• UA’s serious obsession with tea (2nd half)
    The birth of an original blend to provide inspiration for everyday life


    Following the critically acclaimed release of her new EP “Are U Romantic?”, UA has returned temporarily to Tokyo to perform in music festivals, appear on television, and even star in a musical. Thankfully for us, though, she has found time in her busy schedule to talk to CHAGOCORO about her love of tea.

    For this second part of the interview, we have also welcomed tea producer Kenji Tomizawa from the town of Mashiki in Kumamoto Prefecture to allow UA to experience a range of Japanese teas. The conversation continues while she tastes and compares the different varieties.

    “Japanese tea is a part of our very identity”

    Tomizawa: I have been listening to your conversation with great interest. I am so delighted to hear an icon of musical culture like yourself express an interest in Japanese tea, especially amid the present-day climate in which the number of tea producers in the nation is in significant decline. It’s an absolute joy and inspiration to those of us working at the coalface of tea production to have this opportunity to talk to you like this. On a personal level, you provided the soundtrack to much of my youth, so it’s a great honor just to be here.

    UA: You flatter me. I really do believe that the Japanese archipelago is unparalleled as a location in terms of its natural energy. To begin with, it’s really quite rare to have four distinct seasons the way we do in Japan. The fact that we refer to it as “Nihoncha,” or “Japanese tea,” is indicative of the uniqueness of flavor that can be achieved as a result of these natural blessings. To lose that would be unthinkable – it would compromise our very identity.

    Tomizawa: I agree completely. While I don’t envision the industry being totally lost, the time has certainly come when we must seriously consider how the young inheritors of our legacy can make a proper living by producing tea. The reason that I switched to organic farming methods is so that I could sell more Japanese tea to overseas customers because I see that as being in the best interests of the next generation. New trends are emerging in terms of creating new flavors as well. The process known as “withering,” for example, is used to create tea with bold fragrances and flavor profiles with strong notes of umami. I have prepared some of this withered tea as a welcoming tea for you today.

    UA: “Withering”? I’m not familiar with the term. What is that?

    Tomizawa: It refers to the process used to remove excess water from the leaves and allow a very slight amount of oxidation.

    UA: I see. Wow, it packs even more of a punch than I was expecting.

    Tomizawa: If you pick the tea leaves from the very tips of the plants, that is, the younger buds, they contain elevated levels of amino acids, which give any resulting tea a sweet, umami-rich taste. Such tea is referred to in Japanese tea lingo as “mirui,” and these soft buds as “mirume.” This tea uses these “mirume,” which have been picked from the plants while still very soft, and then have been withered to dry them out. This is why, as you say, it packs a punch.

    UA: I’m fascinated by the specialist terminology of the tea world. “Mirui”…? I’ve never heard that before. How wonderful. I’d love to use it in my lyrics…

    A comparative taste test, and UA’s own blend

    Next, we have Tomizawa prepare six different types of sencha from Kumamoto, and explain each as he goes through the brewing process. Below is a summary of the major characteristics of each, together with UA’s impressions upon tasting them.

    ①Yabukita (kabusecha – covered tea)
    The common variety Yabukita has been grown here using covered cultivation. As a result of this cultivation method, it exudes a strong, umami-rich aroma, but features a taste with an excellent balance of bitter, astringent, sweet, and umami flavors. As UA herself notes, “its flavor is much milder than its aroma would suggest.” The end product is a tea that is representative of Tomizawa’s fundamental philosophy of creating flavors with a well-rounded sweetness.

    ②Okumidori (kabusecha – covered tea)
    Okumidori is known as a slow-growing variety whose buds take a long time to develop. “Slow-growing varieties tend to be sweet and umami-rich and are personal favorites of mine,” explains Tomizawa.
    “Oh, this is completely different to the Yabukita,” exclaims UA after just a single sip. “It has a more earthy aroma and is exceptionally smooth. At the same time, though, it’s full-bodied and strong-flavored. Its aroma and taste are almost diametrically opposed.”

