We landed! After a 10-hour flight from San Francisco to Tokyo,
we’re acclimating to being 8 hours ahead.
Trying to get on the right train in a new country is the hard part.
From the airport, we’re headed to Shizuoka, but there are few signs
in English and I don’t speak Japanese. At one point, we boarded
the wrong train, headed in the right direction, so it made switching
trains easy. Shizuoka is a city and prefecture–it’s also the largest
tea-growing area in Japan.
Once we arrived in Shizuoka, we visited a teahouse located in the
train station’s food court. This food court offered high end food
and I ended up buying a citrus that looked like a yuzu for $7
and a single kiwi cost $2. Here, my son James and I are sitting
down for tea.
They brought us a Fukamushi Sencha, which is a deep-steamed
Sencha known for small broken leaves, juicy taste, and bright
green color. The cups are small–about 4 to 5 ounces in size,
but you brew 3 short extractions never over 45 seconds.
By steeping the tea three times you taste how the flavor
changes each time. The first cup is sweet. The second, astringent.
The third is bitter–but bitter is not considered a negative term.
Instead each steeping shows the changing nature of the tea.
It’s sort of a journey.
When the tea arrived, it came with two sweets. You eat them
interspersed with drinking the tea. The sweets had a gummy
bear texture and fruity flavor.
During our trip, we visited a tea auction where farmers will do
preliminary processing of their teas and present them as
Arracha (crude form of tea) that have not been sorted or cleaned
yet. The farmers then sell to tea companies who “finish” the teas,
grading them or blending them with other teas. Tea prices are
decided by abacus. Once the price is agreed upon, the seller claps
three times–it’s their agreed upon tradition. No contracts are signed.
Three claps and you’re done. The first day the auction started at 6 a.m.
The second day, it started at 5 a.m. A photographer took a photo of my
visit on the second day and the caption apparently reads,
“Shizuoka is attracting foreign buyers.”
One day while we were in Shizuoka, they were holding a tea
festival where you could go pluck your own tea leaves. I’ve
done it before and thought it would be fun. Later on, I gave
the bag of tea leaves I had plucked to my tea partner and
suggested they dry them in a basket to make white tea in
a few days. This is definitely my idea of fun.
This area is called Makino Hara–it’s one of the better known
tea districts in Shizuoka. There’s tea as far as the eye can see.
The tall poles scattered throughout the tea fields are fans.
Japan is not close to the equator. The leaves that start growing
in late March and early April for first flush can be compromised
if there’s a frost. A frost that happens overnight screws with the
tea quality and does irreparable damage, so they will turn on the
fans if a frost is coming, to help circulate the air so it keeps moving
and doesn’t settle on the leaves.
I’m checking out fresh tea leaves that have just been steamed.
This machine steams the leaves for about 45 seconds and they
come out bright green and limp. It’s like blanching broccoli
that fixes the green color. The tea leaves then are being carried
in a tray and bucket elevator to the next stage in the process–
rolling, then drying, and then shaping. If you look carefully,
you can see the steam in the air. The aroma smelled like fresh,
just harvested tea leaves. If there had been only a pinch brewing
in a cup, the aroma instead would have been faint and delicate.
But, imagine 20 pounds of fresh tea leaves steaming and the scent
is pretty powerful.
I’m evaluating three different grades of matcha. One’s more green.
Another is more yellow and the third one is in between. A big part
of determining matcha quality is based on the color so they’re
using black dishes to show off the color.
When you’re reviewing Japanese teas, this is what the process looks like.
It allows people to evaluate the tea quality very fast. A pinch of tea leaves
get added to a bowl. Next, boiling water is poured over the leaves, letting
them steep for three minutes. The idea here is to smell the tea and then
scoop out the leaves. This method of brewing reviewing is a way to expose
the quality and any defects of the tea. When tasted this way, it allows the
harshness of teas to come to the forefront or if you brew a fine tea, to show
how even under less than ideal circumstances, the tea leaves are not harsh.
What you’re seeing here is a variety of Sencha or Arracha teas.
After a full day visiting with one of our tea partners, they invited us
to join them for dinner with their family at this fancy restaurant.
Entertaining is a big part of business in Japan. It’s an extension of
the business relationship. We sat cross-legged on the ground for
2 hours and ate an amazing amount of food. The salmon with egg
in the background of this photo is just one of five courses we ate.
After this course, our tea partner’s son who speaks English
commented, “Next we’re going to eat sushi.” This was one memorable
meal that kept me very satisfied.
It’s the end of the trip and I’m headed back to the Tokyo airport.
On the way to Shizuoka, we took two trains. One took us to the
train station where we boarded a bullet train for Shizuoka.
The bullet train is a bit like BART but three times faster and quieter.
When you’re standing on the platform waiting, you can’t hear
the train approach until it roars by you at 200 miles an hour.
These trains are timed to the minute. Here I’m standing on the
platform waiting to return to Tokyo and then ultimately the
Bay area after a fruitful trip to Japan.
Photos by Robyn Breen-Shinn