The green tea producer for Japan’s new emperor
“Green tea is bitter”
“I only drink it because it’s good for me”
“I really don’t like it”
These are comments you hear quite often in the UK. In Shizuoka, a coastal prefecture on Japan’s main Honshu island, I’d bet the locals would be baffled by such opinions. That’s because they live alongside people like the Miyazakis and Ishiyama, who have dedicated their lives to green tea. They have taken over tea gardens handed down through generations of their families. In a country that respects tea so much that they have refined drinking high quality tea into both a ritualised ceremony and an everyday habit, running a tea garden deep in the mountains is a fulfilling way of life.
As for bitterness, the idea doesn’t really register with Japanese tea farmers. They know green tea as floral, fresh and, well, ‘green’. It’s deep in umami and, once a tea-drinking session is over, there’s always a sweetness that lingers.
It wasn’t quite the trip to Japan that I had originally planned for this spring, but nevertheless I was happy to enjoy some armchair travel when I called Ishiyama early one morning last week. He was making some fresh Sencha in his tea shop when we spoke. I asked him to show me his view – his shop is a small wooden building between two of his tea fields, separated by a rough row of bamboo; there was a small road and in a clearing I noticed some low key wooden equipment. It was the sort of building and set up that would call every passing food lover to stop.
Ishiyama is one of the few remaining members of Japan’s Tea Hand Rolling Association and he’d pulled some of his rolling equipment outside to practice, since the pandemic has meant it’s been a quiet season for his shop. Such are his hand rolling skills that last year, he was chosen by the new Emperor Naruhito to produce a green tea the head of state would drink in the new Reiwa era that began with his ascension to the throne. Ishiyama also grows and produced our supreme grade of Sencha – now called Sencha Reiwa in honour of his selection by the emperor.
In Kawane, the Unesco-recognised biosphere reserve where Ishiyama has his garden, spring this year was quieter than usual. With no tourists or visitors, and a Covid-19 enforced limit on gift giving, the local tea shops have mostly been closed. This might have given Ishiyama more time to focus on his hand rolling – it takes a week to produce just 2kg of hand rolled tea – except there hasn’t been a market for it. Instead, he’s focused on what he calls “regular” production. From a UK tea drinker’s perspective, though, there’s not much that’s regular about the tea Ishiyama produces.
“I’m only looking after the garden”
Ishiyama’s garden occupies just 1.5 hectares, but this is land where tea bushes have been growing for more than 400 years. It’s fed by the Oi river as it passes from the high Minami-Alps on its way out to the Pacific Ocean. Tiny by conventional standards, this garden is relatively large for a region with a mountainous terroir that keeps plots small.
Ishiyama is a tenth-generation tea farmer, working with his son and daughters to maintain the garden. He learnt from his grandfather – a fellow hand-roller – and has spent part of the quiet spring helping his son and daughter practise their hand-rolling on the small wooden charcoal-heated table in his workshop.
“Shiitake, yuzu and wasabi… and ready-to-drink tea”
Ishiyama tells me about the experimental crops farmers in the Kawane mountain community have tried to grow over the years. Shiitake, yuzu and wasabi are some of the more successful ones, but the growers always come back to tea. In the last few years – like so many of the producers we speak to – Ishiyama has noticed a change in the weather that has prompted more experimentation around what to grow. He has explored different cultivars but is still using his high mountain position to focus on quality tea. With the cold bottled tea industry in Japan growing, demand for lower quality tea has increased and, because it’s less risky to produce weather wise, many of his neighbours are starting to focus on quantity over quality.
“Tea is stronger than human beings – tea can survive!”
The summers are getting hotter and the springtime is getting more unpredictable: some years it’s been very cold; in others there are heavy rains to contend with. From April, most farmers will be in their gardens daily looking at the weather, assessing the plants so that they know when to start picking. Previously, they’d know the picking would always start at the beginning of May. Now it’s only by keeping a close eye on conditions that the farmers can establish the optimum time to start harvesting. Ishiyama, at least, is fairly relaxed about these changes, pointing out that Camellia sinensis originated in hot places and so can certainly survive hotter summers.
“There aren’t any pests in the mountains”
It’s not just protection from the harsh sun that Ishiyama’s location affords him. His garden is also well shielded from pests. Agrochemicals and pesticides are commonly used in Japan, but Ishiyama doesn’t see the need. His bushes are looked after naturally by the environment. As he points out, pests have other identities and roles – until we decide to call them pests.
Ishiyama has always worked organically, although due to the cost of certification and lack of local demand he has never certified his tea organic. For many tea farmers, it’s too hard to make the shift. When a farmer switches from conventional to organic farming, their annual yield will reduce by around one-third. Contrary to the prevailing view in the UK, the perception in Japan is that organic tea will be lower quality – or taste worse – than non-organic or ‘conventional’ tea. In a community that prioritises taste and quality, it means tea drinkers are not yet willing to pay more for organic, so farmers who switch risk losing that one-third of their income entirely.
At the moment, most of Japan’s organic tea is exported to the UK, Germany and the US. This could change, but once again Ishiyama is relaxed – and optimistic – about the future. He explains the Japanese government is now pushing farmers to make the shift, supporting them more and more with the journey. The drive is apparently working well in Kagoshima prefecture and more gardens are converting, though there is work to do to ensure smaller gardens – like the ones in Kawane – can afford the certification.
“The softest tea in Japan”
Settling into his shop, Ishiyama begins preparing tea to drink. Very happy with this year’s crop, he shares his tips on how to enjoy it…
“I always share my good tea. I like to chat for at least an hour over tea.” In other words, make it for two people and take your time…
High-grade sencha is delicate, so only use cool water. Before sitting down for a tea-making session, Ishiyama adds water from the kettle to a small open clay bowl. Waiting one minute, he then uses this water to warm the cups before finally adding it to the tea pot, when the water will be cool enough for the tea.
In the small clay pot, he adds 1 tbsp of the sencha and drinks the first cup after only 30 seconds, before the leaves are even fully open.
Ten (!) or more infusions then follow in quick succession.
For the most enjoyable tea experience, take it with food. After three infusions, have some sweets alongside the tea. For example, Yokan is a red bean cake popular in Japan – one bite is enough! It will refresh your mouth, preparing you for the next infusions.
After six infusions, try some salty food alongside the tea – a rice cracker or some pickles.
I followed Ishiyama’s advice and made some Sencha Reiwa at home later that day. I wanted to finally go to Japan this year and probably won’t make it now, but his green tea takes me part of the way there – and I’m certainly not left with any bitterness.