    ③Okuyutaka (kabusecha – covered tea)
    Tomizawa’s personal favorite, Okuyutaka has rich umami notes and a fresh and powerful punch. “Oh, this is remarkable,” agrees UA. “It would make a wonderful morning brew. I could really get hooked on this.” The fresh, eye-opening flavors appear to have made a strong impression.

    ④Saeakari (kabusecha – covered tea)
    A new variety, Saeakari is an early-maturing tea, in contrast to the aforementioned Okumidori. According to Tomizawa, its most distinctive characteristic is its grain-like aroma. “A really interesting flavor with a robust aftertaste,” declares UA.

    This is the same variety as the first cup, this time grown using open cultivation (exposing it to natural light without any shading). In response to UA’s comment that its color is quite different, Tomizawa explains that “while covered cultivation encourages the development of deep, dark greens, this is tea’s more natural color, as well as its natural levels of bitterness and astringency.” UA opines that “it has a nostalgic feel to it.”

    ⑥Sakimidori (open cultivation)
    The final brew uses the fresh-tasting Sakimidori, with its low levels of bitterness and astringency. Leaves harvested last year have been left to age, imbuing the tea with a more mature, distinctive aroma. Traveling up through the nose to the palate, it combines with its clean aftertaste for an easy-to-drink brew.

    obi belt(KAPUKI)

    Tomizawa: Now that you’ve tried a little of each, are there any that you are curious to know more about or which you would like to try re-blended in a slightly different manner?

    UA: I’m feeling a little high from all the caffeine, to be honest. I can combine these any way I want?

    Tomizawa: Absolutely. There are no rules here.

    UA: This one (Okumidori) had a very bold, strong flavor, and this one (Saeakari) also made a very strong impression. It’s difficult – I don’t want to just go with my gut feeling.

    Tomizawa: No, you should value your instincts.

    UA: If I’m going with my instincts, I’d choose these two.

    Tomizawa creates a 1:1 blend of Okumidori and Saeakari. What will it taste like?

    UA: Oh, it looks so pretty. Yes, what a wonderful aroma.

    Tomizawa: Both teas you selected are examples of kabusecha, so I hope you will be able to taste the umami and sweetness generated by that cultivation method. Another interesting fact about tea is that, while I brewed this pot using very hot water between 90 and 95 degrees, if I were to use cooler water, say 60 to 70 degrees, it would create a brew with much stronger umami notes.

    UA: Yes, the aftertaste of this one (Saeakari) comes on very strong. It could probably do with being a little sharper, actually. I mean, this is good, but it makes the end point a little too obvious, if you know what I mean. It brings me back to myself, certainly, but I’d like something with a little more astringency, and that’s a little cleaner in its flavor profile to really inspire me.

    Tomizawa: Wow, you really know your stuff. In that case, it might be a good idea to use some of the open-cultivated Yabukita.

    To create a brew with a little more bite, the next blend Tomizawa creates is Saeakari 2: Okumidori 1: Yabukita (open cultivation) 1.

    “I really feel like it gives me a sense of distance, in a good way”

    Tomizawa: Including just a little of the open-cultivated tea should create a cleaner flavor with a little more bitterness.

    UA: Yes, you’re right. This is delicious. How fascinating. Somehow, it’s totally different from the first cup. Its piquancy fits perfectly with the theme I’m after today, of allowing me to separate myself from the world. It may just be my imagination, but I feel like it gives me a sense of distance, in a good way. But rather than just sending me flying away, it’s a sense of separation with a perfect place to land. As if it’s taking me directly upward, but on a controlled axis of movement.

    Tomizawa: You have such sharp insight and a unique way of expressing yourself. After hearing your descriptions, I think anyone would be inspired to try such a tea.

