First and foremost, we send our thoughts to the people and areas of Kyushu affected by the record breaking heavy rains (July 4, 2020), which have caused flooding, including in Kagoshima, the prefecture we will be talking about today with respect to tea.
Due to the recent flooding in Kyushu, we will change course for this series a bit. After Kagoshima, we will focus on the major tea regions in Kyushu. While tea fields usually are not at high risk (unless there is a landslide), over 60 deaths have been reported and some people are still missing. While direct donations can be made to some of the ongoing relief efforts (donate directly to Peace Winds Japan here, in Japanese), another way to support the tea farmers in the affected areas during this time would be to appreciate their teas!
茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶 茶
When you think “Japanese tea”, where are the places that come to mind? Many of you may have appropriately thought of Shizuoka or Uji, yet today we would like to touch on some of the tea producing areas in the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Kagoshima.
Kagoshima is the 2nd largest tea producing prefecture in Japan, after Shizuoka. It is only recently however that Kagoshima has obtained recognition for producing high-end tea. For several decades, Kagoshima had an image of producing economically accessible but less than premium tea. That being said, even some Japanese may not be aware that Kagoshima now produces award wining tea and has the highest productivity per area in all of Japan. The high productivity is due to its fertile soil and flat agricultural areas, which favors mechanical harvest. But of course, it’s not all about productivity. Below, we highlight some of the specialties of Kagoshima tea:
- Shirasu, is Japanese for white volcanic ash. In addition to the subtropical climate and abundant rainfall, which are both beneficial for tea production, Kagoshima is an active volcanic region. One can physically see the volcanic ash falling to the earth from Sakurajima, a stratovolcano. In fact, some tea farmers in Kagoshima have to wash volcanic ash off of their tea leaves. On the bright side, this volcanic ash actually helps produce soil that is exceptionally rich in minerals, resulting in tea with a fresh aroma and subtle fruitiness.
- Unique seed varieties: Although Yabukita is the most dominant cultivar across Japan, Kagoshima is unique in that it actually has the lowest proportion of the Yabukita variety (approximately 37%). Here, one can find rare frost-sensitive varieties as well as especially early cultivars such as Yutakamidori, Saemidori, Asatsuyu, and Okumidori.
- Hashiri Sencha: Another reason it makes sense to start our blog on the major tea region series with Kagoshima is because they have one of the earliest shincha ("new green tea" or "first flush green tea") in Japan, specifically from the Southeastern parts of the prefecture, including the islands of Tanegashima and Yakushima (we elaborate on these tea producing areas below). Traditionally May 1st/2nd, coinciding with the 88th night of spring in the lunar calender (Hachijyu-hachiya in Japanese), is when shincha harvesting starts. The first shincha of the year is often referred to as “Hashiri Shincha” (走 り 新 茶). This is when hand picking tea harvest events are held in Shizuoka and Kyoto. The first harvest in Kagoshima can however begin as early as the end of March. Instead of the 88th, Kagoshima’s hashiri shincha starts as early as 66 days after the beginning of the spring. Many tea connoisseurs seek after the hashiri shincha because the very first tea harvest is often the richest in nutrients and catechins. Oh, but do note it can also be the most pricey!
- Young farmers bring innovative and enthusiastic energy. Unlike other Japanese prefectures, Kagoshima has been benefitting from obtaining continuous interest from new farmers who contribute to the revitalization of the region, helping to create community. Young farmers in this region have developed new methods, and have transitioned to organic farming to meet the demands for foreign export, even if that requires more care and effort. In fact, many of them are passionate, working hard every day to create good terroir.
Now that we’ve touched on some of the specialities of tea in Kagoshima, we’ll delve into highlighting some of the major tea producing regions. Tea is produced all throughout the prefecture. However, below we highlight some of the major and unique regions starting with two islands that were just mentioned above.
Called “surfer’s paradise” by the locals, this beautiful island known for their space center, sea breeze and morning mist, is also well known by tea enthusiasts for their hashiri shincha, with harvest starting as early as the end of March. The earliest harvest tea is found in Nishinoomote City and Minamitane Town, often coming from one of the earliest budding cultivars that thrive in this area called Kuritawase and Matsujyu. Yunomi supplies shincha from Tanegashima (Shimamidori cultivar) but it’s sold out for this year! Have you been fortunate to taste the hashiri shincha from this Southeastern island?
