japanese tea culture overseas.
Horii says, “Tea plantations can be found not only in the mountainous areas of Uji, but even in Uji’s city center.” Although we did not take notice at first, upon closer attention, we noticed that there were covered fields all around the city.
Walking down a narrow valley, we found tea farms along a street lined with private homes.
At the tea farm, we found that they were in the midst of hand picking their harvest. Women sat at their posts and were gently picking the shincha leaves.
“One reason why the tea from Uji City is said to be of the highest quality is because it is hand-picked. Compared to machines, less surface area is cut and damaged so this prevents oxidation and the tea stays fresher for longer.”
“Also, another big difference is that hand picking allows us to only pick the fresh shin-cha leaves so there are far fewer old leaves and stems that get mixed into the harvest compared to harvesting it all at once with a machine.”
Tea picking starts early in the morning, and lasts from 5:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the afternoon. The work day is 12 hours and harvest season lasts for a few weeks starting from early May. The tea pickers are called “tsuki-ko” and they gather every year to harvest the tea leaves.
Some tsumi-ko have over 50 years of experience. As they let us watch their work, we could see how their skillful hands picked the leaves and filled the baskets up in no time.
Horii explains, “Hand-picked tencha, which is produced under these covers, are the symbol of the best Uji tea in Japan. The tsumi-ko, who make the harvest possible, are people who live in the neighborhood, relatives, and others whom we gather by handing out flyers in the region. However, it is becoming more difficult to secure tsumi-ko every year due to the aging population. It’s going to be important that we find a way to secure the harvesters of hand-picked tea for the future.”
One of the tsumi-ko’s told us, “Many of us are acquaintances, so coming here to work every season and seeing the familiar faces is like coming to a class reunion.”
The tsumi-ko engage in friendly conversation while they diligently work on the harvest, creating a peaceful atmosphere in the farms.
A unique blend that determines the final delicious flavor
Before the carefully hand-picked tea leaves are turned into tencha and finally into matcha, there are a few more important steps.
First, the tea leaves are steamed to stop oxidation. Next, rather than going through the rubbing process like sencha, the steamed tea leaves are cooled with air and they undergo a process called “sancha”, which spreads out the leaves so they do not overlap. Then they go through a 10-meter-long tencha furnace which heats and dries the leaves into “aracha,” or the rough tea.
The process of making aracha is the job of the tea wholesaler. After the excess stems and veins are removed, the tea master blends the tea leaves. The final flavor of the tencha is determined by this tea master, and this is what makes the final raw material to make matcha.
“The flavor of the tencha changes depending on the weather conditions of each year. This is why the tea masters must determine the flavor of each individual tencha and blend different varieties to ensure that we are able to provide the same quality and taste any time of year. This blending process is called ‘gougumi.’”
“The gougumi process determines the unique flavor of the wholesaler’s tea, so it is truly where we showcase our skills.”
After the tencha goes through the gougumi process, it is grounded in a tea mill to make matcha powder. In Uji City, they use a stone mill for this process.
The color and flavor of stone milled matcha
Although we were not able to photograph the process, we were able to tour inside a tea wholesaler’s factory that was undergoing the process of making matcha.
As we entered the room where dozens of stone mills were rotating, our senses were filled with the sweet aroma of green tea. The bright green color of the powdered tea also caught our eyes.
There is a set speed at which the stone mills grind the tea. If it is too fast, the stone mill generates heat and changes the flavor and texture of the Matcha.
The final Matcha powder is only a few microns (1 micron is 1/1000th of a millimeter) in size. The powder is then sorted according to quality, from the highest grade to those used for making confectionery, and is distributed throughout the country.
Bearers of Uji matcha’s culture and history
We ended our tour with a Uji Matcha soft serve ice cream. The shop’s take-out matcha soft serve ice cream had a rich flavor with a hint of bitterness and a gentle sweetness.
Matcha culture is now not only limited to the practice of tea ceremonies, but it is immensely popular among both tea lovers in Japan and overseas. Some people prefer matcha over coffee, and green tea lattes are a popular item on café menus. There are various matcha flavored confectionery sweets and the word matcha is now widely recognized around the world.
Behind the scenes, there are the many people who are involved in the process of making tencha, including the farmers, tsumi-ko, wholesalers and tea masters. They are the backbone of the production and culture behind the tea and we saw how their work of trial and error continues to produce the highest quality of tea.
After visiting the tea plantations and factories, seeing the hand picking process, and the birth of the highest quality matcha, we were able to thoroughly enjoy tencha. This adventure allowed us to experience the rich history and culture of matcha in Uji City, which has been passed on through multiple generations.
Our travels to discover Japan’s freshest tea harvest will continue.
Photo: Umihiko Eto
Translation: Sophia Swanson