Green tea goes top-shelf as innovation boils over in Uji
Japan's historic tea region is making new fans and attracting foreign tourists
MADOKA KITAMATSU, Nikkei staff writer
UJI, Japan Not content to sit on its laurels as purveyors of the national drink, Japan's green tea industry is trying new ways to get people to enjoy the eons-old beverage.
An example of this is Rishouen Tea, a tea producer that is making a name for itself by offering single field teas, or teas made from leaves cultivated in the same field.
Located in the small city of Uji just south of Kyoto, Rishouen is one of the first producers to have departed from the industry norm of blending leaves from multiple fields.
Even though it does not advertise, the company has a hard time keeping up with demand. Rishouen's selections include teas made from leaves grown in the nearby village of Minamiyamashiro, where the relatively high altitude and ideal growing conditions produce flavorful yet mild tasting brews.
Tea leaves, like wine grapes, share the concept of terroir. Namely, that the climate, topography and soil in which a crop is grown impart unique tastes and flavors to the finished product. And since supplies of leaves grown from the same field are naturally limited, so will be the teas -- a fact not lost on Rishouen President Koji Kagata, who has turned the single field idea into a once-in-a-lifetime experience for tea lovers.
SUMMIT WORTHY The region's tea industry seems eager to impress. Some high-end restaurants have recently begun serving chilled teas bottled like wine, with participants at last year's Group of Seven summit in Japan given a chance to try the posh drink.
Riichi Yoshida is a tea farmer in Uji who supplies premium leaves for top-shelf teas. As head of the national tea leaf producers' federation, and dedicated to preserving the tradition of picking and processing leaves by hand, Yoshida thinks the mass-produced product sold in plastic bottles hardly represents good tea.
He was then understandably bewildered when a Kyoto agricultural cooperative introduced him to Royal Blue Tea Japan, a manufacturer of quality bottled teas. But the enthusiasm of company president Keiko Yoshimoto was contagious. She explained that she wanted to take "the first step toward spreading the word about the delicious taste of Japanese tea."
As Yoshida said: "Japanese tea can be appreciated in various ways, including drinking it from a wineglass while dining at a restaurant."
Dwindling household consumption of tea leaves was another factor that convinced Yoshida to work with Royal Blue. Due in part to the popularity of cheap, plastic-bottled teas, green tea purchases per household fell from around 7,000 yen ($62.9) a year in the 1990s to the current 4,000 yen.
Also in search of new opportunities is Rishouen's Kagata, who once hosted a gathering in France to celebrate the mariage of Japanese tea and French cheese. Much to the surprise of his guests, Kagata revealed how different tea temperatures can bring out different aromas in cheese.
Kagata found that boiling Japanese tea in Europe's hard water extracts unduly large amounts of the antioxidant catechin, making for too strong a brew. He opted for cold-brewed tea instead, which also goes well with Western cuisine, and has even introduced a green tea brewed in carbonated water.
Drawing on terroir and France's appellation d'origine controlee -- the certification system for wine and certain agricultural products based on geographical location -- Kagata spends a great deal of time crafting single field teas.
Some tea growing areas are trying to extract more from their leaves than just tea. Wazuka, a quiet township in the mountainous southeastern part of Kyoto Prefecture, is attracting tourists from around the world, who are drawn to the beauty of the softly undulating tea farms that grace the region's mountains.
UNTAPPED ASSET Wazuka's history is steeped in tea farming. Records indicate tea growing technology had already been developed there by the early 12th century. The location is ideal for growing and marketing tea. "It is close to Kyoto, a major consumption center, it has good slopes with good water absorption, and temperatures vary significantly," said professor Takao Fujii of Kyoto Gakuen University's faculty of bioenvironmental science.
Fujii hails from a family of Wazuka tea farmers. The lovely geometry of the tea fields extending up the slopes has been a trademark of the area since the late 1970s, he explained. The pleasing patterns came from the need to grow the plants as high up the mountains as possible in order to meet rapidly expanding tea consumption after World War II.
"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 its Bordeaux wine and grapes, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many believe the home of Uji tea deserves the same honor. Kyoto Prefecture has already taken steps to obtain the designation, inviting French officials familiar with the matter to expedite the process.
The township is now drawing up an ordinance to help preserve the scenery. "I hope visitors enjoy [seeing] how we live our lives with nature, as the tea field scenery keeps changing with how we make a living," Wazuka Mayor Tadao Hori said.
Tours to the region's tea fields are increasingly popular, including the $100-plus trips offered by Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, a tea maker and vendor.
For locals accustomed to generations of tea farms, the fact that their "perfectly ordinary" fields are now a tourist attraction has been a pleasant surprise.