Shizuoka Part 1.
Shizuoka, Chapter 1: An overview.
In the next few blog entries, I want take a close look at this region and showcase it's unique position as both a giant player in the industry and also home to some of the finest handmade tea in the world.
Shizuoka lies a little less than 200km south of Tokyo in the shadow of Mount Fuji. It has been and continues to be the heart of Japan's tea industry. By far Japan's largest production region, Shizuoka generates roughly 40,000 tons of tea each year. In addition to production, Shizuoka i some to the Prefectural Tea Research Center, which is ground zero for the study of tea farming methodolgy and cloning (tea varietals area created by grafting, the same as apples). Tea is everywhere in Shizuoka. And the industry of tea in Japan is firmly rooted here.
Historically tea was produced completely by hand - picking, steaming, drying, rolling and finishing. But as demand grew it was clear this method could not scale to meet the countries needs. Over the course of about a decade, the entire process was mechanized - teas could now be growing in the field on Monday and in the stores by Tuesday. Much of the machinery that was developed in Shizuoka continues to be made there and sold to producers throughout Japan and the world - most of it is still considered the gold standard. Without doubt, the machines steaming tea outside Kyoto, rolling it in Kyushu, and drying it in Taiwan were made developed in Shizuoka.
While Kyushu and Uji are the two areas of Japan that were most influential to Japan's tea history - it is almost without argument that Shizuoka is the place where tea was modernized and lives on today. The technology, training, and industry needed to support the rise of tea production in Japan happened and continues to happen throughout Shizuoka prefecture. Until 1960, roughly 90% of tea in Japan was grown from seed. Much of that tea was an "heirloom" variety known as "Zairai". Zairai is still grown today and can be likened to Flint Corn - an older species, a bit rugged, but almost identical in DNA to the advanced clones of tea produced today. This variety of tea does exceptional well in certain areas of Japan, but can be tricky to near impossible to grow in others depending on temperature, rainfall, and soil composition. Shizuoka is is the place were many of the first hybrid varieties of tea were developed, including the infamous "Yabukita" varietal which now accounts for over 70% of tea grown in Japan. These hybrids make growing delicious tea possible throughout the country. For example, Saemidori - a cross between Astuyu and Yabukita varietals, does exceptionally well in the warmer climates of Kyushu, while the hearty Yamakai flourishes in the cool mountain tops of Shizuoka. It's funny to think, but all the regions of Japan have Shizuoka to thank for their equipment, methods, and even the tea plants themselves.