Japan's green tea makers want to refresh the world's palate
Historic growing region in Kyoto blends old and new to steep the right brew
MADOKA KITAMATSU, Nikkei staff writer
UJI, Japan -- "We are sorry, but that tea is sold out. We have to ask you to wait until the next season."
Such apologies to customers have become a regular refrain for staff at Japanese tea vendor Rishouen Tea, where products are increasingly out of stock.
The company, located in Uji in Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan, a city renowned for high-quality tea production, has begun to sell tea leaves made from crops cultivated in a single field. It is one of the earliest vendors known to have departed from the industry norm of blending tea leaves from multiple suppliers.
The unblended teas have been selling quite well, including those made of leaves from Minamiyamashiro Village, Kyoto Prefecture, known for its good flavor and mild taste distinctive to crops tilled on high-altitude tea fields at about 500 meters above sea level, even though the shop does not actively advertise its products.
Wine has the concept of terroir: Grapes used to produce wine develop unique tastes depending on various naturally occurring factors, such as climate, geography and soil content, that lead to unique characteristics for wine, and thus, different brands.
The same notion applies to tea. And, naturally, tea leaves from the same field are limited in supply. When the supply is depleted, the product will eventually sell out. This is usually considered a drawback, but Rishouen President Koji Kagata has found that this can be a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, too.
Fit for a summit
Drawing on the concept of terroir and the French system of appellation d'origine controlee, where name-designation rules closely define grape varieties and wine classification, Kagata has spent much time and effort developing single-field tea products.
Of late, wine-bottled and chilled tea served at high-end restaurants has been drawing attention. People who are averse at alcohol can enjoy the drink while dining. It was served at the Group of Seven summit held in Japan's Ise Shima last year.
Riichi Yoshida of Uji is one of the tea farmers supplying leaves for the new style of drink. For Yoshida, who serves as head of the national tea leaf producers' federation and works to preserve the tradition of handpicking and hand-processing tea leaves, the more popular, mass-produced tea packaged in plastic bottles is not the right way of doing things.
So, he was bewildered when a Kyoto agricultural cooperative introduced him to a high-end bottled tea manufacturer interested in having him supply his leaves.
But Yoshida was converted by the enthusiasm of President Keiko Yoshimoto of the manufacturer, Royal Blue Tea Japan, who was thinking of making the endeavor "the first step toward spreading the word about the delicious taste of Japanese tea."
For Yoshida, "Japanese tea can be appreciated in various ways, including drinking it out of a wineglass while dining at a restaurant," he said.
The dwindling consumption of tea leaves in Japanese homes is another factor that prompted Yoshida to hop on the bandwagon. Due to the spread of cheap teas sold in plastic bottles and other factors, green tea purchases per household fell from around 7,000 yen ($62.18) a year in the 1990s to 4,000 yen at present.
Kagata, the Rishouen president, once hosted a gathering in France for the mariage of Japanese tea and cheese -- agricultural products with strong cultural roots from Japan and France, respectively. Different temperatures of tea bring out different aromas in cheese, such as an amino acid taste and fermented flavors. His idea apparently gave French participants a pleasant surprise.
By the same token, Japanese tea leaves boiled in Europe's hard water can make for a strong tea because of the extraction of too much catechin, while cold water can gently bring out the Japanese tea's aroma, making for a better match with Western cuisine, Kagata said.
He also devised a method to blend green tea with carbonated water, where hours are spent extracting the aroma of the tea leaves to provide a refreshing taste without it being overly bitter.
Kagata continues his quest to devise various ways to enjoy Japanese tea, his eye firmly on capturing the hearts of not only Japanese but foreign consumers as well.
"This is just like a rock garden at a temple," said one overseas traveler describing a tea field spreading out on the steep slopes of Wazuka, a quiet township in the mountainous southeastern part of Kyoto Prefecture. More and more tourists are traveling to the small town with a population of about 4,000 to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Wazuka, also known as the location of a grave of an antient prince, is famous for tea production. Records indicate tea growing technology was already developed by the early 12th century. It has fortuitous conditions for tea growing. "It is close to Kyoto, a major consumption center, it has good slopes with good water absorption, and its temperatures vary significantly," said Takao Fujii of Kyoto Gakuen University's faculty of bio-environmental science.
Fujii comes from a family of tea growers living in Wazuka and spent time in his childhood helping his parents harvest leaves. The geometric flow of the tea fields extending up the mountain slopes had been developed by the late 1970s, according to Fujii. The eye-pleasing pattern is mainly the result of the need to cultivate more tea shrubs up to the summits in order to meet rapidly expanding consumption during the economic boom of post-World War II Japan.
"We always thought of our tea fields as a production site. We never imagined they would become a tourist hot spot," Fujii said.
France's Saint-Emilion, known for Bordeaux wine and grape growing since the Middle Ages, was registered as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 for preserving the scenery of its historic grape fields.
Many believe the home of Uji tea is worthy of the same honor, and Kyoto Prefecture has begun taking steps to have the town registered as a World Heritage site. It has already invited French officials familiar with the matter and held a symposium to expedite the move.
Wazuka mayor Tadao Hori is gathering residents' opinions as he draws up a scenery preservation ordinance. "I hope visitors enjoy how we live our lives with nature as the tea field scenery keeps changing with how we make a living," he said.
Travel packages to visit the tea fields have been attracting more visitors, including the $100-plus tours offered by Kyoto Obubu Chaen, a tea maker and vendor. For the local people, though, it has been quite an eye-opener to see their "perfectly ordinary" fields become a tourism resource.
The endeavors to add new dimensions to Uji tea on the one hand and moves to register its fields with U.N. status are certain to help establish the Uji brand globally, complementing its long history and ensuring a bright future for tea lovers everywhere.