    UA: You need an axis to ground you to open the door to your imagination. Without that grounding influence, it’s just too free – you lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve. I sometimes think of it as a pin keeping me grounded but still leaving me free to move about it as I wish. This is actually quite obvious, but come to think of it, tasty tea can only be grown when the roots of its plant are embedded firmly in the earth. I think people are very similar. Those of us who live in the city, in particular, often forget about our connection to the land.

    Tomizawa: That reminds me of something my grandparents used to tell me: “Tea is the reincarnation of the living leaves.” I was raised to understand that good tea can only be made by taking proper care of the garden in which it is grown.

    UA: I see. It all comes back to the earth.

    Tomizawa: Absolutely. People are the same – if we eat quality food, it helps create a positive metabolic cycle. For soil as well, if you feed it well – if the organisms within are healthy, then the soil will sustain healthy plant life. I have always believed this, and I intend to continue to strive to create the healthiest possible soil to grow the best possible tea.

    UA: I think that’s wonderful. I mentioned romanticism earlier, and to many people, that word has a somewhat grandiose image, but the way you talk about tea is actually quite romantic. After all, what could be more romantic than considering the good of the planet on which we live? Living among the buildings of the big city, it’s difficult to really feel like you’re living on planet Earth sometimes. In our information society, you can open up your laptop and see almost any landscape you want, but it’s not the same as actually being there. For those of us who live urban lifestyles, finding time to immerse ourselves in nature can be hard. This is exactly why tea can be so valuable – as a gateway to remind us of our connection to the earth. My recent infatuation with tea wasn’t planned or born of any profound philosophy, but the more I talk about it, the more I understand just how important it is.

    To provide a little romance in our everyday lives.

    To let us maintain some distance from the world to be true to ourselves.

    To act as a gateway to nature for modern people.

    UA’s philosophy regarding the place of tea in our lives resonated strongly with Kenji Tomizawa and must surely have done the same with many who have read this piece as well.

    Tomizawa has agreed to produce UA’s original blend for a limited time. I encourage you all to savor her tea as you reread her words, as you listen to “Ocha,” as you watch its music video, or simply as you meditate and try to find a little self-oblivion.

    Musician, born in Osaka. Her stage name, UA, derives from the Swahili for “flower.” Since her debut in 1995, her unique appearance and stunning voice have attracted the attention of music lovers. A string of hits including “Jonetsu,” “Kanashimi Johnny”, and “Milk Tea” have made her one of Japan’s most well-known female vocalists. She has also participated as a guest vocalist on a number of tracks written by other artists, and in 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of her career. As an actress, she has appeared in Woman of Water (her first lead role, in 2002), Big Man Japan (2007), and Eatrip (2009).
    This multi-talented artist left the big city behind in 2005, and since then, she has lived an agricultural existence in the countryside. Currently based in Canada, she released the EP “Are U Romantic?” on May 25th of 2022, her first new album for six years. The album explores the current state of pop and neo-pop in 2022, and is planned to be accompanied by a tour of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka (see her official website for more details).
    Official website
    “Are U Romantic?” product page(purchase and streaming)

    Kenji Tomizawa
    Fourth-generation proprietor of Ocha no Tomizawa, cultivators, producers and sellers of tea, based in Mashiki Town in Kumamoto Prefecture. Operating the region’s only remaining tea garden after the Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016, Tomizawa remains firmly committed to innovative tea cultivation to bring the beauty of Kumamoto tea to the world.

    Photo: Masayuki Shimizu
    Styling: Kumiko Iijima (POTESALA)
    Kimono dressing: Mitsue Niino (Asami Kimono)
    Hair: Miho Matsuura
    Maku-up: COCO
    Text & Edit: Yoshiki Tatezaki
    Produce: Kenichi Kakuno & Keisuke Mizuno
    Coordination: Emiko Izawa
    Special Thanks: Kenji & Chiharu Tomizawa (Ocha no Tomizawa)