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.
I’d like to introduce you to Mr Kumada. He lives with eight cats and grows tea on seven hectares in the extreme south of Japan, high above the city of Kagoshima, far from anywhere, even the smallest village. Mr Kumada took over from his father, who was also a farmer. But he only grows tea, unlike his father who also grew tobacco, and raised cows, pigs and silkworms. When I asked him what he’d like me to talk about on my blog, Mr Kumada immediately replied that he was proud of his farming methods, and of the organic certification he has obtained. He wants to keep the environment in the best possible condition; he is responsible for it, he says.
Mr Kumada produces green teas, of course, but also a black tea, which I’ve just chosen. It’s the first time I’ve tasted such a good black tea from Japan, an interesting tasting experience. Mr Kumada’s very likeable personality does play a part in my choice: I taste all teas blind, but it increases the pleasure I take in being able to promote his excellent tea.
In Japan, harvesting is often done by machine due to the high cost of labour. So instead of picking the leaves every week, as is the practice in some parts of the world, they are harvested three times a year, in spring, summer and autumn. On the island of Kyushu, which is hotter than the islands further north, tea can be harvested four times a year – in April, June, August and October. The most prized harvest is the first one, known here and elsewhere in Japan as Ichibancha.
Tomorrow I’m leaving Japan and this island of Kyushu I love, this city of Kagoshima, this region of volcanoes, some of the most active on the archipelago. I’m leaving these beautiful and remote tea fields in the mountains, and I’ll show you some photos of them soon. But today I want to share with you my favourite photo, it’s of a volcano called Sakurajima, and I took it while at the Senga-en garden north of Kagoshima. This is one of the most beautiful bays in the world, and here, tea grows inland as well as on some of the islands that lie off the coast. Green tea, of course, but also some black teas that aren’t always necessarily that special but are starting to sell as far away as Tokyo.