In the far south of Japan, the tea fields’ proximity to active volcanoes means the leaves have to be treated in a special way. Several times a year, the volcanoes spew out ash that is deposited on the surrounding land. So once the leaves have been harvested, they are rinsed before the first stage in processing: steaming. The rinsing in cold water lasts for 30 minutes and no longer, to minimise the loss of aromatic compounds.
If you want to get to know Japan, I recommend, as well as “The Empire of Signs” by Roland Barthes, “In Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki. I brought it with me to read here, in Japan. It talks about the relationship we have with light in the West and East: diffuse light versus direct light; a love of shiny things compared with a preference for matt. In the West, we want total light; elsewhere, like in Japan, more of a half-light. Tanizaki also talks about lacquerware, darkness, and Japanese cuisine, which go with shade. He says, about this cuisine, both the food itself and the dishes in which it’s served: “In the glare of harsh light, its aesthetic virtues would disappear in a flash.” He also says something I really like: “We Orientals make things beautiful by creating shadows in places that in themselves are insignificant.”
Many people think I only visit the plantations at harvest time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I like to meet a planter or farmer when he has time for me, and nothing to sell. When he’s not constantly preoccupied by the quality of the tea he’s making at that moment. In Japan, if I visit the tea fields during the first half of May, when the country’s finest teas are being produced, the farmer will have very little time to spare. He’ll look after me, of course, but he’ll be stressed, because from sunrise to sunset he’ll be dashing between fields and factory, and trying his best to be in both places at once. On the other hand, now, at the beginning of January, here in Japan, farmers have time to spare. We can sit down together and taste plenty of teas, we can walk along the rows of tea plants, and inspect every tool and machine. I can understand the farmer’s challenges and ask plenty of questions. Then we can go and have lunch together in a traditional hostelry and sing the praises of the local specialities, enjoy the way the room looks out over a small pond, admire the beautiful carp, talk about everything and nothing. That’s how you learn. I’ve learnt an enormous amount about tea and how it’s grown in this way, by taking my time. Much more than I would by coming in the harvest season and hurriedly tasting and buying what I need. In life, and particularly in Japan, nothing beats taking your time, not worrying about wasting it. There is nothing to lose by doing things slowly. This is how I do things in every tea-producing country. Sometimes I visit in the harvest season, but I know that I also need to be there to listen, to understand. Above all, it’s important not to imagine that nothing happens outside the harvests. And it’s important to value slowness, especially in Asia. Here, it’s best to avoid rushing, efficiency, yields. Instead, we can enjoy the experience of a detour.
To accompany my New Year’s greetings to you, I’ve chosen this photo of a bridge. I love bridges, great and small. I love anything that spans a chasm and connects people. Some people build walls, others build bridges. There are people who shut themselves off, who want to surround themselves with barriers. Others throw down ropes or ladders into the void; they aren’t put off by precipices or obstacles or difficulties of any kind. They overcome them. Some people are fearful, some people are trusting. I wish you a Happy New Year full of bridges, challenges, daring. I hope you are able to follow your heart.