The very first stop on our 2017 sourcing trip was a a visit to Ureshino township in Saga prefecture. Saga is nestled to the west of Fukuoka and Ureshino is celebrated for two things: hot springs and tea. Heaven on earth. Ureshino is a relatively small production area with roughly 1,350 tons of raw tea produced in 2015. That would place it seventh in terms of total production in Japan. While on the smaller side, Ureshino stands apart from most other production areas in that it produces two distinct styles of tea: Tamaryokucha and Kamairicha.
Rows of Tea in Ureshino
Tamaryokucha is a steamed sencha that (basically) does not undergo a final rolling stage. The leaves are left curly and "comma shaped" - this style is sometimes referred to a "goishicha" in other places in Japan. Kamairicha on the other hand is a cultural hold over from teas introduction from China in that the leaves are pan fired (dry heat) as opposed to the common steaming method (wet heat) used throughout Japan. When tea arrived from China it was introduced through the ports of Nagasaki, Saga and Miyazaki so you still see the remanents of that influence throughout southern Kyushu.
Throughout the the year we feature several from this area - last year (and again in a month or so) we featured two Kamairicha, both from unique varietals, and an oolong. We were impressed to find one of the more unique shinchas we've ever had, our Tamaryokucha. This wonderful spring harvest tea is grown from 100% Saemidori cultivar. Saemidori has become increasing popular due to its hardiness, high yield, early maturation, and natural sweetness. While Saemidori can sometimes express itself in an overly "sweet" way in the hands of certain producers, we found this one, made by the venerable Oota san, to be just a plain joy to drink.
These high, unkept rows protect the tea to the left from unwanted pesticide exposure from neighboring fields
Grown in the hills of Ureshino, tucked away from the "town" center, Oota san uses no inorganic fertilizer or pesticides. His fertilizer of choice consists of "aburakasu" - the left over plant materials after soybeans are pressed for their oil. For insect repellent, Oota san uses a combination of water and sugar to protect the leaves and provide an alternative menu to the bugs - eat the sugar, not the leaf. He is one of just three farms in the area (there are over 300) that chooses to farm this way, aligned with nature and allowing the plants to express themselves naturally.
Looking at the leaves - they have an unpolished "rawness" about them - not perfectly crafted as many teas boast. But the flavor and aromas of these teas are incredible - rich, deep, compelling. The harmonics are not always in the obvious "major chord" stacking of Fresh - Sweet - Umami that you see in many teas now in Japan created to please the modern palate. The land, air and unblended character of the tea plant comes through. I feel Oota san truly lets the tea work through him. He is a minimalist in production in a sophisticated sense. His personality is soft spoken and polite - but he is also an experienced Judo champion. His teas seem to follow the same path - a quiet combination of humility and simplicity with a inner depth and excitement that is so compelling.
Oota san's production amount is low - but we will continue to feature his teas and sell them until they're sold out for the year. We invite you not to miss out. They're are truly not that many people continuing to make tea this way in Japan anymore. When asked why, in the spite of an already difficult industry, Oota san wants to make such unique and challenging tea - He just calmly replied "I think this way is best". So do we.