Mr. Higuchi’s farm of Niikawa Tea Factory attracted me the most among all the other tea farms I had ever seen.
Its re-utilized abandoned rice terraces present spectacular views. Its beautiful clear water is selected as one of the 100 best water sources. Unexpectedly, the incredibly beautiful rural scenery fascinated me.
Mr. Higichi’s organic tea completely avoids the use of agrochemicals and chemical fertilizers in such a fantastic environment. His story surprises us with a great deal of effort and love that far exceeds our imagination.
This time we visited such an organic farmer, Niikawa Tea Factory in Ukiha City, Fukuoka.
Rural scenery with abundant nature in Ukiha City, Fukuoka
Located in the south-eastern part of Fukuoka Prefecture, Ukiha City is about one hour by car from Hakata. It produces a lot of fruits such as persimmons and grapes. The town flourished thanks to forestry and agriculture, mainly rice production. Its population is less than 30,000. Especially in Niikiwa area, where Mr. Higuchi makes tea, there are only about 10 households. It is a town with real rural scenery, being surrounded by abundant nature.
Ukiha City has Tsuzura Rice Terrace, one of the 100 best rice terraces, and Kiyomizu Spring, one of the 100 best water sources. The water-rich city attracts tourists from all over Japan with its spectacular views such as a swarm of fireflies in summer and red spider lilies blooming over rice terraces in Autumn.
There exist no waterworks system in Ukiha City because of its clean natural water. Every household draws water from a well. I cannot imagine such a life because I live in central Tokyo. However, the moment I saw flowing brook water, I found myself convinced.
Mr. Higuchi’s farm with rich natural surroundings in the mountain has been capturing my heart.
Fascinated by the beautiful farm of re-utilized rice terraces
It was tens of years ago that Ukiha City was using rice terraces. The farmland reclaimed by humans has been long unattended and almost gone back to wildlife already. Mr. Higuchi is reusing a part of these rice terraces as a tea farm.
There are several tea terraces in Japan but Mr. Higuchi’s farm is the first one we actually visited.
Their stone walls are thick with grass. The tea farm appears in the mountain with natural scenery. Tea trees lush with green leaves have wormholes and weed is growing around them. We could see his effort unique to organic farming. To our surprise, the farm developed by human hand was in harmony with the environment quite naturally.
It was late March but the farm blessed with pleasant sunlight was warm. We could hear rustling leaves with breeze and the sound of insects,birds, and flowing water from everywhere. The tea farm was full of stirs of living things. The moment he showed us there, I fell in love with the farm including its atmosphere and scenery.
NIikawa Tea Factory has been doing organic farming since Yuhachiro’s parents’ generation.
Hard path to organic farming was chosen after life threatening experience
It was about 1965 that the farm started organic cultivation. Then, besides growing rice, Yuhachiro’s father and mother were starting tea cultivation little by little. They had neither masks nor protective clothes to spray chemicals. In the end, they both became ill.
“It was neither for the environment nor for consumers. They started it for themselves.”
It did not matter how easily conventional cultivation could simplify their work and make delicious tea. They made a decision to switch to organic cultivation when they felt their lives were in danger.
They did not have any knowhow when they started it. Yuhachiro explained it was terrible at the beginning.
“The color was red. The shape was bad. The taste was astringent. We could not find a buyer. We made tea anyhow but we could not sell it. That time we still had forestry so we cut mountain trees for living and kept thinking of the technique for chemical-free cultivation.”
It is not only tea cultivation, but organic farming is really hard work. Mr. Higuchi says weeding is the hardest task. Weed grows like crazy to fill the farm from spring to autumn. It’s hard to remove weed from corner to corner.
No holidays for organic farmers. Relentless weeding all through the year.
It was in late March that we visited Niikawa Tea Factory. They were in the midst of removing thick weed for the coming shincha (first picked tea) period in May.
We cut this weed with a grass cutter from the side. Mr. Higuchi’s farm is 7 ha in total. They work manually for the land 1.5 times as large as Tokyo Dome. Plus, the farm is in the mountain area so they need to walk up and down many times with the heavy machine on the back to proceed with their work.
The ichibancha season starts around Golden Week holidays every year and ends in the beginning of June. Within a week after that, the nibancha (second picked tea) season starts and its manufacturing finishes in the middle of July. After that, they keep removing weed all the time for maintenance.
Compared with conventional cultivation, organic cultivation makes farmers much busier with tasks such as making fertilizers and herbicides by themselves, weeding, building fences, etc. In their busy schedule, they kept doing research on natural-material herbicides and bokashi, fermented slow-acting fertilizers. After they started organic cultivation, they say it took more than 10 years to reach their own taste somehow.
Farm circulating in harmony with nature
”To give birth to a child, a parent would choose a safe place. My farm is safe actually. It is also full of food for insects and animals. ”
Mr. Higuchi’s farm uses no agrochemicals and chemical fertilizers, so many living things, such as ladybugs, bees, spiders, mantises, frogs, deers, wild boars, etc., come there. All of them are circulating.
Small bugs are drawn to a tea tree. Big insects eat them. Then birds, frogs, and boars eat big insects. Organic farming does not go well unless this finely-balanced food chain completes. Weed in furrows is not useless after being cut down. It becomes natural fertilizers, decomposed by microorganisms. Then, the soil becomes rich in nutrients to grow tea trees. And again, weed grows its roots there.
It takes a long time for a tea farm to be incorporated in the cycle of nature to complete harmonization. I fully respect him, imagining how much effort he made to achieve that.
Mr. Higuchi says his tea was terrible at the beginning, but it has become delicious tea. You would not believe it is really organic.
Outstandingly-balanced tea that changes the image of “organic”!
Until recently, organic tea had the persisting image of “not delicious.”
The umami of tea gets stronger with chemical fertilizers, and organic tea tends to have weak umami. When umami is felt less, bitterness and astringency are felt more. As a result, the image of “not delicious” remains.
However, once you have tried Mr. Higuchi’s tea, you would be surprised by how well-balanced his tea is.
Its umami is not really strong, but you can clearly feel the umami. While normal tea’s umami expands to fill the mouth, let us say his tea’s umami extends straight. Refreshing bitter and astringent flavors spread there. Its aftertaste is so clean and crisp. In the case of organic tea, every cultivar tends to display its characteristics more easily. It is one of the charms that you can enjoy each cultivar’s distinctive aroma, liquid color, and flavors clearly.
Above all, after coming into contact with Mr. Higuchi’s personality, I feel his grace and dedication when drinking his tea. Every time I drink this tea, I recall that farm and I wish I could walk with him there while talking about tea.