I think I’ve mentioned it already, but bullet trains are fast! Leaving Hakata for Kyoto, the bullet train tracks (wider gauge than regular) run alongside the regular tracks for a while. You can definitely see how much faster you’re going when both trains leave the stations at roughly the same time.
Another thing I noticed about Fukuoka was how many suits there were. Compared with the United States, there were lots of suits on the train leaving Hakata. Fukuoka was generally a very well-dressed city.
I got off the bullet train at Shin-Osaka and transferred to a local train to Kyoto. I know I could have gone on another bullet train, but this is where I’m most familiar with Japan, and I wanted to see it more slowly. At Kyoto station, I transferred to the Nara line and headed off to Wazuka, which is part of the Uji tea growing district.
At the San Francisco International Tea Festival last year, I met a Japanese tea master from Obubu Tea. He mentioned then that they did tours, so I made arrangements to go on a tour. I also made arrangements for my friends Nishiyama Yoshiko and Sugimoto Miyuki (Japanese-style, so family name first) to join me. We were to meet at Kamo Station and go together. The tour was scheduled at 2:00, so I’d arranged to meet Sugimoto san and Nishiyama san at 1:00. They were considerably delayed, and didn’t get to Kamo station until around 2:20. Luckily, I had their cell numbers and was able to contact them from the station. Nishiyama san found the company’s phone number and called them from the train to explain we were running late. While waiting, I found a good restaurant, and had another round of tomato spaghetti. Because, of course, it was the only vegetarian option.
By the time we were united (it was so much fun seeing them – totally remembered what they looked like), we grabbed a taxi to the tea plantation. Or we thought we did. The company had moved recently, and the taxi dropped us off at the old location. After wandering around, we called them and they came to pick us up. My favorite part of this was while we were waiting, I went off to find directions. I met a local lady who didn’t know the directions, but was happy to chat. She had such rolling Kansai ben (dialect) that it made me all nostalgic.
The person who came to get us was the co-founder of the company. He hadn’t realized that 2 of the 3 of us were Japanese (despite my saying so in the contact form). Apparently, they normally have their foreign interns (there were 4 at the time we were there) do the tours in English, and don’t do tours for Japanese people – rather, they have open field days every now and then. Since I’d paid for the tours though, and since we agreed it would be unusual to have me interpret the intern’s English into Japanese, while describing Japanese tea production, he agreed to do the tour himself. So cool!
Off we drove into the fields. This is a different experience than China. The bushes – and they totally qualify as bushes – are grown in rows and then trimmed uniformly. The bushes are sculpted so you can trim it with a machine that blows the leaves into a bag. Our guide described it as a buzzer. Leaves designed for the highest grades (gyokuro, tamaryokucha, matcha) are covered for the last few weeks before picking. Historically the covering was made from grasses, but nowadays it’s a black plastic mesh. The fields had both covered and uncovered bushes, so you definitely get a sense that the covering makes a difference – they are otherwise identical bushes.
(The tea covers the hills.
(Covering the leaves.)
Once we got to the fields, we got to pick. These are the yabukita cultivar, which comprises about 70% of the Japanese production. The leaves are still a little small, and not yet ready for the buzzer, but fun to pick. No fingernails, and you just snap them by bending. Like other places, you want to go for 2 leaves and 1 bud. The new leaves are softer than the Chinese teas I experienced. Raw, the leaves are more astringent and less citrus than the Chinese teas.
(You can see the covered versus uncovered leaves.)
(More of the rolling hills of Uji.)
(You can see how the leaves are cut at the same height. While this does make harvesting faster, it does require more work on the other end to remove stems.)
(For size comparison purposes.)
(Such soft little leaves.)
(Sugimoto san, me, Nishiyama san.)
Like China, Japan grows its tea in slopes for drainage. The local custom is to grow tea on the slopes and rice in the flat areas. Temperature is important. A frost can kill the entire harvest. From planting to harvest, the bushes take about 5 years, then go about 30 to 40 years. They get about 3 harvests of sencha and 3 of bancha each year: spring, summer, and fall. Japanese tea is a 5 to 1 ratio raw to processed. Unlike Chinese green teas (which are fired) Japanese green teas are steamed for 20 to 30 seconds, then rolled multiple times. It breaks down into needles. Then it is dried for about 40 minutes. In total, it’s about 6 hours total of processing. There is a union of workers who still do the hand massaging process, but otherwise it’s all machine.
We went back to the office and had a tea tasting. They showed us some interesting brewing methods, including an ice brew where you put the leaves in a pot with ice, and just let the ice melt. This lead to some super concentrated, but delicious tea.
We also rolled the leaves in our hands until they felt crumbled, then steeped it. The smell and taste were grassy, but better tasting that the straight leaves we tried with the Taiping Houkui. This was a good indication of how important it is to expose the juices inside the leaves for the flavor to develop.
We also ground our own matcha (powdered tea). The grinder is two large granite blocks that are slightly offset, so the powder falls to the side.
(Hand ground matcha.)
(From the top.)
After the tea tasting (and purchasing), we took a very slow train back to Kyoto, where we had dinner. I had some good Japanese food – including bamboo tempura and yuba/okara skewers. And very good conversation. I’m happy to have gone with friends.