Kyushu is as solid as a rock! We may be shaken but we are not stirred… The ongoing earthquakes certainly make for interesting fodder over endless cups of tea, but a recent visit to our new farmer friends in Kitsuki (Oita Prefecture) overlooking Beppu Bay, reveals the absolute resilience of these hard-working, warm-hearted people.
Master Kitagawa, a dear tea friend from Oita City, introduced us to the Oita Tea Masters. Fifteen of them descended upon Chiki Tea and, as a thank you, presented us with a gift of tea from the historic samurai town of Kitsuki. I had heard of Kitsuki and knew it had a tea garden or two but not much more than that.
Well, the asamushi tea with nods toward Hon Gyokuro, made me fall head over heels in love with Kitsuki tea! The sweetness in my mouth lingered for almost 2 hours. Artisan tea that is so close to me physically (30 kilometers) and yet I had no idea it existed. It’s like a secret society and I’ve just been given the keys! I’m here in Japan to sniff out these obscure artisan masters, so why hadn’t I tried the tea or even visited Kitsuki?
This samurai village dating back to the Edo period is Oita Prefecture’s most famous farming district, and as I recently discovered, is as much known for its tea as its mikan tangerines. But the farmers I met admitted that no one really knows about Kitsuki tea outside of Oita Prefecture! It’s a tight-knit group of tea masters and artisans creating stunning and stop-you-in-your-tracks tea, but there is simply no one to buy it. Because these artisan producers have such small farms, larger companies shy away from buying their tea, worried about the ability to satisfy demand. As a result, these healthy, happy and energetic folks produce and drink some of the finest tea Japan has to offer. I hasten to add that several of the tea fields are even award-winners yet they rarely get the kudos!
Sitting high in the mountainous terrain overlooking the ocean, it has the ideal conditions for cultivating healthy and hardy tea plants. There is no need for the tall “frost” fans because the ocean keeps temperatures warm enough with the mountains protecting the plants from behind. We had pretty horrendous snow this year, a first for many parts of Kyushu, so everyone was excited to see the brilliant buds of spring, frost-free!
This year, conditions are the best they have ever been, says Yukio Sato, Oita Prefecture’s Tea Agency Advisor and Master Instructor…and the nicest guy you will ever meet! He told me that in his lifetime and the lifetime of the farmers we were meeting, they had never seen shoots behaving just like they wanted…a perfect, even, slow growth to maximize the amino acid Theanine, keeping caffeine in check, so the leaves produce the smoothest tea imaginable and in abundant quantities.
He told me this as we were inspecting the Surugawase tea cultivar, which probably doesn’t mean a thing to you! That’s because you may have never heard of it and neither had I! This cultivar is the rarest, and possibly the only remaining producing field of its kind in Japan. The tea garden is tiny, probably about an acre, and has been passed down to young Nori-san, whose family has been producing artisan tea in Kitsuki for generations. Their Surugawase plants have been producing for around 50 years in this spot.
On Sunday, Nori-san covered half of his plants using a silver jikagise (specialized netting) to shade the leaves to produce a Kabusecha (covered tea, but not Gyokuro). The other half, uncovered, is destined for Sencha. He estimates that the covering for his Kabuse will be about 10 days but the growth of the buds will dictate how long…as with every covered tea in Japan. So much information is out there that says a Gyokuro is shaded for a month and Kabusecha for two weeks. Well, folks, that is just not correct. It is true that a Gyokuro is shaded longer and hovers around a month and that Kabuse is shorter but it is absolutely the leaves that say when enough is enough! Think about a baby being born – when it’s time, it’s time! I was hoping to help with the harvest on May 2nd, but Nori-san smiled at me and said, “well, ask the leaves please!”
One point to mention is that the tea I’m referring to is not Benifuki, though Kitsuki does produce this as well. Benifuki is regarded as the hay fever tea to stop the miserable symptoms. I’m talking about the incredible green teas, cultivated with love, and masterly produced.
With all the excitement of “shincha” (new tea), there is also sadness in Kitsuki. Due to the aging population, now just 30,000, many of the tea farms are going “extinct” as there are no young people to take over the gardens. My heart stopped when I found out that two of the award-winning gardens we visited were having the last harvest this year. The two farmers are Suzuki-san, 84, and Shimoeda-san, 82. Her husband passed away but she has kept up the family’s 5-acre garden by herself. When we met, she had been weeding for 6 hours in preparation for covering the entire 5-acres for Kabusecha. She is 82! She was explaining how the jikagise are rolls of netting that are draped over and clipped at the bottom of the tree. They come in a continuous sheet, weighing what seems like tons. Luckily some strapping lads are planning to help her!
As I was driving home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how we could help keep these tea gardens alive and producing. If you have any suggestions, advice or want to get involved, please post a comment. Suzuki-san offered to teach his skills to someone who wants to take over but it needs commitment, not a summer job.
I will likely rabbit on about this new discovery because Kitsuki’s tea is a gem hidden so deeply in Japan that most tea Masters in this country aren’t familiar with it. We will defiantly be acquiring some Shincha from our friends so please leave a comment if you are interested in getting some of it. There is not a lot produced so I’m talking a few kilos probably…and I’m definitely scoring some!