My Yukata teacher occasionally organizes cultural outings for a group of ex-pats and Japanese people. My first one was in mid-May, to Uji, a region famous for growing tea. I learned an incredible amount. Did you know that all black and green tea come from the same plant? The difference is how much you ferment it. Green tea is not fermented, oolong is slightly fermented, and black tea is fully fermented. The more you know!
So we got on a bus and drove the two hours to Uji, which is near Kyoto. Somehow my teacher had been introduced to a young man about my age whose father owned a tea plantation and factory. He agreed to give us a tour. It was a very rainy morning, but by the time we arrived in Uji it was beginning to clear up.
Unfortunately, that meant they were not processing tea that day. The whole point of tea processing is that the leaves are dried. Humidity in the air inhibits this process and so the factory does not run when it is raining or humid. Alas. Even so, it was very cool to see.
First, there was the refrigerated room which keeps tea leaves that haven’t been processed. I guess you generally only pick when you are going to process, so you don’t have too much stored at any time. They had two carts left over from the day before. Each cart holds 1000kg of fresh leaves, which will end up producing 16kg of tea.
Next, the tea is put on a conveyor belt, which ushers it into the steamer, which halts the fermentation process. The leaves are blown around inside the contraption for like 15 seconds at 190 degrees Celsius.
Then came the crazy tall (3 story) mesh nets where the tea is blown up and around until they are a little more dried and the leaves are spread out. When it goes through the oven, they want the leaves to be separated, and not over lapping. This step makes that happen.
Then comes the oven. I forget how hot it is, but the leaves go through it 3 times. I also don’t remember how long each lap takes….
When they have been dried, they are then sent to another machine which dries them a little more and also removes the leaves from the stems and sends the leaves to boxes and the stems to bags. The stems are then sent to a different location where they are made into tea leaf stem tea.
The boxes are filled with tea, and the person sized bag is filled with stems. From fresh leaves to being boxed, this process takes about 1 hour for 1000kg.
Then the tea is put in their warehouse and left to age for several months before it can be sold.
Tea leaf harvesting and processing has a very short season. The factory owner said that they maybe process 20-30 days per year, usually in May. At the start of the season they may only process tea for a few hours a day, but in peak harvesting season, they will process for 24 hours a day.
After touring the factory, we took a short bus ride to the factory owner’s home, which had two tennis courts filled with tea leaves that were covered. Apparently you can tell the good quality tea from the normal stuff by if the plants are covered. No idea why.
This first photo is the owner of the farm and his son and soon to be daughter-in-law.
This beautiful woman was the owner’s wife and our incredible hostess.
We were instructed to only pick the leaves that were an inch and a half long. The fresh leaves are also really shinny. You are supposed to put your thumb on the top side of the leave, and have the stem balanced on your pointer finger. You then pull up to detach the leaf. It was surprisingly hard!
After a while of tea picking we went inside for lunch. Their house was incredible. They had a very fancy family alter, gorgeous wood carvings, and traditional wedding gifts.
We were served cold brewed iced tea made with the dried leaves in an old water bottle that had been left to steep.
We ground matcha using a traditional grinder thingy. You poured dried leaves in the top, they filtered through, and you wound the thing around and it was super heavy. The ground match filters out into the little tray area at the bottom. It was really nifty but such hard work.
We were then served matcha, that we had freshly ground! We also got a small sugar sweet. Tea is always served with a small sweet dessert, that usually reflects the season.
After our amazing lunch, we went to Byodoin Temple, which is on the back of the 10 Yen coin.
Then we walked over the “oldest bridge in Japan”, which currently has two lanes in either direction and semi trucks driving over it. Every year at some point in the fall, the tea season officially opens and they do some ceremony where they draw water from the river over the side of the bridge. At once side of it is the statue of the author of the Tale of Genji, the oldest written story in hiragana. At the other side is one of the oldest tea houses in Japan. My sensei was really excited to go in and purchase some tea.
Our next stop was Mimurotoji, famous for azaleas in May and hydrangea in June. It was incredible!
At the top of the hill there was a temple with these funny statues that had moving parts inside of them that you had to reach in to make it balance. They conveyed various varieties of luck.
It was a lovely day learning new things and spending time with friends.