Tea so special, prepared with such love and care, that you can infuse it and then eat the spent leaves? Oh yes, it does exist and has existed for a very long time. At the hands of Mr. Tohei Maejima, from his tea fields in Okabe, Japan (Shizuoka Prefecture), I had one of the most profound tea experiences of my life.
Third-generation Gyokuro Master and three-time Gold Medal recipient from the World Green Tea Contest, Mr. Maejima radiates grace.
I had the privilege of staying in his home, being served three meals (most items prepared with green tea), visiting his well-maintained tea fields, and then, being served his handmade, world-famous Gyokuro tea on a raised, outdoor platform that overlooked his tea fields. I kept asking myself, “Could anything be closer to heaven on earth than this?” At that very moment in time, nothing could have been better, and the answer was “No.”
A gentle and glorious man, Tohei-san, as I was invited to call him, is more than happy to share what has been passed down to him (and through him) with his many visitors from around the world. The presence of joy and contentment that Mr. Maejima exudes also makes its way into his Gyokuro tea leaves; I sipped the liquid infused with them and then I ate them.
His delicate strand of Camellia sinensis is shaded by hand-tied mats (he makes these too) of the straw from rice plants, called Komo mats. In the few short weeks of shading the plants, changes occur in the leaves. The tannins – and therefore the astringency levels – decrease, while the amino acids increase.
In Japan, green tea comes in three grades, depending on the quality of the leaf – Refined (Gyokuro), Medium (Sencha), and Coarse (Bancha). The differences in cultivation methods are what determine the grades.
I was blessed to be traveling with and have as my translator, Senior Japanese Tea Ceremony Instructor, Ms. Ako Yoshino. Tohei-san served his tea to Ms. Yoshino, her husband, Haku Yoshino, and me. More accurately, he doesn’t “serve” tea to anyone; he welcomes you to “experience” his tea. It is no longer my goal to taste, sip, or drink tea – my goal is to experience it!
In water barely over 50 degrees Celsius (slightly over 122 degrees Fahrenheit), the hand-rubbed leaves unfurled and were almost teal in color! The liquor had a slight green shade to it and the aroma was so young and tender. The taste brought me back to childhood – to that first bite of freshly boiled corn on the cob that was picked a bit too early from the garden because we simply couldn’t wait for it.
After two infusions, Tohei-san added dehydrated fish flakes and soy sauce to our spent tea leaves. He then picked a young branch off of a tea bush for each of us so that we could stir our mixture with the branch and scoop the leaves up with it – a bit like using one chopstick. We ate all of our leaves and I must tell you – they were GOOD!
The way in which Mr. Maejima’s tea leaves are picked was rather new to me. They are all picked by hand, of course, but not plucked like most other hand-picked tea leaves are; instead, they are stripped. The pickers run their hands up each young branch, stripping the leaves off as they go.
In the Okabe area of the Shizuoka Prefecture, you will see many fields that are covered or shaded. Few use the old or traditional way of shading the plants with Komo mats because it is much too labor intensive. Instead, they have chosen to use black plastic tarps. However, this is unacceptable for the Gyokuro Tohei Maejima produces. He feels the black tarps are too harsh on the leaves and that the straw mats are one of the secrets to making perfect Gyokuro tea.
In his early 70s, Mr. Maejima still has the energy of a man half his age. He shared with me that having another 30 years of making tea would be his wish. He and his wife were the most wonderful hosts. Their main tea-serving room is covered with photos of and signatures from tea lovers all over the world. Before a guest leaves, he / she is given a brush and black ink and requested to leave a message. I couldn’t help but notice the signatures of my predecessors and good tea friends, Mr. Rajiv Lochan and Mr. Dan Robertson. I seem to be following these two almost everywhere! Mr. Maejima is thrilled and delighted when a guest recognizes the signatures and photos of people they know that have visited with him. He has started quite a gallery in his home that is open for all to visit. By the way, the meals are awesome! And remember – you can even eat the tea!