For over 800 years Japan's finest teas have grown around the town of Uji, which is located on the old road between the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, about 230 miles southwest of Tokyo. Birthplace of both Japanese green tea and the tea ceremony, Uji's rich, slightly acidic soil is ideal for growing tea.
Early morning mist from the Uji river moistens the leaves of the plants and shields them from the sun, and the volcanic soil is well drained by the slopping terrain. Following the natural contours of the valleys and surrounding hills, Uji's landscape is patched with three- and four-acre tea fields. Straight rows of smooth, tightly trimmed bushes look more like ornamental hedges than individual tea plants.
Off the main road, on a hill overlooking Uji, the manicured look of the plantations below gives way to fields of lumpy, irregular rows of tea plants - the remote, centuries-old tea plantations of the Nagata organic tea coop, producers of Mitoku's organic sencha, hojicha, and kukicha teas. Following the principles of an agricultural method known as nature farming, the Nagata organic tea coop, a group of associated tea growers, have been a curiosity to their tea-farming neighbors.
Most tea farmers spray their plants with chemicals fifteen to twenty times a year, but the Nagata coop members have rejected chemical agriculture completely. They do not use animal manures, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides; they replenish the nutrients in their topsoil with vegetable-quality compost only. Nature farming stresses the importance of building soil vitality by maintaining a semi-wild natural environment. Plants are not overly protected or pampered but are allowed to fend for themselves with the help of a strong, balanced topsoil.
Coop chief Aijiro Nagata insists that it is not necessary to prune tea bushes uniformly. Each bush, he says, should be allowed to grow according to its own pattern. Although he harvests a little less tea than similar-sized farms that use chemical methods, his plants have far less mold and blight. Also, the coop tea plants usually produce tea leaves for twice as long a period of time as plants that have been chemically treated. Chemically treated tea plants generally burn themselves out in about twenty years, but the Nagata coop plants commonly produce for forty years, some for as long as one hundred.
In early spring, Uji farmers cover their tender tea leaves with dark netting or slotted bamboo screens to protect them from the afternoon sun. These first spring leaves are processed into gyokuro (jewel dew), Japan's rarest, most expensive tea. Steamed, dried, and ground to a fine powder, these early leaves become matcha, the jade green tea of the ancient tea ceremony.
Unlike their neighbors, in the spring, the coop growers process their most prized leaves into sencha, a high-quality green tea offered to house guests and served at fine Japanese restaurants. Sencha goes especially well with sushi and sashimi (raw fish), as it is said to aid in the digestion of fish oil and protein.
To make sencha, the freshly picked tender leaves are immediately steamed for a minute or so. Steaming softens the leaves and turns them a delicate emerald green color. (The steaming process prevents the tea from fermenting and turning dark. This distinguishes Japanese tea from partially fermented oolong and fully fermented black English teas.) Once steamed, the leaves are rolled into thin curls, dried slowly in ovens, cooled, and immediately packed to seal in their fresh taste and aroma. Slightly bittersweet sencha, more than any other tea, has the fresh taste of just-picked leaves.
The Nagata growers continue to pick sencha throughout the spring. By late June or July the leaves are too large and coarse to qualify as sencha and are processed into hojicha. These leaves are steamed, mixed with black volcanic sand, and roasted in revolving ovens. The sand, later removed, helps the leaves roast slowly and evenly. Roasting further neutralizes the leaves' already weak astringent and stimulating qualities (tea leaves lose caffeine strength as they grow), so both children and adults can drink hojicha at any time of day. Hojicha is one of the Nagata group's most popular teas.
In Japan, coarse summer leaves are usually not roasted, but are sold as lower-quality green tea called bancha. This is the mild, yellow-green tea served in many Japanese restaurants around the world. Within the American natural foods world, however, bancha has quite a different meaning. It has become associated with a popular tea made from roasted twigs and very coarse leaves. Often referred to as kukicha, roasted twig tea is little known in modern Japan.
In Japan, kukicha has been stigmatized as a poor man's drink, because, like brown rice, it brings back memories of the days of deprivation during and after World War II. Macrobiotics founder George Ohsawa introduced kukicha to the West forty years ago. Since it contains only one-tenth the caffeine of sencha and because it is the most alkalinizing Japanese tea, Ohsawa considered it to be the most balanced beverage. Indeed, kukicha is an excellent complement to the grain-based, mostly vegetarian diet he advocated.
Nagata growers keep the caffeine level in kukicha as low as possible by selecting only older twigs and harvesting them in fall and winter when caffeine is naturally lowest. Twigs are steamed, dried, and stored in paper bags for two to three years in order to develop the best flavor. After aging, twigs are cut and graded to size. Each grade is then roasted separately at different temperatures and lengths of time to ensure uniformity. Finally, the twigs are blended and packaged. The Nagata coop formula for just the right ratio of twig size and age is a carefully guarded company secret.