If you told me last year I would work on a tea farm and learn all about Japanese tea, I would have thought you are crazy. Japan and tea production always seemed very far away for me, and being next to tea plants seemed surreal for me. However, this surreal dream came true for me now on a small, organic family tea farm in Shizuoka prefecture. This prefecture is quite in the middle of Japan on the main island of Honshu. It is the home to famous Mount Fuji and also about 50% of Japanese tea is produced here. The landscape is quite hilly and except at the coast very rural. The tea farmers I stayed in Shizuoka have quite a interesting story: Their parents were dentist and high school teacher, but their dream was always to become farmers, because they believe in organic farming and want to change the future to the better.
Tea production in Japan is nowadays a high technology matter: Most of the harvest and procession is done by machines, only a negligible amount is done by hand. But let's start from the beginning. All real tea (meaning tea from the tea plant and not fruit or herbal tea) is based on the same plant - The Camellia Sinensis. Alltough within that plant family there are different subtypes of tea plants, from all of these plant it is possible to make green, black, white, yellow, oolong, etc. tea. The type of tea is not determined by the plant, but by the procession method. Japan mainly produces green tea, but even within green tea there are many different types. The most common are Sencha (Japanese style, fermentation stopped by steaming), Gyokuro (Japanese style, like Sencha, but 21 days before harvest the tea bushes are covered by black cloth), Matcha (powdered Gyokuro), Chinese (fermentation stopped by hot plate) and Hojicha/Kukicha (roasted waste from Sencha productions, often also only the stems).
Black, white and yellow tea are mainly produced in China and India (although also Japan produces some black tea). Oolong is a typical Taiwanese tea type, and fortunately (because it is one of my favorite) the tea farm in Shizuoka also produces Oolong.
To produce any type of tea the leaves need to be harvested first. In Japan this is mainly done by machine. Either by a type of hedge trimmer operated by to people or a bigger harvester on wheels. Later can only be used if the ground is flat, which is rarely the case. Both types of harvest need additional people to carry bags, weighting between 5 and 30kg, from the tea field to a transporter.
The next step is the actual procession in the tea plant. The farm I visited in Shizuoka is part of a production community grouping 40 organic farmers together. This means for them that the have a better position at the market, because of their size and also that they can use all needed machines together. In the factory at first the fermentation process is stopped by steaming the leaves. Then they are dried shortly, turned in big drums several times, grinded with two different machines to give the tea it's shape, turned again and dried completely. The total processing time is about 4 hours.
If you want to make Oolong the procession is very different. First of all the leaves need to wilt in the sun (between 10 and 25 minutes depending on the weather conditions). This starts the fermentation and is continued by keeping the leaves in the shade between 4 and 10 hours. During this times the leaves change in texture, color as well as smell. To stop the fermentation process they are afterwards shortly roasted at high temperature on a hot plate. Oolong is then kneaded in a specific way to get the optimal taste and finally dried on a hot plate again, but over a longer time (1-12 hours) on low heat. The timing, the duration and the techniques used for making Oolong are science in itself and every tea farmer has his own way.
Here are some pictures of me making Oolong. In this case the leaves were handpicked.
The final step for all teas is packaging. Sounds easy, but actually takes timewise a big part in the overall production process. Of course Japanese invented fancy machines to help them with packaging! The first machine weights and portions a certain amount of tea exactly (e.g. 100g, 200g,..). The second machine allows to vacuum seal several packages at once.
The area around the farm is full of tea fields. Except some private vegetable gardens there is nothing than tea fields and forest. ;-)
The black foil on the picture above is not Gyokuro or Matcha. Some tea farmers cover their tea plants 2 weeks before harvesting to get a nicer (darker) color, so they can sell their tea leaves for a higher price.
Overall there are 2 or 3 (depends on the weather condition) harvests per year in Japan. The first harvest (Shincha) is the most popular and Japanese people are longing and looking forward to the new tea every year. For the farmers this is a very busy time as they have to harvest, process the tea in the factory, package and handle all the incoming orders from their customers. The rest of the year the farmers have to take care about their fields, weed, go to fairs and sell their tea.
One kilogram of tea needs about 5-6kg of fresh leaves and 100g of organic Shincha (first tea harvest) is sold for about 5-6 Euros.