My interview with Masahiro Okutomi, the 15th-generation proprietor of the tea farm Okutomien in Saitama’s Sayama region, took place in late May. With the rush of sencha production having passed its peak, Okutomi was kind enough to show me around his gardens and factory. In the tea gardens at the rear of his house, the first of the season’s matcha leaves were being hand-picked.
“I just like giving new things a try.”
While they do have a secondary tea garden elsewhere, Okutomien’s main tea garden lies directly behind Okutomi’s house. Beyond the garden are the neighbors’ houses. Tea gardens are often thought of as being located in the mountains, but the gardens in this hilly region are in the township, nestled in amongst the everyday community. They are also just an hour’s drive from the great metropolis of Tokyo.
With the sun shining down from above, workers have been out since seven o’clock in the morning, picking by hand a variety of tea called Samidori. Around 25 locals who help out every year are here again today, wearing masks this time and maintaining “social distance,” but still picking the leaves cheerfully.
A delightful popping sound echoes throughout the garden. Tea leaves for use in matcha are picked using a technique called “kokitsumi.” Pinching the base of the stalk with their left hand, the picker uses the thumb and forefinger of their right hand to pinch the base of the leaves and then pulls toward themselves. This allows for the softest leaves and buds to be harvested. It looks painful at first, but it is actually entirely painless, and many pickers find the popping sensation satisfyingly cathartic.
A total of 15 different varieties of tea are grown at Okutomien, including sencha, matcha, gyokuro, and black tea varieties. Some have even been developed from seeds taken from tea plants in Akasaka’s legendary Hie Shrine.
“I just like giving new things a try. My father’s the same way. We started making black tea, and Dad was at the center of the group who started making matcha.”
Full-scale production of matcha in Sayama began with the establishment of Asuka, the Kanto region’s first-ever tencha factory (tencha refers to tea leaves used for matcha before they are ground into fine powder), in May of 2006. Asuka is located just a stone’s throw from Okutomien and is being operated again on the day of my visit by none other than Masahiro’s indefatigable father, Yasuhiro. I am struck by the twinkle in his eye as he explains that the production of matcha in Sayama not only broadens the scope of their tea-making activities but should also lead to a wider cultural flourishing.
Now is our chance to create something new in the field of tea
His son has inherited Yasuhiro’s passion for tea making. Recently, Masahiro has developed a new product called Oni no Shirahone (literally, “The Devil’s White Bones”), which maximizes the effect of the firing process, the greatest characteristic of Sayama tea. Making use of the stems more than the leaves, as they can handle more intense firing, this tea is blended with sencha to create a clean yet sweet and aromatic finish. Unlike sencha and roasted tea, it is particularly well-suited to being served cold.
The other element of the tea creation process about which Okutomi is currently most passionate is withering. Withering involves placing picked tea leaves in a location with consistent airflow to lower their moisture content and enhance their aroma. As withering leads to the leaves losing their color, overdoing it is considered a terrible faux-pas in the green tea creation process. Withering does, however, help draw out floral or fruity aromas, which hold untold possibilities in the creation of new flavors.
“Back when I was head of the Tea Industry Youth Group, I launched a withered tea competition as a new initiative. It came in for some criticism, but I believe withering holds great possibilities for the future of tea. I think it could be a new feature of Sayama tea, a real weapon. Since many people in Sayama were already using withering in their tea-making processes, I thought if I could help show others what good quality withering was capable of, it would encourage them to give it a try, and help revitalize the industry.”
The final cup of tea I am treated to is of the Fukumidori variety, which has been comparatively strongly withered. I can immediately sense the floral aroma, and as I sip I can detect notes of green apple and citrus. It is a truly delicious brew.
“Tea leaves are still living even after they have been picked,” explains Okutomi, “so it’s important to make intelligent use of the changes they undergo. This flavor is entirely the product of the possibilities inherent within the tea leaves themselves. Withering really does draw out the unique characteristics of each variety. Quite simply, it’s the element I currently find most fascinating.”
Okutomi believes that a certain amount of creativity with tea is what this era truly needs.
“Tea is fascinating, it really is. I think it is the nature of our times that has led to the creation of many new types of tea. In the old days, the heyday of tea, when it sold really well, all tea was pretty much the same. Now, precisely because tea is no longer selling as well, producers all over the country are getting more creative. We’re trying out all sorts of other things here, from lightly fermented tea to white tea. You have to be prepared to play around with things if you want to come up with anything new. If you want to have a little fun and experiment by tweaking a few different things, then there’s no limit to what you might discover.”
For Okutomi, the tea-making process never stops. And this year, next year, and every year beyond that, I know that he will continue to find something fascinating that keeps him drawn to the potential of tea.
Masahiro Okutomi Born in 1980, the 15th-generation proprietor of Okutomien, a tea farm in Sayama City in Saitama Prefecture. In addition to quality hand-picked sencha and deep-steamed sencha, he also manufactures and sells black tea, which has even been a winner in the British Great Taste Awards. Winner of a Silver Medal in the sencha category of the Japanese Tea Selection Paris 2019. instagram.com/okutomien (Instagram) facebook.com/OKUTOMIEN (Facebook)