Sayama Tea: Joining the Harvest 狭山茶, 所沢
by Johannes Schonherr
As so often, it's just a matter of crossing the railway tracks. Leaving suburbia behind and entering the semi-rural Kita Iwaoka section of Tokorozawa. Sure, the ever expanding Tokyo suburbs are encroaching here too and high voltage power lines already dominate the landscape. But down on the ground, it's still farmers' land.
Not exclusively but to the most part tea farmer's land. Long rows of tea bushes stretch out between small patches of forest and sizable vegetable fields. Poles with small propellers on top line them. The propellers keep the air in circulation in the winter to protect the plants from frost.
Large old mansions dot the area, with flags outside announcing that these belong to Sayama Tea producing family operations. Small tea processing plants are attached to many of them. Some even run their own little shops to sell the homegrown product.
Sayama Tea is one of the northern-most teas grown in Japan. The plantation area reaches from Higashi Murayama in Northwest Tokyo to Iruma in Saitama, with Tokorozawa being more or less in the center of it. The neighboring town of Sayama lent the tea its name.
Most Japanese tea is grown in the south and west of Japan, with Kagoshima (Kyushu), Kyoto-Uji and Shizuoka Prefecture producing the bulk. Sayama Tea makes up only about 1 percent of Japan's total tea production but is considered to be one of the best in terms of taste.
The most commonly grown tea plant here is Sayama Kaori, a plant very well suited to the climate of the Musashino Plain - the wide flatlands north and northwest of Tokyo in which the Sayama Tea area is located.
Another common tea plant here is Yabukita. It's originally from Shizuoka but cold-resistant enough to flourish here despite the sometimes freezing Musashino winters.
Arriving at a farm tea shop, you may have to shout out a few times before someone appears who is in charge of the store. The tea farmers are most likely busy with other things and will man their store only when a potential customer has arrived.
But if you have any question about the tea, this is the place to ask. You are not talking to some sort of clerk here - the person behind the counter will be a member of the tea growing family and will know pretty much everything about the variety of teas on offer. What plant variety they come from, how they were harvested and processed, how to drink them best. If your questions get too detailed, a shout into the backrooms of the house will alert the authority best suitable to answer said question - be it the plantation owner, the man running the processing plant, the lady overseeing the harvest.
But if you really like Japanese tea, go there in April and ask the question: "Need a harvest helper?" What better way could there be to get a real hands-on education on tea than by experiencing the harvest first-hand?
The harvest season is in late April and you will most likely get the answer, "Sure, always." You get the approximate harvest time and the phone number of the farm.
Call in and get the final details for the harvest once the dates have eventually been set. They depend on the weather - you can't harvest tea in the rain.
The first surprise in the morning the harvest starts are the fields you are directed to. It's not those neatly trimmed long rows of tea bushes you see printed so often in tea advertisements. Those are trimmed to get harvested by machines. That's the cheaper tea. The machines cut old leaves, they cut stems, they cut twigs. Most of the useless stuff will be sorted out later during processing - but hand-picked tea is a totally different affair.
The bushes you will get directed to are lined up in perfect rows too but they stretch their branches out as nature demands.
They tend to be of the Yabukita variety and are about 160cm high. The clean-cut machine harvest plants are more likely Sayama Kaori.
By the time of your arrival, the professional tea picker team might already be busy. Old farm ladies from the surrounding towns, touring the various tea farms to earn additional income. They wear serious traditional headgear to protect themselves from the sun. Make sure to cover your head as well - the sun can be merciless at that time of year.
The lady of the farm will inform you which leaves to pick - and you quickly recognize that those are the ideal tea leaves you have seen so often in print. A leaf shooting out on top (though it may have split into two by now) and the two leaves below it. They are the perfect set of tasty, beautiful young tea leaves. Don't take any other leaves.
You will be handed a basket with a string. Put it over your shoulder, your neck or whatever you feel most comfortable. Don't look into the baskets of the old farm women. No matter how hard you try, they will be much quicker plucking the leaves. But you will find that within a few hours, you will be up to pretty good speed, too.
You scan the bushes, you work from below. You take the best leave sets and place them into the basket. Ignore the ones that are of odd shape - they may have been compromised by insects.
It's rather easy work, actually. Because of the height of the plants, you don't have to be afraid of back pains.
There is a break every two hours. The young man of the farm will collect all the harvested leaves and take them directly to the family processing plant where he runs the machines.
At the end of the work day, you get an envelope with cash for your work, based on the hours you spent on the field. You won't be able to save much for your next trip around the world here. But you came here not for making a buck but for experiencing the tea harvest.
So, next is a visit to the processing plant. The son of the house will show you all his machines and explain the steps taken in detail. But the machines are big and it is difficult to really follow what exactly they are doing.
Tokorozawa Tea Festival
To understand the processing of the tea after the harvest, a visit to the Tokorozawa Tea Festival always held in late April, will do much better.
It's a small festival held outside of Tokorozawa Town Hall. It consists of only a few tents. But here you can really see how the green tea makes its way to your cup. It all is demonstrated on small and easily comprehensible equipment.
After being hand-collected, the tea leaves are steamed. They are then rolled or say, "massaged". This has traditionally been done by hand - and at the festival you can not only see that old-style hand-rolling but you can try your own hand on it. It's much more difficult than it looks like - at least for someone who has no experience at it. In the tea processing plants today, machines do the job.
Finally the tea goes to drying, grinding and packaging - and you can buy the finished Shin Cha (new tea) right there at the end of the process.
Plenty of free tea is offered at the festival, of course. But even more interesting is the Yabukita tempura. Deep fried Yabukita tea leaves. That's the variety typically hand-picked. It's a really innovative and very tasty way of enjoying a few good tea leaves in a rather unusual way.
Most of the Sayama Tea area is served by the Seibu Shinjuku Line.
To get to Kita Iwaoka, get off at Shin Tokorozawa Station (Seibu Shinjuku Line), take the West Exit and walk for about 10 -15 mins in direction Sayama on Highway 50. Then, at the Joy Fit gym in Tokorozawa Koyocho, turn to the right and cross the railway line. Walk straight and you will quickly arrive in the center of Sayama Tea land.
Tokorozawa Town Hall: take the East Exit of Kokukoen Station of the Seibu Shinjuku Line and walk for about 5 mins.
The Sayama Tea Festival always takes place in late April or early May. For information on the actual date call the Agriculture Promotion Division at Tokorozawa Town Hall at 04 2998 9158 (in Japanese).
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