Do what nobody does. This is a harder road than you would imagine.
Marushige Shimizu Tea Factory’s Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu relocated from Tokyo to a rural area, Suizawa-cho, Yokkaichi City, Mie to pursue tea making that defied local convention.
Mie’s Kabusecha is less known despite its largest volume in Japan
“Kabusecha” produced in Mie Prefecture boasts the largest production volume in Japan. Despite its title of number one, it is less known.
This is because its main production is material tea that is used for famous teas sold in other areas and plastic bottled green teas. In fact, tea in Mie plays a key role behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu are making various efforts to pull up Suizawa Tea to the lead role through individual “single origin teas.”
Marushige Shimizu Tea Factory’s specialty: “Saeakari”
Saeakari is a specialty cultivar produced by Mr.Shimizu.
Gentle steam rises with a corn-like sweet aroma when hot water is poured onto deep green tea leaves. If you have never had it, you will be surprised at its strong scent.
Mild umami and sweetness spread to fill your mouth and relax you with its aroma.
It is Mie’s tea that is supporting Kyoto’s Uji Tea
Mie Prefecture produces the largest amount of kabusecha in Japan. Its domestic share accounts for about 70%.
Kabusecha is a tea that has been covered by black nets to avoid sunlight before plucking.
By protecting fresh shoots from sunlight, astringency becomes less and umami increases.
Kabusecha in Mie is less known to the public despite its largest production volume in Japan. The local farmers’ main income source is material tea used for Uji Tea in Kyoto Prefecture.
If you thought “Isn’t Uji Tea produced in Kyoto?”, I was one of you to be surprised.
The definition of “Uji Tea” is a tea that is produced in 4 prefectures of Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, or Mie. Actually, it seems hard to meet the consumption only by the tea produced in Kyoto. So the term is defined broadly.
So to speak, most of the tea produced in Mie mainly plays a behind-the-scenes role for Uji Tea in Kyoto.
Why does Japan’s top and standard cultivar “Yabukita” account for 90% of Mie’s tea leaf production?
It is because a cultivar with strong and distinctive umami is not good for blending. Cultivars such as “Saeakari” and “Sofu” have strong characteristics. So they are not suited to be material tea for other area’s teas.
The cultivar created by coincidence —from behind-the-scenes role to lead role
”I had no idea about management. But I was feeling we needed to sell for future survival,” said Kana, the wife of Mr. Shimizu.
Kana’s parents started a tea farm in earnest. The precious farms have been passed down from the post-war period to the present.
As a rule, tea farmers have tea wholesalers buy a lot of tea leaves. Few tea farmers do retail business to directly sell products to customers.
Surprisingly, it is because Kana’s father planted it by chance that they could sell the cultivar which is comparatively rare in Mie. It was just a few years ago that they found its charm.
It requires 6–7 years to harvest tea leaves after you actually plant it. Nobody knows if they can make harvestable plantations. “In the case of Saemidori, 3,000 among 6,000 tea trees died,” said Mr. Shimizu wryly.
The production of the delicious single origin tea owes Kana’s father first of all.
"Quantity over quality" to "quality over quantity"
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries published in March, 2020 that the purchase price of Ichibancha (the first picked tea in the year) dipped below the 2,000 yen level. The news became a hot topic in the tea industry.
In fact, more people are enjoying drinking tea on a daily basis with plastic bottles and others. However, one of the factors on the whole is that the tea leaf market is shrinking every year.
In addition to mass production, the tea leaves shipped early tend to fetch high prices.
As a result, instead of making good-quality tea, farmers are focusing on how they can produce a lot of tea faster than other farmers, which causes an excessive amount of lower-quality tea leaves in the market. Some view this situation as a critical vicious cycle for tea farmers, where overall purchase prices declined.
"What mattered for tea farmers was shipment volume rather than tea quality. They just wish they could make any money from a wholesaler. One of the factors was such an atmosphere among them," said Seiichi, the husband.
The time to market shincha (first picked tea) gets earlier every year according to the couple. It is at least 10 days earlier than 16 years ago, when they took over the tea farm.
To be honest as consumers, we tend to wish for the first product as early as possible. However, everything has its own season. From the ancient time to the present, tea tastes better with no rush to store deliciousness well.
They send attractions of kabusecha with their own hand
Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu started taking actions to increase customers who buy their tea directly. 10 years ago, they rehabilitated a 70-year-old folk house next to the tea factory and opened “Kabusecha Cafe”
They started single origin tea tasting that included soda pop of kabusecha. Such an activity was to let us enjoy Japanese tea casually.
Collaborating with the government, the busy couple also put an effort in their tea factory tour for local elementary school kids and tea plucking experience at the sincha season to convey the attractions of kabusecha.
“What I found by working at a cafe and a retailer is what tea wholesalers want and what tea consumers want are different. Wholesalers tend to value how beautiful tea’s color is, but customers choose tea by its aroma and flavor,” said Kana.
While keeping producing material tea, they show up at the cafe or at event booths by themselves to listen to customers.
Newcomers developed Suizawa kabusecha
Their first encounter was at a department store in Shinjuku. Kasa was working at a retailer that sold tea from all over the country. Seiichi was a manager of a bakery next to it. Kana returned to her home in the rural area with Seiichi, who was from Tokyo, to take over the tea farm.
Seiichi switched from a baker to a tea farmer. He told us that he was a newcomer with no knowledge, but took advantage of that by getting assistance from locals. He is now acknowledged as one of the leading producers in Suizawa-cho.
It’s been 16 years. I asked them what they wanted to do from now on.
“Some day, I want to make a terrace in the tea farm. This area has a pleasant climate. It would be nice if customers can drink tea while enjoying the view. Because that’s something only tea farmers can do.”
Moving beyond the bounds of tea farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu work actively on new projects.
”Such a unique taste is very rare for kabusecha,” said other tea farmer in the same industry to the couple. The endorsement gave them confidence.
I believe it was their natural selves that gave the behind-the-scenes tea an individuality of the lead role level.