The Future of Tea-Making

Visit the tea fields in the highlands that are turning the common tea cultivation practices upside down

Young Tea LeavesOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

“It’s a very inefficient art form,” explains Mr. Ryo Miyazaki, the representative of “Miyazaki Sabou” located in Gokase Town, Miyazaki Prefecture, when referring to his own farming in a somewhat cheerful way.

Mr. Miyazaki is facing many challenges that farmers all over the world are also facing, including food safety, finding successors, and differentiating tastes. His approach is definitely free and light-hearted and the key is to figure out how to protect Kyushu’s proud tradition of kamairi tea and their ancestors’ dreams, while adapting to the modern environment.

Miyazaki Sabo Tea PlantationOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

The Gokase region

Many people may have a strong impression of Miyazaki Prefecture as a “southern country,” where world surfing competitions are held. However, Gokase in the northern part of the prefecture, where Mr. Miyazaki cultivates and manufactures tea, is a town with a temperature difference so intense that it also has a ski resort. This area is on the southernmost tip of Japan and from this very unusual tea plantation located at an altitude of 600 to 750 meters, you can overlook the magnificent nearby mountains.

Mr. Miyazaki, President of Miyazaki SaboOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Mr. Miyazaki's tea plantation is said to have a 100-year old tree. His family started tea-making in the early Showa era, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, the area of the tea plantation is about 14 hectares. “Since my fields are spread throughout the mountain, I try to find unique characteristics of each field. It’s important to thoroughly understand the conditions of each field, including sunlight, water drainage, and strength of wind, as they differ.”

Miyazaki Sabo Tea PlantationOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Going organic

They’re known for their high quality tea, which has won the “Emperor’s Cup” at the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Festival in 2002. One reason the “Miyazaki Sabou” brand started becoming popularized in the industry was the decision his parents made in 1983 to cultivate organically. Although organic farming is widely supported now, pesticides were still largely used at the time. The decision was ahead of their time, and was hardly understood by others.

Miyazaki Sabo Tea PlantationOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Mr. Miyazaki continued to explain about when his parents announced the decision to farm organically: “They were met with the most opposition from other farmers.” “Other farmers said that they would actually be afraid of selling organic products. Consumers also believed that teas with pesticides are safer. Such was the cultural norm back in the day. In fact, there wasn’t any other farmer who touted the benefits of organic farming 35 years ago.” "More than 20 types of teas are grown in the tea fields that are scattered throughout the mountain slope. From years of experience, we now take measures against frost by running a fan with a temperature sensor." 

Tea SeedsOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

One day, his mother’s friend ran into an agricultural accident, which motivated his parents even further to farm organically despite the oppositions. “We had to go through so many obstacles during the transition period after quitting pesticides. The soil was heavily dependent on pesticides, and had weakened throughout the years, and easily fostered diseases. It only takes a moment to start using chemicals, but we were surprised to find out that it takes so much time and energy to get out of the cycle. Now, other neighboring tea farmers also began farming organically. Our vision is to keep cultivating teas that are unique to the Gokase highlands.” The fact that tea leaves are frequently used as a motif in Japanese family crests indicates that tea has been closely linked to their livelihood.

釜で炒った茶葉Original Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Passing down the tradition of Kamairi

Kamairi (meaning “pot roasted” ) tea, used in Kyushu, comes from the fact that the initial heating method of fresh tea leaves is roasted, not steamed. For example, common Japanese teas such as Gyokuro tea (refined green tea) is steamed. Around the time when the Kumamoto Castle was built in the 15th century, technicians from China and Korea were spreading the roasting method. Other than the Kamairi tea, which has now become a local specialty, “Miyazaki Sabou” also makes black teas and hoji teas (roasted green tea).

Miyazaki SaboOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

The manufacturing plant right near the old tea field is inside a quaint, wooden building. At the moment, it seems difficult to see the benefits of using a wooden building. There’s the “oxidase deactivation machine” on the left, which is used in the roasting process of the raw tea leaves to make kamairi tea. It’s said that this procedure is the most nerve-racking for a tea producer.

Miyazaki SaboOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Unique characters for unique tastes

Mr. Miyazaki says that “the individual characteristics of the producers will become more and more important as time progresses.” “In the past, many consumers consistently drank the same type of tea, but the current trend is to enjoy various types of tea depending on their mood and occasion. The greatest fulfillment of each tea producer is for consumers to enjoy the delicious teas they produce.” This is said to be similar to wine,  where each bottle has its own aroma and flavor.

Production of Kamairicha (Pan-Fried Tea)Original Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Kamairicha (Pan-Fried Tea)Original Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Roasted Tea LeavesOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Each type of tea, whether black or Oolong, is handled by a specific tea master who taste-tests various flavors. “Tea-making is a very delicate art. This is especially true for us, as our fields are scattered throughout the mountain, which makes the taste of tea leaves different for each field. The mechanism of producing the exact same taste in large quantities does not exist in nature. We do have manuals for the machining process, but the result can slightly differ depending on the tea master’s preference, such as volume, temperature, the timing of introducing, and taking out the vapors, etc. But this adds uniqueness to each product, which can be an aspect of enjoyment.”

Traditional Kamairicha Tea MethodOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

New hopes from all over the nation

The ratio of men and women who work at the “Miyazaki Sabou” is about 50/50 and many of them are young. “We now have employees who came from various regions such as Yamagata, Fukushima, Tokyo, Osaka, etc. This might lead to regional revitalization, and resolving the problem of lack of successors. In addition to the full-time workers, we hire about 10 part-timers during the harvest season. Since we can't harvest all the fields at once, we first determine the condition of each field, and form groups to conduct the harvest.” This man is from Osaka, making hoji tea in a kettle that can be as hot as 300° F. His goal is to establish his own tea business one day.

Pot-roasted Tea LeavesOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

We asked Mr. Miyazaki about their tea manufacturing method and field condition, and he was surprisingly very open about it. He said that any producer would know what the field condition is by simply looking at the pictures. “It seems that there was a sense of territoriality in the past, but our wish is for every producer in this country to make trials and errors, learn from one another and have a friend competition. On a wider sense, it would make me happy if we can increase the number of tea lovers out there,” laughs Mr. Miyazaki.

Tea Leaf PowderOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Tea powders are known for their refreshing, vivid color of green. The powders, which smoothly pile up on top of each other, emit a gentle, refreshing smell. You can dissolve the powder in hot water for drinking, or mix it with seasonings such as salt for cooking. Such creative usage can expand the ways we enjoy tea.

Tasting TeaOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Infinite variation of scent and taste

The tea leaves placed in a tasting cup exhibit different colors and shapes. The individuality of tea leaves can be seen if we emphasize their strength, instead of trying to eliminate their weaknesses.

Kamairicha Tea Leaves (Pan-Fried Tea)Original Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

The tea you would never get bored of

Kamairi tea involves a roasting process, which might give off the impression of something very aromatic. It is a smooth, mellow aroma that spreads throughout the body once inhaled. It is smooth to the point where even conventional hoji teas might taste too strong. Mr. Miyazaki says, “I have a weak stomach, so I get heartburn if it’s too aromatic.” “When you retain its rawness, it produces a gentle flavor that makes you want to drink it everyday. We hope our customers enjoy the delicate and smooth flavors like authentic Chinese teas."

Tasting Tea: A Variety of TeaOriginal Source: GIAHS Takachihogo-Shiibayama Site

Credits: Story

Cooperation with
Miyazaki Sabo Co., Ltd.
Takachiho Town Tourism Association

Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corpration

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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