Mr. Nakayama is a third generation tea farmer in the Higashisonogi region of Southern Japan. He farms ten hectares of green tea plantation and showed me around his fields with views across the valley to the Omura Sea. The farm is in rural Japan and a world away from the frenetic Japanese city lifestyle, but can be reached from Nagasaki in less than 2 hours. As I explored the tea plantation, the air was still with no sound but the birds, and it seemed for a moment the neon and noise of city life had vanished.
The finest green tea
Higashisonogi produces the best green tea in Japan; something Mr Nakayama is keen to emphasize .In fact the region won the Best Green Tea award in 2017 and 2018 at the Japan Green Tea Awards for their Tama Tea. My visit to this community is part of an agricultural tourism scheme by the Higashisonogi Green Tea Tourism Association to bring rural experiences to an urban community. This includes showing visitors the best of regional food and getting hands on experience of the farming community. Three farmers have collaborated to give visitors a green tea experience on their plantations, each sharing the various aspects of the visit and the surrounding breath-taking scenery.
The Higashisonogi area was the first to export tea in Japan. It sits on the intersection between two major trade routes; the Nagasaki Kaido Road connecting Nagasaki and Tokyo met the Hirado Kaido Road. During the Edo period (1603-1868) Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign traders in Japan. The tea export business began in 1853 when a female trader, Ohura Keio, exported tea to the United States. This area around Higashisonogi produces 60 per cent of the tea in Nagasaki. 750 tonnes are produced each year.
I admire the tightly clipped terraces where the tea grows in immaculately pruned rows. There is just a narrow gap between the plants and everything is packed as tightly as possible onto the terraces. On the higher slopes tea is hand clipped but a machine cuts the leaves on the lower levels. Large wire fences surrounded the tea plantation. Mr Nakayama explained these were designed to keep out local wild boars that have a penchant for green tea. Luckily the boars also acquired a taste for Japanese Pit Vipers which cleared the area of venomous snakes. There are two tea harvests a year. One is in April to May and the second at the end of June. The leaves are then steamed and dried before being sent to markets and retailers. Tea in this area is cultivated to produce fine Japanese green tea for steaming, otherwise known as tamaryokucha.
I’m taken to a quaint traditional tea house on the plantation where another farmer’s wife, Mrs Oyama, demonstrates how to make the perfect cup of green tea. Her tea room is full of tiny cups, wall decorations, and pots. I learn there are four things that go towards making the perfect cup and it is definitely not made like a builders’ tea. “The temperature of the water is crucial, “says Mrs Oyama, “It must be hot. 70 degrees is ideal.”
The amount of water counts, as does the amount of green tea (3-5 grams). Finally, the brewing time is vital- 1 minute for green tea. Mrs Oyama demonstrated the technique by taking a flask and pouring the hot water into each of the cups. This measured the exact amount needed which was then placed into the teapot. I watched and wondered how all these measurements would work out, speaking as one who unceremoniously dunks a teabag in a mug at home. The tea was added and it was left to brew for one minute exactly before being poured in sequence in small amounts into the cups. It tasted fresh and sublime, and all the more so for being grown in the nearby fields. The first cup should be drunk immediately but subsequent cups can be brewed for longer.
Green tea has many health benefits including fat burning and improving brain function. It is renowned for its antioxidant properties and in anti-aging. I definitely felt refreshed. Mrs Oyama had made small mocha cakes flavoured with strawberry that turned out to be the ideal accompaniment to a cup of green tea. Strawberries also grow in abundance in this area. A few days earlier I had sampled the macha green tea in Kyoto, whisked to perfection by a geisha with the consistency of a tasteless pea soup which had left me underwhelmed. The tea in Higashisonogi was what I had been hoping to taste all along. I make a mental note to refine my tea making activity in future.
The farmers had also prepared a lunch of locally sourced food. Each family takes it in turn to host the meal and the tea making. Mr Nakayama invited me into his home where a feast of delicacies had been prepared. I removed my shoes and put on traditional slippers. He showed me the family shrine in the corner of the living room where photos of ancestors where displayed. A long table was covered with dishes containing local specialties – all ready to eat. As with most Japanese homes, seating was on the floor. Broccoli with sesame, honeyed pork, and sticky rice were just a few of the treats that had been cooked up by the farming families and the ingredients came from the surrounding area. Tempura vegetables came from the farmers gardens, and those strawberries were back on the table, as sweet as ever. It was a delicious and plentiful banquet.
Visiting a local community like this was a real privilege and gave an insight into how one of the most famous of Japanese foods is produced. My tea making skills also benefited by learning from an expert.