The Miyazakis – Asahina Valley, Japan
The bushes are freshly pruned, Mr Miyazaki is repairing metal frames and Mrs Miyazaki is weaving rice straw shades. She’s one of only three people in the valley still weaving in this traditional way – most now use commercially made black netting.
Each shade is 7m long and, once it’s been stretched onto its frame by Mr Miyazaki, it will protect about 10m of plants while still giving them a little bit of light to live by. It takes almost a day to weave a roll of shade and she usually makes at least 30 each winter. She’s made seven so far this year. Each shade lasts for around seven years before it’s broken down and laid around the base of bushes to protect them from frost and other potential winter damage.
Mrs Miyazaki finishes for the day as we speak and returns to the couple’s 70-year-old wooden home, with its sliding doors and shoji screens. Mr Miyazaki joins her for some homemade mochi and some of last year’s Gyokuro, served in a small clay pot at a low wooden table. Before the busy picking season, they’re making the most of having free time to enjoy drinking their tea.
The Miyazakis are into their 70s and want to keep making tea “for at least another 15 years”, while teaching their grandchildren the traditional techniques that they say make the best of the land they have. They’ve definitely still got the techniques; now they just need to convince the grandchildren.
Ishiyama – Shizuoka, Japan
In the same Shizuoka prefecture of Japan as the Miyazakis, Ishiyama is praying. Last autumn was warmer than usual, then December and January were the coldest they had been in almost a decade.
Together, that adds up to a good winter for Ishiyama’s tea bushes. Now he wants spring to be similarly kind.
The early signs are good. Temperatures have been climbing smoothly in February and spring feels closer every day – the first cherry blossoms are already blooming, reports Ishiyama. Before picking season begins, he is spending time in his tea factory, maintaining and repairing the machines he will need to produce this year’s Sencha Reiwa.
Outside, the first organic fertiliser has been ploughed into the soil, pruning work is underway and some early weeds have been extracted. For now, the bushes are growing smoothly and there are just two parts to Ishiyama’s prayers for spring: a delicious new tea with excellent fragrance – and a quick, peaceful end to the pandemic.
We’ve run out to Ishiyama’s Sencha Reiwa from last year – but we’ll let you know as soon as this year’s is in stock.
The Chens – Ali Shan, Taiwan
More than 1,000 miles south west of Shizuoka, the Chens were preparing to celebrate Lunar New Year when we spoke. It’s the culmination of Taiwan’s February festival season, which also includes Lichun – the Farmer’s Day that marks the start of spring.
On the day we speak, Mr and Mrs Chen, Shenteng and Emily are in their garden, waiting for the sun to set, having spent the day giving the tea bushes a final hard prune to make room for new shoots.
Winter has been typically quiet for them. As Shenteng puts it, “We rest while the tea bushes rest.” This year’s cold weather has been good for the bushes: the deeper they hibernate in winter, the more productive they will be in spring.
Now the Chens want rain for this year’s Ali Shan, which has become less reliable recently – there hasn’t been a typhoon for five years now. Their own bushes are relatively well protected because they are planted among bigger trees that draw up water and nutrients from deeper in the soil and help feed the bushes.
Other local farmers are slowly coming around to the organic methods that have helped the Chens and are trying some of their organic fertiliser for the first time this year. For the Chens themselves, the major novelty of 2021 promises to be a return to much-missed normality.
Shenteng says he is looking forward to returning to the local restaurants that keep Taiwan’s rich food culture alive, and not having to book in advance or sit so far from friends. Then he remembers he’s got picking season coming up and might not have much time for socialising over the next few months!
Yong Luo – Guangdong, China
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait in China’s Guangdong province, Yong Luo told us six dry months came to an end with heavy rain in March. The plants that produce his Phoenix Honey Orchid tea began to sprout soon afterwards, but the preceding drought means this year’s leaves are small and so there are the gaps between them.
However, because there are fewer young leaves, each one will get more nutrients from the roots, so they should be rich in minerals with good flavour and fragrance. Luo is confident that the quality of 2021’s spring crop will be good.
To give the bushes the best possible chance, his team are keeping the soil loose to stop it from hardening. Meanwhile, in the tea factory, equipment is being serviced and cleaned ready for the incoming spring tea. One new thing Luo’s going to be trying is a traditional process for handling the leaves of the Juduozai variety that he hopes will emphasise its unique almond-like aroma. Then it will just be a question of balancing that fragrance with other varieties to produce the best possible Phoenix Honey Orchid.
Shentang Wen – Hangzhou, China
Further up China’s east coast, Shentang Wen says winter 2020 was a cold one that brought plenty of snow to his organic tea garden in Zhejiang province. But that’s no bad thing for the producer of our Dragon Well Supreme because it means fewer diseases and pests.
The snow has turned to rain now, and Wen’s tea bushes are enjoying some optimal growing conditions. With both his fields and factory ready for the picking season, he’s confident 2021 is going to deliver bigger yields of even higher-quality tea, including his Dragon Well, which he calls “an old friend – because we’re always happy to see it again and find out what’s changed”.