Do they ever end? Absolutely not! The trails of tea lead from one country to the next and the tales of tea will live on forever. Both of these started long before any of us here in America. My trails of tea recently led me to Japan – to the spectacular Shizuoka Prefecture at the foothills of the magnificent and mysterious Mt. Fugi. To see the meticulously manicured tea fields of Japan is truly a marvel. Nobody does tea like the Japanese! And the hospitali-tea of the Japanese is second to none – total strangers offer you meals with their families, a bed to sleep in, tours of their tea fields, and a piece of their hearts. Life just doesn’t get any better.
What is it that can unite foreigners who speak different languages? Tea, of course!
Once again, I must thank Mr. Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea for introducing me to his friends in this tea-growing area of Japan. The word was out that I would be in the area and emails flooded in with invitations. I cannot say I have ever had this experience before. I will share details of the fine folks I met in the months to come here on T Ching.
The tea bushes in Japan are trimmed or pruned with a very unusual hand-held device that is a combination of a hedge clipper and a blower with attached bag, along with handles on both sides. It has a small gas motor that is started with a pull rope like a gas lawnmower. Two people operate this device and walk up and down the rugged tea fields trimming by hand. The leaves are blown into the bag and replaced when full. Other countries do use a similar machine, but many more countries still use the human hand to pluck the actual leaves.
The first flush is the only trimming currently in demand, so the spring harvest is what brings in the majority of the annual income for the entire year. The second and third trimmings are blown back down to the ground in between the rows and serve as mulch because it is of little-to-no value right now on the world market. The mulch will eventually be tilled into the soil, thus still being of value as composted organic matter.
The flat lands of the Shizuoka Prefecture and beyond are trimmed by a machine that just one person rides and operates; it is very much like our North American grain combine – only much smaller. The cross-action scissor blade on the front of the machine trims almost exactly like a traditional combine. Instead of grain seeds being collected in hoppers on the back, tea leaves are blown into the mesh receptacles on either side until they are full and replaced with empty ones. This is how Japan creates those precisely trimmed tea fields.
Growing up on the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, I saw many similarities with the farm machinery used for grain and the machinery used in the tea fields. And then there are the joys and woes of farming, including the pressures of harvesting, selling in an unpredictable market, inclement weather, pesticides, fertilizers, and organic versus commercial demands. What hit me the hardest was learning that the two operators of the hand-held tea bush trimmers were mostly old farmers – husband and wife teams well into their seventies. Yes, I said seventies! One on either side of the bushes, they walk the craggy terrain in unison, up and down the rows, and together they trim as fastidiously as any machine.
As the farmers get older and the younger generation has less desire to farm, tea fields are being abandoned, not in huge numbers, but gradually in the Shizuoka area – the largest tea-producing area of Japan. Green tea consumption in Japan is down. I did see other varieties of tea being produced, such as black tea and some experiments with oolong tea production. The farmers have found that they must adjust to the tea trends. For Japan – a country well-steeped in tradition and ritual – they are adapting to change.
More tea tales from Japan to come!