There is a well-known traditional song in Japan called “Cha Tsumi” (Tea Picking) that sings of the “88th night,” said to be the perfect time to pick tea. This “88th night” is counted from the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar, meaning that this year, it refers to the 1st of May. While the ideal time to pick tea leaves depends on several factors including region and variety, this still serves as a symbolic date indicating when the first “Ichibancha” buds are ready to be harvested.
This year, the new tea season arrives just as the nation has been placed in an official state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and people are being asked to stay at home. While human activity patterns are being forced into unprecedented changes, the plants continue to grow, and the seasons move on relentlessly. For tea producers around the country, that special time of year has arrived once more.
At the end of May, I was privileged to visit prominent tea farmer Masahiro Okutomi at his farm, Okutomien, which has been run for 15 generations in Sayama in Saitama Prefecture. We discussed the history and characteristics of Sayama tea, said to represent the northernmost extremity of profitable green tea farming, and he spoke to me of his undying passion for tea.
Sayama settles the matter with flavor
Sayama in Saitama is known as one of Japan’s three major tea farming regions, together with Shizuoka and Kyoto. There is even an old proverb which goes, “Shizuoka is for color, Uji is for aroma, but Sayama settles the matter with flavor.”
As soon as I arrive, Masahiro Okutomi, 15th-generation proprietor of Okutomien, brews me a pot of tea with recently harvested new tea leaves and furnishes me with a brief history of Sayama tea. The founder of Okutomien, an ancestor of his, is known to have passed away in the year 1673. Since the Edo Shogunate was only established by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603, it is clear that his family has been farming tea since the early days of the Edo period. Tea cultivation in Saitama, though, traces its history back further still, with one theory positing that when esoteric Buddhism was introduced into Japan during the Heian and Kamakura eras (8th to 14th century CE), tea cultivation was practiced in temples in modern-day Kawagoe and Tokigawa to produce the tea used in various Buddhist ceremonies.
“As paper used to be a valuable resource, people would use the paper from the account books for such purposes as repairing tools, so there are few surviving records of the tea farm,” explains Okutomi. “We do have a receipt, though, of a purchase of a tea-making machine from Takabayashi Kenzo.”
A legend of Japanese tea history, Takabayashi Kenzo invented the tea processing machine during the Meiji period. Machinery in use today is still based on the basic principles of Takabayashi’s design. Born in Saitama, Takabayashi was originally a doctor of some renown working in Kawagoe. The link between Saitama and tea is long and profound indeed.
I ask Okutomi to describe the characteristics of Sayama tea. “There’s no harder question to answer than that,” he replies with a smile.
“The terrain is hilly rather than mountainous, and among large tea regions, it is considered to represent the northernmost possible location in which tea can profitably be cultivated. Tea farmers here have a typically independent streak, and many grow, produce, and sell their wares all by themselves. As a result, the greatest characteristic of the region’s tea is that its taste and aroma differ significantly by farm. That’s why it’s tough to sum up Sayama tea succinctly. Perhaps the most commonly cited characteristic of Sayama tea, though, is the use of the finishing process known as ‘Sayama firing.’”
Sayama firing is the specific method of finishing the tea creation process commonly used in the Sayama region. It involves firing the leaves at a relatively high temperature to draw out their distinctive aroma and sweetness. It is this process that gives Sayama tea a bold, robust flavor profile even when brewed simply.
“You have to decide how strong you want the firing aroma to be,” explains Okutomi, “as well as the balance between aroma and sweetness generated by the Maillard reaction, which occurs when amino acids and sugars are heated. That’s how the tea’s flavor profile is determined. I adjust the details of the finishing process according to the season.”
For example, the tea he has brewed for me today uses fresh spring leaves that have been fired only gently. This decision was made to protect the fresh buds’ delicate flavors and aromas, which is why early-season tea has such a light flavor profile. In autumn, Okutomi explains that he would be more likely to use a finishing technique that would provide a richer and more intense taste.
This shouldn’t be a job with so little hope for the future
I ask Okutomi how the early-season tea creation process is going so far this year, as my understanding is that once the first harvest begins, most tea farmers find themselves with very little time to rest.
“One of the varieties we grow is an early-maturing tea called Saeakari, which means we began hand-picking on April 23rd this year. When things really get going at full steam, we work through the night making tea. As far as I can remember, the worst it ever got was one time when I worked through the night and on until 11 o’clock the next morning. I took a shower, and finally got to bed, only to be woken in half an hour by my father telling me it was time to go again. When he heads out into the fields, that means I have to man the factory. Most farmers end up losing weight during the harvest. I think I lost about three kilograms this year.”
A family-run business, Okutomien does hire seasonal workers to assist with the harvest, but the tea production itself is essentially done by Okutomi on his own. He officially took over the business from his father in 2015. As the eldest son, he says he never had any doubts that he would one day inherit the running of the farm.
“I never seriously considered any other job,” he says. “But it wasn’t until I took over that I realized how tough things were. The biggest problem is that sales prices have bottomed out. In my father’s day, we used to be able to sell a kilogram of unrefined tea to the wholesalers for 4,000 or 5,000 yen. Nowadays, we’re lucky if we can get 3,000, and at times we’ve been able to fetch less than 1,000 yen a kilo. I’ve been shocked to hear of the retirements of some of the finest tea farmers in the district.”
Prices have tumbled in response to falling demand coupled with excessive supply. No matter how much costs are cut, it is becoming almost impossible to make a profit. Even if he manages to keep the business afloat, Okutomi genuinely believes that he is unlikely to hand it down to his child.
“I often think to myself, though, that this shouldn’t be a job with so little hope for the future. It’s certainly hard work for us, but tea production is a fascinating industry. There’s something new to discover all the time. I’ve been making tea for about 16 years now, but I come across new methods every year. I like to think that the beauty of tea, its depth and value, comes across to its drinkers, making them fall in love with it. That’s why I think giving up on tea now would be a terrible waste.”
Okutomi’s softly spoken words strike at my soul.
In the farm’s back field, workers have been hand-picking early-season tea since morning to make powdered matcha tea. When this article continues, I observe the picking process and ask Okutomi to explain a little more about why he finds tea creation so fascinating.
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)