Kawane, the jewel of Shizuoka
Shizuoka is vast area that includes cities, flatlands, and forests perched steep on the side of mountains. Mount Fuji stands adjacent to Sagura Bay and quietly stands as a beacon indicating south for half the prefecture and north for the other half. The prominent hills of Mount Daimugen, Mount Shiomi, and Mount Notori dissect Shizuoka at the middle. Out of these peaks runs the Oii river that feeds into the famous village of Kawane. Kawane nestled high in Mount Maru and Mount Hakko, is perhaps the most coveted plot of tea real estate in Shizuoka. Kawane remains so famous that many teas are marketed just as "Kawane Cha" leaving out Shizuoka all together. Why is this? Well, its a lot of reasons.
Having a tea farm on the side of a mountain is complicated for the obvious reasons: tilling, fertilizing, picking and transporting the tea can be treacherous as well as down right hard work. Many tea plots in Kawane are so precariously positioned that a special monorail system must be ridden up the steep hills just to get there. And the same goes for getting the tea back out - down the monorail. Useable land for tea farms is also limited to due to restrictions on land use, forestry laws, and the amount of sunlight available at different locations. So in short, having a healthy and legal plot and the energy to use it is rare. Luckily for us though, there is a network of dedicated farmers producing some of the finest sencha in Japan.
What is it about Sencha from Kawane thats so special? Well, the varieities of tea leaf (tea is like apples and can be grafted to create distinct varieties like granny smith or macintosh apples) grown in this region is vast and many aren't produced (at any scale) anywhere else in Japan. For example, upwards of 75-80% of tea grown in Japan is of the Yabukita cultivar. Yabukita was developed in Shizuoka and is now propagated from Saitama to Kagoshima. Popularity grew due to it being hearty, consistent, and producing a color and flavor preferred by many of Japanese tea drinkers. But in Kawane you'll find unique "mountain" varieties. For example, this year we received the following samples all grown by one farmer: Saemidori, Harumidori, Midori, Akogare, Harukaze, Sahohime, Yamakai, Tsukusumi, Koushun, Tsuyuhikari and Soufou. Many farmers elsewhere grown only a few and sometimes even one variety. Having access to great tea from Kawane means you can taste a whole new spectrum of flavors quite different from the bulk of teas on the market.
So how would you categorize Kawane tea? Well its almost exclusively light steamed (asamushi) tea which makes for a more delicate cup on the whole. The needle shape of the leaf is stunning - Shizuoka in general and Kawane specifically are famous for the beautify of their leaves. These stunning leaves have a soft aroma compared to their deep steamed siblings. The "scent of the mountains" is often used to describe the dry leaf. The leaf can seem drier and a but stiffer as well - many of the varieties used are heartier breeds that do better high in the mountains. The cool nights can kill some of the southern growing species like Asatsuyu and Yutaka Midori that do so well in warm regions like Kagoshima. The liquor of Kawane tea tens toward golden, straw, yellow and sometimes even a orange in hue. The taste is light on the palate with a wonderful fresh aroma and very mild to non existent umami, depending. You'll often notice an almost spicy note that is similar to mountain herbs or wild greens - Kawane teas tend to be higher in catechin (adding spice or slight astrigency) due to leaf variety and abundance of direct sunshine. Intense mineral and floral notes are also common. It is really fun to taste these teas next to Yame's big, bold, umami driven senchas and note the differences. I guess the word gentle and fresh would sum up the impression that Kawane teas will leave you with.
I can't speak enough to the people working in Kawane. Many of the farmers are older and may or may not be passing their farms down to their children. It remains to be seen how long many of the currently operating farms will go on for. Not to sound dour, but there is no doubt 20 years from now less people will be farming this region than more. But today, we are proud to work with some of the most well known personalities from Kawane who have been working tirelessly for decades to bring these special teas to market. To be clear, almost all farmers we meet, whether we decide to work with them or not, are hardworking, committed, and take their jobs seriously. That being said, we have found some the most unique and creative people in this relatively small mountain side village of Kawane.