When I’m in Japan, I like to visit the gardens whenever I get a chance. They are incredibly beautiful. Peaceful, silent places where invisible gardeners with a keen eye for perfection trim every little shoot with scissors. They sculpt living things to create an incredible spectacle of a landscape, in which a simple mound symbolises Mount Fuji.
I come here often with a book, interspersing reading with gazing at the view. It’s pretty much my idea of heaven.
In most tea-producing countries, tea leaves are harvested by hand. Japan is an exception, the main reason being the high cost of manpower. However, the sophisticated machinery used by Japanese farmers allows them to be very precise when harvesting. Only the young shoots are picked, which are then sorted with the most rigorous standards, in the factory, using machines with electronic eyes.
Since the start of May, I’ve been tasting and choosing the best teas of the season from Japan. They’re called Ichibanchas because they’re the first to be harvested in the year. Japanese teas come from the regions of Shizuoka and Uji, and in the south of the archipelago. In the north of the country, the tea plant grown everywhere is Yabukita, whereas in the south, with its warmer climate, less Yabukita is grown. For example, here, near Kagoshima, the Yutaka Midori cultivar dominates, and represents nearly 60% of production.
On the island of Kyushu in Japan, it isn’t unusual to find a volcano in your field of vision. As someone who enjoys photography, this makes me very happy. The outline of these lava giants emphasises the controlled horizontality of the tea plants. They disrupt a rather too orderly landscape. They also remind us that the duration of harvests, the duration of seasons, the duration of human life, quite simply, is infinitesimal. Here is Mount Kaimon, which has a silhouette similar to that of Mont Fuji.
Right down to the extreme south of Japan you can find these tea fields. They are recognisable for being spiked with fans, which are installed to prevent cold air from lingering around the tea plants. Here, I’m close to Kagoshima Bay, visible in the background, an important tea-producing region in the archipelago.
The Japanese city of Fukuoka may not get many Western tourists, but if you go there and you like new gastronomical experiences, you should go to Yorozu. You need to book in advance, you need to speak Japanese, or go with someone who speaks the language, it’s essential, and you need a couple of hours free. Then, let yourself be guided, and Suguru Tokubuchi will introduce you to pairings of food with tea and various alcohols, dishes prepared in front of you in an intimate setting, which makes every sip even more precious, every mouthful chosen to accompany one of the cocktails. It’s a unique experience.
I’d like to introduce you to Kitano Shuichi. Of all the farmers I’ve met in Japan, he’s the most passionate and inspiring about organic practices. He’s been using these methods for 30 years, introduced by his father. The latter, convinced of the health benefits of organic tea, suffered financially for ten years, due to very low yields, but he pulled through. Today, he sells his tea for a good price because demand for organic tea is higher. Kitano Shuichi and his father make their own compost, while others buy it in from outside. But most significantly, they never use anything to do with animals in their compost. So that means no cow manure, for example. They believe in biodynamic methods and use them successfully. They’re so proud of their compost they insist you taste it. But if you want to know their exact recipe, you can ask all you like but they’ll reveal nothing save their good humour, with a smile.
For those who wish to try spring – or first-flush – teas, here are some tips. Darjeelings harvested in March and April develop sustained floral notes accompanied by a touch of astringency and bitterness. For brioche and floral aromas combined, try Nepalese first-flush teas, which are harvested from the start of April. Those who enjoy chestnut, mineral and vegetal notes would do well with new-season Chinese teas (the rarest and most sought-after and therefore the most expensive are those known as pre-Qingming teas, harvested before Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day which takes place at the beginning of April). Lastly, for fans of iodine, cut grass and steamed vegetable notes, Japanese Ichibanchas are a pure delight. They are harvested between the end of April and the middle of May. Of course I haven’t covered them all here, and there are other countries to discover, but if we are talking about springtime and nature reawakening, and if you want teas that evoke gardens and rising sap, these are the ones I think of first.
Last week I talked about how the mixing of tea leaves by Japanese co-operatives can limit the range of flavours in the country’s teas, but there are also some very positive developments coming from Japan. For example, a few decades ago, the country could be described as mono-cultivar: the vast majority of growers used the Yabukita variety. Happily, today, there are an increasing number of cultivars used in Japan, such as sae-midori, oku-hikari and asatsuyu. A greater range of cultivars means that once the tea is infused, it produces a wider palette of aromas and flavours. And that is good news for tea lovers.
I have a regret when it comes to Japanese teas. My Japanese friends know it and share it. It is this: in Japan, few farmers produce finished tea. They are not usually set up to do this in terms of equipment. Most farmers focus on growing the best possible tea and harvesting it at the optimal time, but then they immediately sell the fresh leaves to co-operatives, who finish the production process. However, these co-operatives don’t keep the batches separate so they can process them individually. They put all the tea harvested by different farmers together. This results in a certain uniformity of flavour, whereas if each farmer took care of the production process right to the end, we would undoubtedly get a wider variety of flavours and aromas.