JAPANESE TEA

 

japan-tea-plantation-attTea was first introduced to Japan in the 12th century, when Buddhist monk Eisai, returning from his monastic travels across China, brought home the two most prized possessions he had encountered during his journey: the teachings of Zen Buddhism and the seeds of the camellia sinensis tea plant.

Ever since, both tea and Zen Buddhism have fundamentally shaped Japanese culture as well as the country’s landscape. Its first tea gardens were set up in the district of Hizen and the mountainous terrain surrounding the city of Uji, a region whose exceptional teas have honored it with the title of the only “real home of Japanese teas.”

While drunk ubiquitously today, tea was originally considered a medicinal tonic and was particularly popular among monks, who benefited from its invigorating effect during prolonged periods of meditation. Over the course of only a few centuries, tea has risen to the ranks of Japan’s most popular beverage by far, and has been a fundamental agent in the country’s philosophy and art.

In his highly influential Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura expounds on tea’s role in 15th-century Japan not as a mere beverage, but as an all-encompassing religion of aestheticism. During our extended trips across the archipelago, we had the chance to experience this veneration first-hand by participating in the age-old chanoyu ceremony, in which matcha tea is artfully prepared in a meticulously choreographed ritual dating back to the teachings of 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu.

Profoundly influencing the fundamental aesthetics of a wide range of artistic disciplines from ceramics to calligraphy, chanoyu continues to play an important role in understanding Japanese tea culture and drinking habits to this day. 

Tea FieldsWith its immense variety and distinctive aromas, Japan has made a profound contribution to the international tea landscape and delighted tea enthusiasts across the world for centuries. What many don’t know, however, is that only 1% of Japan’s annual harvest is consumed outside of its borders. This is the result of the country’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for tea. At 100,000 tons, only two-thirds of the tea consumed every year in Japan is home-grown.

Due to the country’s rough maritime climate – which also imbues many of its teas with their fresh seaweed-like aroma – only the southern islands are suited for cultivation.

A native to the subtropical regions of southern China, camellia sinensis requires large amounts of sunshine and precipitation, and flourishes in regions with high fluctuations between nighttime and daytime temperatures. The southern regions of Kyushu and Shikoku along with the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu, account for almost the entire annual yield, employing ultramodern, highly efficient machinery to harvest the delicate shrubs.

An industrial and technological powerhouse, Japan has automated a large part of its tea harvesting and processing while maintaining its notoriously high quality standards. Computerized optical scanners, for example, are employed to sort each leaf according to color and shape. The immense cost of such high-tech machinery has led to a diversified and highly specialized tea industry in which production is divided into various stages. Small-scale farms, not big estates, dominate cultivation. Their harvest is then sold to factories that process the fresh whole leaves – steaming, rolling and drying them – into aracha (“raw tea”). This is then auctioned off at one of the many tea markets and sorted according to quality, removing any buds, stems or broken leaves. The arachas from different regions and tea gardens are then mixed together – which is why, strictly speaking, conventional Japanese teas are actually blends.

While the teas produced in this manner are by no means bad, we, being the tea purists we are, like to stick to the rare exceptions to the rule, which reward with unrivaled depth and complexity of flavor. This is why we source our entire range of Japanese green teas from small, family-run tea gardens that tend the leaves not only during cultivation and harvest but also see them through every stage of processing. Our tea farmers take great pride in their product and, accordingly, do not shy away from observing certified organic standards, some even setting their own, oftentimes-stricter standards employing more traditional hand-processing techniques. Such fine teas include our premium matcha Konomi Do and the extraordinary gyokuro Praise of Shadows, whose leaves are carefully shaded for four weeks before harvest to create a delicate and remarkably complex cup.

Japanese tea plantation image credits: Jason Teale