Before I sat to write this post I poured myself a delicious cup of tea. What a calming effect this steamy cup is having over me as I begin to draft my thoughts. It’s still a bit too hot for me to drink (I like to take long drags from the mug and that’s hard to do when scalding water runs over your tongue!) so for now I’m just enjoying the pleasant aroma as the steam wafts towards me. Actually, at this year’s Winter Retreat, we studied a number of east Asian cultural elements that are nominally associated with martial arts practice; everything from incense, to origami and alternative meditations, to traditional foods and their preparations – including, of course, tea. In the weeks since the retreat, I’ve been experimenting with what we learned in terms of the correct preparations for different types of teas. Green tea still remains my favorite but I’ve now tried various types of white, black, and oolong teas as well. I’ve discovered that I prefer the tea brewed to a hotter temperature than was recommended during the retreat lecture and the internet seems to agree with me (no offense, of course, to Master Pearson who I know has undoubtedly researched this topic thoroughly from far better sources before presenting on it – you certainly can’t trust everything you read online…but I’m happy to trust my tastebuds, even with the knowledge that they’re wrong from the standpoint of tradition). So since I’m only brewing for my personal enjoyment, I’ll stick with what I like but when making tea for my teacher or a martial arts function, I will be sure to do it correctly. I have also discovered that I enjoy the teas more when I let them steep for longer than is appropriate. But I have a tendency to prefer strong flavors – I’m the girl who adds crushed red pepper or siracha to everything, the girl who prefers a dark roast coffee, served black – so again, one shouldn’t trust my palate for these things!
Since I’ve discovered that Green Tea is still my favorite, and Japanese green tea as a subset stands out to me as preferable, I was inspired to learn more about Japanese green tea, its variations and production. I found the whole thing very interesting and I have included some of my findings below.
Japan differs in many ways from all the world‘s other tea growing regions:
- Japan is a modern industrialized nation. So most of its agriculture including the tea industry are highly modern and efficient. It is also safely and sustainably produced (generally speaking). Also, in Japan there are really only small, private farmers. You don’t really find large, corporate estate farming. Each farmer owns his or her own land, works and hires workers at his or her own expense, and sells his or her product to the company of his or her choice. In other words, while in much of the global south, there are often ethical concerns associated with tea production, this doesn’t seem to be the case largely in Japan.
- Most Japanese tea is mechanically harvested and the teas are almost exclusively mechanically processed. This produces a cleaner, more hygienic, higher quality product.
- Japan exclusively produces green tea. I found this to be very interesting. It is actually the only country in the world to specialize in just one variety of tea. One website I came across wrote “A few tea farmers produce other tea varieties such as black tea for the fun of it, but the quantities are too small to call this serious production.” (http://www.ryokucha.eu/japanese-tea-harvest)
- Japan produces about 100,000 tons of tea a year. THAT’S A LOT OF TEA! Surprisingly, almost the entire production remains in Japan itself. Just under 1 percent of the annual harvest is exported. The Japanese people love tea. They love tea so much in fact, that they drink far more tea than they actually produces. Consequently, they have to import around 50,000 tons (yeah…half of what they they produce!) of extra tea just to quench the thirst of its inhabitants. CRAZY!!!!
While most Japanese teas are harvested and processed by specialized machines, it is still possible to find farmers who hand pick and hand process their teas. High-grade teas such as matcha (my favorite), Gyokuro (which I haven’t found yet), and Shincha (way too expensive for me to buy for myself) are however still hand-picked. In manual harvesting, traditionally only the bud and two tealeaves are picked. On the tea farms in Japan’s flat, low lying plains, tractor”ish” machines, like the one above are driven over the rows of tea plants. They can’t really use these in mountains so tea grown in higher elevations is often hand-picked as well. There are four tea harvests each year. The first is “ichibancha” (first spring picking: March – beginning of May). It is often considered the most imporant harvest, producing the best quality teas (like Tencha which is used to make Matcha). Shincha tea is also harvested at this time. Shincha means “new tea” (“shin” like shin ho kwan – new tiger!!), because it is made from the youngest leaves (which are far more delicate). This harvest only lasts for a matter of days…which is probably why it is so expensive! The next harvest takes place in the summer and is called, not surprisingly, “nibancha” (second harvest: June/July). Both this and the third harvest (in late summer: August/September), “Sanbancha” produce standard quality teas (although I read that the third harvest also produces the greatest amount of tea – so from a financial perspective it is also a really important harvest!). And finally, the fourth harvest is called “Yonbancha”, autumn harvest. It is during this final tea-picking in the year, that you can find those teas that include the twigs as well as the buds and leaves. This type of tea is called kukicha. It is also from this final harvest that Genmaicha is made. This tea is awesome and it’s actually what I’m drinking right now. The leaves and buds are blended with toasted grains of rice and it is absolutely delicious! It has a stronger, more sweet, sort of nutty flavor from the toasted rice. I love it! It’s somewhat expensive but a few years ago Master Pearson accidentally left his stash of this tea at my home in Cincinnati, OH. Lucky me!!
So I have really enjoyed learning about the methods of tea production in Japan and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed drinking the end result. The only downside to all this experimentation…I haven’t slept in like 4 days!