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Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010

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Green fingers: Visitors pick tea at the sprawling Greenpia Makinohara complex of tea fields and factory buildings in the hills above Kanaya in Shizuoka Prefecture. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

Taking a tea break in Shizuoka


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

It's no secret what the cash crop of Shizuoka Prefecture is: tea.

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Slim pickings: A basket holds the fruits of a visitor's 20 minutes of harvesting — enough leaves for around 20 grams of tea.

Green and generally reckoned to be healthful, this brew has fueled Japan for close on 1,500 years since being introduced from the Asian mainland. Now, as my Hamamatsu-bound train winds its way from Tokyo through the Makinohara district in the west of this coastal prefecture, all I see before me are seas of green.

From the carefully sculpted bushes in endless orderly lines that clothe every available inch of land to a nearby hillside emblazoned with the ocha-shaped kanji (ocha is Japanese for "green tea," and the kanji is formed from tea plants, of course), it's clear that Makinohara revolves around one of the most popular drinks in the world.

I disembark at tiny Kanaya Station, on a quest to better understand the origins of the plant that regularly soothes my caffeine cravings. Shizuoka seems the natural spot for such research — tea has been grown in the area for more than 800 years, and its family-run plantations account for just under half of the nation's annual production.

In the hills above Kanaya, a good 10 minutes by taxi from the station, my cheerful driver deposits me at Greenpia Makinohara, a sprawling complex of tea fields and factory buildings. The large parking lot looks like it accommodates tour buses in the high season, but I'm visiting outside a main tea-picking time and the place is blessedly calm.

"Welcome to Greenpia!" enthuses employee Keiko Ishida, as I check in at the main office for my morning tea-picking experience. While Greenpia is open for tourists year-round, most visitors plan their excursion for sometime between April and October, when the minimal fee of ¥800 allows anyone to join in the center's tea harvest.

Ikeda hands me a wicker basket and directs me to a rack of dark-colored traditional hapi coats. A quick glance at the photographs on the wall — ranging from assorted regular tourists to Japanese dignitaries to the ambassador from Sweden — testifies to this being the "official" tea-picking uniform. I sort through the selection, eventually donning a navy-blue coat with flower print, and join a small group heading out to the nearby fields for their manual labor.

We're led down the lane to a plot of dark-green, shoulder-high bushes, where Ikeda explains the proper harvest methods.

"Only pick the small leaves, and only grab three leaves per shoot" is the advice she dispenses to us amateur helpers. The darker leaves are no good, she warns, adding that we should stay away from the brown stems closer to the center of the bush. I ask her why the larger leaves are unfavorable and she explains, "The tea is too rough — you can't get enough flavor."

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Tea times: Picking tea at the Greenpia Makinohara center outside Kanaya (above), where there's no shortage of cuppas for visitors (below) — or tea-themed meals at the center's Maruobara restaurant (bottom).
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Fanning out among the hedgelike rows, our group fumbles its way through the first few minutes of finding the right leaves before quickly settling into a comfortable rhythm. The sun, quite bright for so early in the day, beats down on our backs and I have fleeting feelings of sympathy for migrant farm workers. In truth, however, one of the main tea- harvesting seasons in Shizuoka occurs not in the midst of the summer's high heat, but in the days surrounding Golden Week at the start of May. During that time of year, there's a wealth of young shoots on the mature tea bushes, making it the year's most prolific harvest time.

I query Ikeda about the small field of tea plants behind our own plot — anemic- looking saplings compared to the robust bushes we've been stripping of leaves.

"They're recently planted and not ready for picking," she explains and gestures mid-shin, to the height a bush must reach before it produces tea that's able to be harvested.

In the four years it takes for the plants to mature, however, Ikeda explains that a variety of factors can ruin the crop. Indeed, it seems that in recent years the effects of global warming have played a hand in Shizuoka's tea industry, with a vicious surge of the dreaded horse-hair fungal blight attacking immature tea bushes in record numbers.

Greenpia Makinohara has been relatively lucky, as their sweeping vistas of healthy tea fields suggest, but it's obvious that the parade of jumpsuit-clad plantation workers who join us in the fields are constantly on guard for new environmental threats.

For 30 minutes, I deftly denude the row of tea bushes in front of me, but at the end of our session my wicker basket still feels suspiciously light. I've managed to fill a mere fifth of it — an amount that translates to only 20 grams of tea. Though only the most skilled tea-pickers can gather up to 600 grams of tea in a day's work, I still feel somewhat embarrassed by my efforts.

"Don't worry," Ikeda reassures as we leave the fields. "It's enough for a few cups, at least."

Back in the entrance hall, I shed my hapi coat and hand over the contents of my basket to Greenpia staff. Ikeda bags the loose leaves and offers it back, along with a recipe for tempura-battered tea. She thanks me and indicates I should head upstairs, where the next step on the road to a cuppa is illustrated.

On the second floor of the main building, Greenpia allows visitors to observe its factory in action, though there's not much happening during my morning visit. Illustrated sign boards do a good job of illuminating the procedures of steaming, straining and grinding, and a few of the gleaming machines are available for closer inspection. At this point, however, all I'm interested in is the finished product.

I allow my stomach to dictate my final activity at Greenpia and drop in to the center's popular restaurant, named Maruobara, which is housed in an atmospheric old building dating from the late 19th century.

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The food on offer is, predictably, a selection of menus revolving around tea-infused dishes. I choose a mid-value set and it arrives promptly in front of me. Happily, I work my way through plates of tea-encrusted tuna sashimi, tea-flavored soba noodles, tempura-battered tea leaves and a trio of desserts each with a hint of . . . well, you get the picture.

After my meal, I nip into Greenpia's sprawling gift shop, where employees dole out steaming cups of tea to every visitor. Sipping contentedly on the hot green liquid, I browse the shelves for a box of tea to take home. It'll probably be impossible to replicate the impeccably fresh taste of Shizuoka's top product in my own kitchen, but you can't blame a girl for trying.

Greenpia Makinohara is open year-round (10 a.m.-7 p.m., closed Tuesdays) and can be reached by taxi (fare around ¥2,500) from Kanaya Station on the local JR Tokaido Line — amounting to a roughly 128-minute journey from Tokyo Station. Go between April and October for a hands-on tea-picking experience (¥800). The onsite restaurant is open from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.


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