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Sunday, May 26, 2002

The pick of the crop


Staff writer

IRUMA, Saitama Pref. -- Despite global warming and technological developments in agriculture worldwide, still some things have never changed. Just ask tea farmer Toshiharu Kato.

News photo
A woman in traditional tea-picking dress shows visitors how to select the best leaves from bushes on an Iruma City farm.

Every year, Kato begins picking the tea leaves on his farm in Iruma City, Saitama Prefecture, around hachiju-hachi ya in early May -- just as tea farmers have been doing for generations. Hachiju-hachi ya is the 88th day after risshun (Feb. 4, the first day of spring according to the Chinese calendar), and it is traditionally the day when farmers would begin planting out seeds and transplanting.

All of the leaves harvested in the couple of weeks following that 88th day make up the year's shincha(new tea), which is believed to be the most flavorsome tea. However, those picked in the season's opening days are considered to be the highest quality of all -- and are certainly the most valuable.

The weeks and then days leading up to harvest time, therefore, can be particularly nerve-racking. As one of the most northerly tea-producing prefectures, Saitama's tea crops are constantly at risk of frost damage, Kato explains. Just one chilly morning, he says, can freeze the buds and destroy the crop. On the other hand, the cooler temperatures encourage the plants to grow thicker leaves that make for a rich-tasting tea.

So when hachiju-hachi ya arrives, the 60-year-old farmer examines the soft, yellowish new leaves with great care. To the untrained eye, they appear simply fresh and beautiful, but to Kato, they reveal the precise moment to begin picking.

"Usually we have just three 'best days' for picking [shincha]," he says. "The moment to begin is indicated by the growth of the four new leaves on top of each spray."

Weather, of course, also plays a role in deciding when to begin harvesting. Farmers pick tea leaves only on a sunny day, to better preserve their scent, Kato explains. The collected leaves are processed the same day so that they do not lose any of their freshness and flavor.

It is a delicate process that requires care and concentration -- after all, making good shincha is so important a task for tea farmers that it constitutes the core of their life. Kato has observed the ritual annually for the past 40 years, as his father did before him.

In Kato's father's day, however, the work was more manual and time-consuming. Gone are the days when farmers and their families, bearing baskets, went into the sloping fields for the entire day. No longer are the freshly picked leaves steamed and rolled by hand for hours that night.

News photo
Motohiro Kato at the wheel of a tea-picking tractor on his father's Iruma City farm

Now, a tea-picking tractor helps Kato harvest the leaves efficiently. Driven by his son, Motohiro, the tractor goes up and down the lines of tea bushes, precision-cutting the top leaves and blowing them into a large bag at the back of the machine.

In the space of two hours, the machine can collect some 250 kg of leaves from one 800-sq.-meter section of the tea field. The fresh crop is processed in Kato's factory the same afternoon. There, machines sterilize the leaves with steam to prevent oxidation, roll them to liberate the juices and enzymes sealed within, and then dry them with warm air. By nightfall, the leaves have been processed into needle-shaped green tea, just one-fifth of their original weight.

In Saitama, farmers harvest tea leaves twice a year: from early to mid-May (shincha), then again from late June to mid-July after new growth has returned. Although some tea-producing regions have a third harvest, in Saitama, the rest of the year is devoted to caring for the tea bushes to ensure a good crop the next season.

The northernmost of the principal tea-producing prefectures, Saitama ranks sixth nationally in terms of area under cultivation, following Shizuoka, Kagoshima, Mie, Kumamoto and Kyoto prefectures. (Nearly half of all the green tea produced in Japan comes from Shizuoka Prefecture.)

Famous for its tea, known as Sayama cha, Saitama is one of the oldest tea-growing areas in the country. The first bushes are believed to have been planted there in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and large-scale production began around 1800, with neighboring Edo (Tokyo) as the main market.

News photo
A closeup of the tractor's precision-cutting mechanism

Today the market for Saitama's green tea is no longer so straightforward. The produce of Kato and his fellow farmers must compete with a wide range of teas, principally black tea and oolong. These are all derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, an evergreen, medium-size shrub. However, black tea is fermented and oolong, semi-fermented; green tea is unfermented, a factor in the health benefits attributed to the drink.

"Drink-makers have successfully promoted the idea that green tea is good for your health," Kato says, adding that the recent popularity of PET-bottled green tea has raised consumers' awareness of the traditional drink. Indeed, according to statistics released by the Japan Tea Central Association, the per capita consumption of green tea rose some 10 percent during the period from 1995 to 2000.

The boom could hardly be better timed. Government figures reveal that the total area dedicated to tea cultivation in Japan has been steadily decreasing, with a corresponding decline in the number of tea farmers.

But Kato remains optimistic, and hopes the recent positive developments will eventually lead to a revival in the appreciation of green tea in its more traditional forms. The farmer believes the true flavor and aroma of his tea is best brought out when prepared in a kyusu (teapot), and he wants younger generations to experience it in this way.

"I want more and more people to know the genuine taste of green tea," he says, looking out over his fields with pride.


Tea for three

Methods for making good green tea differ slightly depending on when the leaves were harvested. Shincha (new tea), now widely available, is the most delicate kind of tea, and it is worth taking care to draw out its fresh flavor.

The following are directions for a pot of tea for three.

6 grams -- tea leaves

180 ml -- hot water (for tea)

1) Warm the kyusu (teapot) by pouring in some hot water.

2) Pour the 180 ml of hot water into the three teacups. This both warms the cups and cools the water. (The ideal temperature for the water is around 70 degrees.)

3) Discard the hot water in the kyusu and put the tea leaves into it.

4) Pour the hot water from the cups into the kyusu.

5) Leave for about 50 seconds, then pour the tea into the three cups, part-filling each in turn to ensure that the tea is of even strength.



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