Cherish the connection. Sayama-tea produced from the blessings of the forest | Hiraoka Tea Farm in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture

April 03, 2021

BEHIND THE SIP

"They were so happy to see that the seedlings we planted five years ago have grown so big!" They were so happy."

So says Tadahito Hiraoka, the 11th generation of Hiraoka Tea Farm, a tea farmer who produces Sayama tea in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture.

The harvest of the first tea leaves has just finished. Every year in the latter half of May, he invites customers to his farm to experience picking tea.

The comment at the beginning of this article was made by a customer. We were impressed by the kind smile of Tadahito as he spoke happily.

Creating a "connection" between customers and farms

I've heard that there are farms where you can experience tea-picking, but there are also many places where you can plant tea plants.

We've heard that there are farms where you can trial pick tea, but there are also many places to trial plant tea plants.

"Five years ago, we recruited children to plant tea trees through SNS. It usually takes a lot of work to plant tea trees, but it's easy for children to plant them in the field with potted seedlings. It requires about 2,000 seedlings per block, so it takes quite a while."

This is how the tea field was completed. The children who had seen the tiny seedlings must have been more delighted than we imagined when they saw the grown tea trees.

This episode gives us a glimpse of the attitude that Hiraokaen cherishes.

Hiraoka Tea Farm has been in existence since the Edo period

Hiraoka Tea Farm was founded about 300 years ago. It all started with cultivating land called "Santomi Kaitaku" in the middle of the Edo period. Santomi refers to the Kamitomi area in Miyoshi-cho, Iruma-gun, Saitama Prefecture, and the Nakatomi and Shimotomi areas in Tokorozawa City, Saitama Prefecture.

The main harvest was vegetables, but tea trees were planted between each vegetable field, called "Keihan (ridge)." The vegetable fields were lined up in a strip of land, and tea trees were planted in each strip of land, which was the beginning of tea production at Hiraoka Tea Farm.

As you can see from its history, Hiraoka Tea factory is filled with old tools used for many years.

There are only a handful of tea producers that we have met with a history of 300 years. Because the tea industry started to flourish in Kagoshima about 60 years ago, it is easy to understand how long the history of Hiraoka Tea Farm is.

Tadahito started making tea 19 years ago. After graduating from university, he spent a year training in Shizuoka before joining the family business.

"Since I was a little boy, I thought I would take over the tea farming business. Since I was the eldest son, I thought so," says Tadahito.

What are the characteristics of Sayama tea, one of the three most famous teas in Japan?

Sayama tea is a tea produced mainly in western Saitama Prefecture.

Sayama tea is known as the closest tea production area to Tokyo, and you may have heard the song, "The color of Shizuoka, the fragrance of Uji, the taste of Sayama"

Where Sayama tea is produced, Western Saitama is a very chilly region for a tea production area. It is located in the northern part of the prefecture, while tea production areas are concentrated in relatively warm areas such as Shizuoka, Kyoto, and Kyushu. Because of the cold weather, the new shoots grow slowly while storing nutrients, and the tea leaves are characterized by their thickness.

Sayama, known as one of Japan's three best tea production areas, has a slightly different characteristic from other production areas.

Since ancient times, many producers have been engaged in everything from tea production to sales independently, allowing them to produce tea freely.

In significant tea-producing areas such as Shizuoka, Kagoshima, and Kyoto, tea wholesalers called "茶商 (tea merchants)" are usually involved in the process from the producer to the consumer, the customer.

In Sayama, on the other hand, many producers create their own tea gardens, harvest the tea, make the tea, and sell it themselves. As a result, the amount of tea produced in Sayama is minimal, and the amount of tea sold outside of the local area is rare.

There is also a factory on the vast premises.

Because there is no tea merchant to mediate with customers, many producers are close to consumers and pursue the tea they want to produce.

What is Sayama Roasting?

Sayama tea is produced in a unique roasting way.

In sencha production, the leaves are heated to remove the moisture from the leaves and produce a fragrant aroma.

 

In sencha production, the leaves are heated to remove the moisture from the leaves and produce a fragrant aroma.

In Sayama tea, a traditional processing method called "Sayama Roasting" is a technique to make the tea more fragrant by roasting it more strongly and slowly than usual. In this way, the fire adds a powerful aroma and brings out the sweetness of the tea.

The method and intensity of the roasting process vary from producer to producer, but it is one of the main characteristics that create the taste of Sayama tea.

Why is there a forest right next to the field?

"Since we're here, why don't we go see the tea plantation?"

At Tadahito's invitation, we were shown the tea fields.

There is a large forest on the way to the tea plantation at Hiraoka Tea Farm. The forest is made up of zelkova and cedar trees. In fact, this forest is also a critical forest that has been handed down since the Edo period.

There is a forest next to the fields because the fallen leaves are collected, and compost is produced. Cyclical agriculture using natural compost by collecting fallen leaves in autumn has been practiced since the Edo period.

It is not just a forest next to a field, but a forest created to receive fertilizer from nature that can be made into compost.

When this area was first settled, the land was not suitable for farming. The forest was created as a windbreak and composted fallen leaves for agriculture to make the soil ideal for growing crops. It's impressive that they've been doing cyclical farming since the Edo period.

About the cultivars of Hiraoka Tea Farm

Hiraoka Tea Farm grows about 10 cultivars of Japanese tea, mainly Yabukita, Sayamakaori, Harumidori, Hokumei, and Musashikaori, in a 2.5ha field.

They are also making efforts to produce distinctive teas with a challenging spirit.

The oolong tea made from Musashikaori, which was just launched in 2020, is so fragrant that you can't help but squint at its fruity aroma, which makes you feel elegant. It is a work of confidence that took seven years to develop.

In addition to Musashikaori oolong tea also produces single-origin black tea from various varieties, and even a single variety is grown in two different ways, one in the open air and the other undercover.

Connect with customers by actively via SNS.

They solemnly produce the amount of tea they can make within their own hands in the way they want to produce it. In other large tea-producing areas where there are tea merchants, the usual style is to produce tea according to the needs of the tea merchants, who are the biggest buyers of the tea in terms of flavor, aroma, and watercolor.

In Hiraoka Tea Farm, they have to do everything themselves, from production to sales. While they have the freedom to produce the tea they want, they also need to be creative in selling it themselves.

Tadahito is also putting a lot of effort into SNS to get to know new customers.

For example, there are videos of tea fields shot from above with a drone, scenes of tea fields being cleared of branches, and locations of sencha being blended, all of which provide a glimpse into the background of tea that we don't usually get to see. No effort is spared to make Japanese tea more accessible.

Although the number of producers like Tadahito who protect the history they have inherited and communicate it in a modern way is gradually increasing, they are still in the minority. It is nice to see producers' hard work and efforts that we don't usually see on SNS.

“Seeing the faces of our customers" is a rewarding experience.

Hiraoka Tea Farm also started selling its products through an online store early on. There are many cases where regular customers give the tea as a gift, and the recipients order it themselves.

They also have a store next to the farm, and when I interviewed them, some of their regular customers came to buy Japanese tea.

On the premises, there is an open garden with seasonal flowers in full bloom.

Tadahito says with a smile, "I can see the faces of my customers, so I can keep going." As a consumer, Tadahito's work must be more rewarding than we can imagine.

We also regularly share our impressions of the tea with the producers, and they are always delighted to hear them. For producers who don't usually get to see consumers' faces, this joy must be even more encouraging.

By the way, Tadahito-san often checks Twitter! If you tweet your impressions of Tadahito’s teas, we’re sure he will be happy to make more delicious teas.