Another Kagoshima island deserving mention for tea is neighboring Yakushima, which lies to the Southwest of Tanegashima. Designated as a World Heritage Sight in 1993, this is personally a place in my motherland I hope to visit on my next visit to Kagoshima due to the high quality Japanese tea, wise 1,000 year old cedar trees, and forest spirits. In Japan, it is well known that Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration for the film Princess Mononoke from this island. Perhaps, the presence of kodama (i.e., tree spirits) blesses the land in Yakushima, which may also enrich the tea produced in this region. Indeed, the terroir of Yakushima is definitely a contributor to the high quality tea in this region. If you’re curious to know more about some of the tea farmers on Yakushima and read more about this majestic island, check out: Hachimanjyu Yakushima Farms. Their organic, pesticide free tea is loved by both locals and visitors.
SATSUMA AND OSUMI, the tea producing peninsulas of Kagoshima
It’s fun to explore the islands but let’s transition to the mainland and cover the main production areas of Kagoshima. This is Minami-Kyushu, which is located on the Satsuma Peninsula, a region characterized by their coastal plains, flat and fertile. Here, one finds Chiran, Ei, and Kawanabe, regions that are regarded as among the best green tea areas in Japan. Together, these regions have the greatest productivity in all Japan (i.e., they produce more per area, overcoming Shizuoka), but they also produce one of the finest green teas in Japan.
If you know a little about Kagoshima tea, you’ve probably heard of Chiran-cha, tea produced in the Minami-Kyushu region. Previously, the teas produced in the Chiran, Ei, and Kawanabe valleys each gave location specific appelations to their own teas, but in 2017 production from each of the neighboring watersheds was unified and branded Chiran-cha. This tea has received recognition numerous times from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Prize at the National Tea Fair. The majority of Chiran-cha is a kabuse-cha (shaded tea, usually for one week or so before harvest) and goes through a deep steaming process called fukamushi.
- Yunomi supplies tea from Furuichi Seicha, a company based in Chiran. As an avid biker, I appreciate the founder Furuichi-san’s strong will, shown in how he started his business using his bicycle just after the end of World War II in 1948! In the post-war period Japan experienced a period of mass economic growth, which led to an exponential growth in the domestic demand for green tea.
- Maehara tea farm is also based here, proudly representing their own chiran-cha. Their premium fukamushi-cha has received recognition from the Kagoshima prefectural governor award.
Another peninsula to note for high quality tea production in Kagoshima is Osumi Peninsula located on the East side of the Kagoshima bay. We’ll start by touching on the famous tea producing areas on this peninsula beginning the mountainous, geographically stunning North where Kirishima-Yaku National Park showcases an impressive chain of volcanoes.
As one may be able to tell from the name, Kirishima is located in between Kagoshima bay and Kirishima-Yaku National Park (i.e., mountains). Comparable to Chiran-cha, the region of Kirishima is also famous for producing high quality sencha. In particular, the sub-region of Makizono is frequently mentioned in tea connoisseur circles.
Kuchikiri gyokuro from Kirishima, Kagoshima on Yunomi (2019 harvest)
Moving Southeast down the Osumi peninsula, we find the Soo region. Here, we highlight two tea producing sub-regions. In the North, there is Takarabe, an area found at the base of the Kirishima mountain range. Here the huge temperature differences between day and night help to produce a delicate balance of flavors. This area is known for their gentle, mild fukamushi-sencha, one that is suitable for everyday tea.
In the southern part of Soo, there is Sueyoshi, located in the Sueyoshi mountains. Perhaps a region that was late to join tea production in Kagoshima, it is a vibrantly growing region. A farm to highlight here is the Sueyoshi Tea Atelier, run by tea farmer Mataki Takefumi. This year I was inspired by one of their Furusato-no-hana series (i.e., a shincha from a shaded Saemidori cultivar). I feel like this tea lets me start out my day with kindness. Personally, I can’t wait to try out their other teas.
Last but not least, we will mention Shibushi further from the mountains and towards the coast, as it is the second largest tea region. In fact, it is an area that is thriving - with respect to tea production area and volume of tea produced. As with many regions of Kagoshima that were known for producing particularly large and flavorful vegetables before higher value tea production replaced them, Shibushi is known for its sweet potato production. It is said that the Ariake (name of region in Shibushi) Yutakamidori cultivar has a sweet aroma, reminiscent of a sweet potato.
Still curious or have questions about Kagoshima tea? Don’t hesitate to leave comments below. You can also find more tea from the different tea regions in Kagoshima from the JA-Kagoshima Chagyo (Japan's national tea farmers cooperative).Until next time, stay healthy and well. Matane (Japanese for see you)!