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Birthplace of Japan’s ubiquitous green tea leaves

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Tea farms spread across a hill in Shizuoka. The green gradation of tea leaves is beautiful in the sunlight. Mt. Fuji can be seen faintly on the right.

By Tomoko Shiraishi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTrekking up a sloping path on the foothills of Nihondaira in Shizuoka city, I find tea fields spread across the hill. On this sunny day in early May, I can see Mt. Fuji far in the distance. It was the season for newly harvested tea and, being the tea lover that I am, I was eager to taste the famed Yabukita tea variety that comes from this city.

In Shizuoka, many tea farmers welcome tourists, providing them with tea harvesting experiences. That day, I visited the Marusei Urushibata tea factory.

“First, please taste this,” farm owner Hiroki Urushibata, 51, said as he served me a cup of tea brewed from handpicked Yabukita leaves.

The fragrance of the tea gently rose from the cup. The tea tasted clear, but profound.

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    The main hall of Kunozan Toshogu shrine

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I nodded when he asked, “Don’t you think that the aroma and taste have good balance?”

Urushibata then held some tea leaves in his hands to show me how to pick them. Most tea leaves are harvested by machine, but the first leaves of each growing season are harvested by hand and prized as a luxury item. The basic way to harvest high-quality tea is to pick the bud with the two leaves just under it.

“Have you ever heard the word ‘mirui’?” he asked. The word is from the Shizuoka dialect meaning the tea buds are soft and young. Conversely, leaves that grow too large and hard are referred to as “kowai.” I found these words that are unique to the tea producing region interesting.

Most tea shrubs are trimmed in semi-cylindrical shapes because the harvesting machine’s blade is arched. But tea shrubs harvested by hand grow at various heights naturally, like shrubs in the wild.

“Leaves of these natural-grown shrubs have more power than other shrubs,” Urushibata said. “And this power leads to the high-quality taste.”

The Yabukita variety was discovered by Shizuoka-born Hikosaburo Sugiyama (1857-1941) in 1908 and was disseminated all across Japan. Yabukita accounts for about 80 percent of all tea produced in Japan. A mother shrub of Yabukita remains in the city.

Production of tea in the city started in the middle of the Kamakura period (late 12th century to early 14th century). It has prospered since the Meiji era (1868-1912) when Shimizu Port in the city became an international trading port. Until then, tea had been transported to Yokohama by train or ship. After it became possible to export tea directly abroad from Shimizu, tea merchants recommended that farmers cultivate tea shrubs. Mountains and fields around Shizuoka Prefecture were reclaimed for tea plantation and a tea production industry developed. Shizuoka also turned into a tea distribution center where tea was amassed from all over Japan.  

When Urushibata showed me his farm, his father Koichi, 78, and mother Ayako, 73, were harvesting tea leaves with a cutting machine. They were standing on each side of a waist-high shrub, holding both sides of the blade of the machine and harvesting the leaves together.

Harvested leaves are delivered to a factory and steamed quickly to stop them from fermenting as well as to maintain a fresh green color. After further processes taking four to six hours, such as kneading and drying, the tea leaves become finished products.

Twenty years ago, there were more than 10 factories that were engaged in all processes, from cultivation to production, but now, only about five factories remain because of reasons such as declining tea prices. Yet Shizuoka Prefecture still accounts for about 40 percent of tea produced in Japan.

I bought hand-harvested tea and brewed it at home as I was taught. Cooling hot water down to around 70 C, pouring it into a teapot, I brewed the tea leaves for about 45 seconds. Its scent and taste were so fresh that I felt a breeze blowing just as I had felt at the tea farm.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb

I also visited Kunozan Toshogu shrine, which enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo period (1603-1867). I got on the Nihondaira Ropeway at Nihondaira Station and went to Kunozan Station. Ieyasu was buried in Kunozan at his request and his tomb has a 5.5-meter high stone pagoda built by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun.

The shrine pavilion, composed of the main hall, stone chamber and worship hall, was designated as a national treasure in 2010. It is decorated with details such as the Sakasa Aoi inverted Tokugawa family crests, which mean a desire to develop, and with a sculpture that shows a scene from the ancient Chinese story “Kamewari,” which taught the importance of life.

Access

In the vicinity of Shizuoka Station

Information

Shizuoka City Tourist Information Center (054) 253-1170. Call the agricultural policy division of Shizuoka City Office at (054) 354-2089 to get information about tea harvesting experiences and observation of tea farms.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech

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