Mr. Shimokubo manages a tea farm of 45 ha in area.
It is about 10 times larger than Tokyo Dome, or it may be easier for you to imagine a 600 m × 900 m tea farm. Considering most of the tea producers we know have about 4–10 ha, the production volume of Mr. Shimokubo is outstanding.
Kenichiro, the 5th head of Shimokubo Isao Tea Factory, is always thinking of tea. He has plenty to talk about tea. When he goes out to drink with neighbor producers, a tea talk goes on until morning.
This time we visited such a tea maker, Shimokubo Isao Tea Factory in Ei, Minamikyushu City, Kagoshima.
Kagoshima’s speedster, Shimokubo Isao Tea Factory
“We are expanding our farm. I’ve already found a place. I am thinking of trying an early-ripening cultivar named Haruto 34, which seems good.”
This is what Mr. Shimokubo told me last time we talked on the phone. The manager of farmland as large as 45 ha is always thinking of expanding his farm.
Tea harvest starts from warm southern areas and just like the sakura cherry blossom front, gradually moves up to cooler areas in the north or mountains. It is in Tanegashima Island, the southernmost part of Kagoshima Prefecture, that the earliest Japanese tea is cropped. Their tea is called “Oohashiri Shincha” and well-known as the nation’s earliest tea in the market.
And surprisingly, following Tanegashima’s tea, it is Mr. Shimokubo’s tea that is shipped the earliest in the mainland of Kagoshima. He plants an early-ripening cultivar named “Shigeru No. 2” in a sun-filled part of the 45 ha farmland to grow it fast. He crops and processes his tea to ship the earliest in Kagoshima Prefecture.
It was on March 23rd that we visited his place. His farm was already filled with growing golden shoots.
In an area with an early picking season like Kagoshima, a tea producer can sell at a higher market price with earlier shipment than competitors. That’s why the production of early-ripening cultivars like “Yutakamidori” and “Saemidori” is very popular in Kagoshima.
Among them, Mr. Shimokubo’s “Shigeru No. 2” is cropped extraordinarily early. It is indeed a speedster.
Tea making in Kagoshima Prefecture, the second largest tea producer
It is less-known that Kagoshima Prefecture’s tea production is actually the second largest to Shizuoka Prefecture. Their tea making is the second in Japan. Furthermore, at the municipal level, not prefectural, Minamikyushu City in Kagoshima is the nation’s No. 1. It is the municipality with the largest production volume in Japan.
Besides large production volume, Kagoshima Prefecture boasts the largest acreage per tea farmer. Its acreage per household is 5.1 ha. Considering the average in the other areas is 2–3 ha, they are managing farmland whose area is almost twice the average.
Among them, Shimokubo Isao Tea Factory is a great producer who manages farmland as large as 45 ha.
In addition, Mr. Shimokubo grows over 20 cultivars. While doing regular farm work, he plows a field, actively makes researches, goes around the country for business, and occasionally travels abroad.
You may wonder when he gets rest. He is thinking of tea through the year.
“I got to study forever”
“Producers have only one season to pick ichibancha (first picked tea). After all, I also have been making tea for 20 years, and I picked ichibancha only 20 times. It’s like I failed this year. Let’s make it next year. But I can fail next year again. Then it is like I got to study forever.”
As his words tell, Mr. Shimokubo’s passion and diligence surprises me while talking with him. Soil making, cultivation, processing, distribution...his uncompromising stance in everything influences his neighbor producers.
“When I drink with Kazuhiro Nagayama, we keep talking about tea until about 4 o’clock.”
Kazuhiro Nagayama is also a tea maker in Ei and our favorite yabukita master. Mr. Nagayama is very passionate. Every time we visit him, we tend to get into deep conversation for several hours. He is a great producer with such a passion for tea.
The two farmers’ tea talk should be so heated up and wide-ranging.
Growing over 20 cultivars with full of soul
“We have at least 20 types but I don’t really know the exact number. It increases or decreases every year. I have to see the ledger.”
“Tsuyuhikari,” “Okumidori,” “Asanoka,” “Harumoegi,” “Shigeru No. 2,” etc...
Mr. Shimokubo turns to new cultivars all the time. For experiment, his farm occasionally grows a cultivar that has not been registered yet by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Although 20+ cultivars, standard or novel, have different tastes and different optimum cultivation/processing methods, all the steps including processing are done by Mr. Shimokubo alone.
”Tsuyuhikari is good, isn’t it? This year’s one is very nicely done and highly evaluated. An increasing number of producers are making Tsuyuhikari.”
“Tsuyuhikari” was originally produced in and around Shizuoka Prefecture. He brought it to his farm and explored many ways for several years to make a satisfactory one. Mr. Shimokubo happily told us that more producers in Kagoshima started producing “Tsuyuhikari” after seeing his “Tsuyuhikari.”
His “Tsuyuhikari” takes advantage of the cultivar’s typical richly-textured umami and the tea has a dynamic flavor that reminds you of Kagoshima’s majestic land. ”
Fastidious soil making using bokashi (fermented slow-acting fertilizers)
Mr. Shimokubo’s tea making puts the most emphasis on soil making. In his farm, they make soil by using fertilizers that are originally blended, while checking the conditions of soil and the growth of tea. After the farm, he showed us the storage of fertilizers.
Nitrogen, phosphoric acid, potash, base saturation percentage, three-phase distribution, lime, bitter salts, etc...
Mr. Shimokubo utters full of unfamiliar words when he talks about soil. He controls fertilizers while calculating by himself. However, very few producers can do calculations for fertilizers.
“Agricultural cooperative people talk about numbers all the time, which makes all of us feel sleepy. So I made a note on the notebook and learned how to calculate.”
His constant effort to make delicious tea tells his studious personality.
Here rice bran and powdered bamboo are mixed with compost to make bokashi.
Compost is fermented well, generating heat. Steam arises when it is dug.
A bad odor is the typical image of compost, but microbial fermentation makes odorless compost for fertilization.
When you touch like this, it has a powdery soil-like texture. When you sniff at it, it does not smell at all. Mr. Shimokubo makes a lot of compost here and carries it to the farm with a heavy machine.
The way Mr. Shimokubo makes his farm considers the balance of components, the lightness of soil, and other various elements. Chemical fertilizers gradually make soil hard to absorb nutrients. Then the soil requires more chemical fertilizers and becomes saturated.
Mr. Shimokubo conducts soil analysis regularly. He is trying to make the soil that puts less stress on tea trees, focusing on organic fertilizers.
It tastes powerful. That’s how Shimokubo Tea Factory’s tea attracts people.
There are full of episodes about Mr. Shimokubo and I cannot stop sharing them. However in our opinion, his best attraction is all in all his tea’s taste.
Mr. Shimokubo makes use of the characteristics of each cultivar to produce tea and applies the best method for each cultivar. Every individual cultivar is unique but their tastes somewhat show Mr. Shimokubo personality.
Like a typical Chiran tea produced in the scorching southern part of Kagoshima Prefecture, his deep steamed tea has a really strong liquid color. While such a deep green color is unseen in other areas, the depth of its taste is rather subdued. You can taste the tea leaf’s powerful rich umami.
Behind this powerful punchy impressive flavor, which is unforgettable once you have tried, there lie Mr. Shimokubo’s passion and effort. FETC is planning to sell several types of tea from Shimokubo Tea Factory. Please enjoy various single origin tea.