We’ve visited Kazuhiro Nagayama twice in the past, and each time I end up talking to him for a surprisingly long time.
A wooden deck built in his house right behind the farm, where we can drink tea while overlooking the lush green farm. In the beautiful March breeze and sunshine, I can't help but forget about time as I sip Mr. Nagayama's tea and listen to his stories.
We were attracted by his passion for tea production, which is hidden in his gentle personality. His 'Yabukita,' made with such passion, is one of the most delicious teas we have ever encountered.
This time, we will talk about Kazuhiro Nagayama, master-hand of tea production for 'Yabukita' in the Ei district of Minami-Kyushu City, Kagoshima Prefecture.
Mountain valley of Ei. Tea farm made by grandfather.
Kagoshima Prefecture is the southernmost prefecture on the mainland. Because of its mild climate and hours of sunlight, it is the earliest tea production area in Japan, except for Tanegashima Island, to start distributing new tea.
While Shizuoka and Mie start harvesting around Golden Week, Kagoshima starts harvesting about a month earlier in early April. At this time of the year, the earlier the tea is distributed in the market, the higher the price, so the early-growing cultivars such as 'Yutakmidori' and 'Saemidori' are popular in Kagoshima.
Especially, 'Yutakamidori' has the second-largest share of the domestic production after ‘Yabukita’, but most of them are produced in Kagoshima prefecture, so we can understand how much the early-growing cultivars are valued in Kagoshima.
Incidentally, it was Kazuhiro's grandfather's achievement that ‘Yutakamidori’ was chosen from among many cultivars. His grandfather chose ‘Yutakamidori’ after he consulted with the teachers of the experimental station about what kind of cultivar is suitable for this area.
Kazuhiro's grandfather, who had a great influence on the tea production in Kagoshima, chose to plant his fields in the mountainous area of Kagoshima, where the value of tea is directly linked to its quick harvest.
Nagayamaen's fields in the mountain valley.
The higher the elevation, the lower the temperature, and the surrounding mountains block the morning and evening sunlight, so the picking season is several days to weeks later than in the plains.
Kazuhiro says that he now understands how his grandfather felt when he built his farm in such a mountainous area.
“I still think that ‘Yabukita’ has a local scent. My ‘Yabukita’has the scent of the mountain valley. ”
Tea trees store its umami while the weather is cold. The sunlight is moderately blocked in the morning and evening. The morning fog created by the difference in temperature also moderately blocks the sunlight from falling on the tea trees, resulting in soft, richly nourished tea leaves.
In the plains, the buds grow quickly due to the long hours of sunlight, but by growing the buds slowly, the tea is richer in umami.
As proof of this, all of the teas produced by Kazuhiro are full of umami and have an outstanding taste. We will never forget the first day I drank his 'Yabukita'.
Kazuhiro Nagayama, third generation of Nagayamaen, master-hand of Yabukita
It was still cold in mid-January. We visited Kazuhiro at his home and had a taste of his ‘Yabukita’ while listening to his story.
The texture is soft and rounded. The aroma of ‘Yabukita’ is strong and classic, feels like “ THIS IS THE GREEN TEA”. Balance between the delicious umami that fills the mouth and the slightly bitter astringent taste.
We are embarrassed to confess that although we are engaged in the tea industry, we misjudged the ability of the Yabukita.
Yabukita, the standard for green tea in Japan
‘Yabukita’ is a very popular cultivar of green tea that once accounted for more than 90% of the total green tea production in Japan. Although its production share is gradually declining, it is still the dominant cultivar, boasting 75% as of 2019.
This cultivar, with its high cold tolerance and excellent sencha quality, became a big hit in the first half of the 20th century, and now there are almost no producers who do not produce Yabukita.
But Kazuhiro said that it is actually difficult to caultivate 'Yabukita' perfectlly.
"Yabukita is difficult to grow for many reasons. It is resistant to cold but susceptible to disease. Everyone grows it because it's delicious, but it's very difficult to make it better than the rest farmers.”
Due to the conditions of mountainous area, he cannot pursue speed, but on the other hand, it is a field where he can take his time to produce tea with deep umami. Mr. Nagayama's tea production is unique to Kagoshima, even though it is located in Kagoshima.
His ‘Yabukita’ has not only deep umami, but also a very mellow aroma that comes through the nose, and we were surprised that such a rich aroma can be produced from a single cup of tea.
The more work put into, the better it tastes. A deep love for tea.
Our first impression of Kazuhiro was that he was a calm person, but after talking with him for about two hours, we realized that he had a tremendous passion and love for tea.
"It's easy to aim for the top where there are few people, but it's more rewarding to aim for the top where there are many. That's why I want to master Yabukita.”
Kazuhiro continues to pursue delicious 'Yabukita'. His stance of aiming for the top of the 'Yabukita' produced by literally every farmer in Japan is different from any other producer we have ever met and is full of passion.
And behind that passion, there is an equal amount of love.
He said, "If I can convey my love to tea, the tea will be delicious for sure. The tea tree doesn't complain, they just listens to me. If I put a lot of effort and love into them, they will respond to me. But if you cut corners, transmitted directly to the tea tree and you won't get good tea.”
The relationship between the tea trees and the growers will continue for decades. Single-year crops start from scratch every year, but the flavor of tea depends on the accumulation of each year's production.
As proof of this, Kazuhiro’s farm is kept neat and tidy all year round, showing the love and time he has put into his tea gardens. When we think about it, the wooden deck in his garden is also an expression of his love.
"When I start talking with the neighboring tea growers, we sometimes talk about tea until dawn. We never stop talking about tea. Yesterday, I spent the night talking with another farmer, but it wasn't enough. In short, I'm crazy in tea. I can't get enough of it. That's why it's fun to talk with people who have been to various production areas, and it inspires me.”
Kazuhiro is so happy making tea that other tea farmers say he looks like he is sparkling during the new tea season. Because he is such a wonderful person, we find ourselves talking with him for two or three hours at a time.
We love Mr. Nagayama and the tea he makes. We would love to have a cup of delicious tea on the wooden deck under the warm sunshine again.