Japan has been a leading innovator in tea hybridization, cultivation, and manufacture since the end of the 19th century. The country is the 8th largest producer of tea in the world, supplying 2% of the international demand. Since the first Japanese tea was exported to The United States in 1859, we have been one of their largest clients.
The tea culture of Japan began in the 12th century as Buddhist monks returned from China carrying tea seeds. Tea bushes were propagated in the temple gardens of Kyoto and Uji. 150 years later, seeds from those original tea plants were brought by Shogun Ashikaga Takauji to the southern island of Kyushu.
As America’s demand for Japanese green tea exploded in the 1880s, large commercial tea gardens were planted further south in Kagoshima Prefecture, near the city of Kagoshima.
Tea production here is second only in tonnage to the eastern prefecture of Shizuoka, home of Mt. Fuji. Both prefectures have been shaped by volcanoes that contributed needed nutrients to the surrounding tea fields.
The Sakurajima volcano, located just across the bay from Kagoshima City, is still active and was spewing fumes during my visit in March 2019. Volcanic ash can be an annoyance for tea growers in the area who have to wash their tea leaves during processing in order to remove the extra fine dust.
Kagoshima’s fertile soil and warm climate support a vibrant fruit and vegetable industry, which supplies much of Japan’s need for fresh produce. More and more producers have recently moved to organic practices. The demand for organic tea – both domestic and abroad – has led to several agricultural innovations which are unique to this area.
PESTS ARE GONE WITH THE WIND
The Wakohen Tea Garden has invented a crawler tractor to deal with their pest problem. Following a tycoon, chairman Yashuhisa Horiguchi noticed that the tea plants were insect-free because all the pests had been blown away by the wind and heavy rain. He set about to craft a self-propelled machine that would recreate the forces of the typhoon.
Ten years later, his vision became a reality with the perfecting of the Hurricane King machine. That original model has now been improved with the addition of high-temperature steam applicators that help eradicate weed seedlings as it blows away bugs. All of this takes place without the use of pesticides or weed-killing chemicals, allowing the gardens to be certified EU-Compliant Organic.
A PASSIONATE TEA FARMER BLENDS HIS UNIQUE SOIL
Shuichiro Sakamoto’s family has grown tea in Kagoshima for over 80 years. He grew up in those tea gardens. But he became passionate about the health of his family and gardens thirty years ago following the deaths of his mother and sister from cancer. Those tragedies spurred Sakamoto to study the relationship between soil and tea plants, and the impact of nutrient-rich green tea on cancer cells. He became convinced that healthy soil leads to healthy plants and better green tea. He set about to re-craft his gardens.
Sakamoto drastically re-engineered his gardens by bringing in excavators to dig up the existing soil. He blended in minerals and organic matter which enriched the earth, making it loamy and filled with the nutrients his tea plants needed. He keeps weeds to a minimum by spreading dried grasses between the bushes, a popular technique throughout Japan.
Even before I interviewed Sakamoto, I noticed the results of his efforts as soon as I walked his tea fields. His plants were emerald green and more vibrant than any tea bushes I had seen in my worldwide tea travels. He was doing something noticeably right and his tea bushes were evidence of his skills.
Our group of American teaists let out a gasp of surprise as he pushed a walking stick a couple of feet into the soil and then removed it with ease. His loose and loamy soil is exactly what tea plants need as they send their tap roots up to 10 feet into the earth. Sakamoto is a master gardener of the highest degree who has begun sharing his farming skills with other tea farmers in southern Japan.
The Sakamoto Garden produces both Gyokuro and Matcha. His Wakamusha Gyokuro – shade grown in almost total darkness for three weeks – is rich and smooth. It yields multiple infusions and makes a great cold-steeped tea as well as a hot tea.
I can still see Mr. Sakamoto’s smiling face and hear his passionate voice when I drink his Gyokuro. Like other passionate tea farmers I have met around the world, his is a story I am proud to share with my customers.
Sakamoto Gyokuro is available online.
Read the Tea Maestro’s account of traveling through the tea gardens of Shizuoka Prefecture, the largest producer of Japanese tea.