If you have been to Wazuka, in Kyoto prefecture, you will likely have heard of the 5th generation tea farmer, Noriyasu Uejima who runs Sourokuen (爽緑園), Uejima Tea Farm. The Uejima family also manages the Wazuka-cha Cafe, which is a cozy spot filled with perhaps the most diverse selection of Wazuka teas one may ever find. The first time I heard of Uejima-san, I happened to be out on the tea farms in Wazuka helping with the summer weeding of the tea fields. Uejima-san was overlooking some of the tea fields near us and I was told by the people from Wazuka,
“Oh, by the way, Moé-chan, that man over there is quite a tea farmer here!”
At that time, I didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. But, I still remember seeing Uejima-san and feeling his presence. Even though I did not know him, I sensed the other Wazuka tea farmers respected him. Through this interview, I was able to further learn about Uejima-san’s passion for tea, his care for Wazuka and his diligence, all of which contribute to him being such an important figure in Wazuka’s direct-from-producer tea world. Additionally, I was pleased to experience his good sense of humor as well as his Wazuka accent and manners of speech. I hope you will enjoy learning about him and that it will make you appreciate his oishi (good) teas even more!
Committing to the Path of Tea: Uejima-san’s first gut feeling to become a tea farmer
Uejima-san has been on the path of tea since he was 22. However, even from a very young age, he had a gut feeling that he wanted to become a tea farmer. Here is his humorous story about becoming a tea farmer!
Uejima-san: There was a time in middle school around the time when I was 14 when my father was hospitalized for about 3-4months due to his liver. So my younger brother and I felt that because our father was in the hospital and our family couldn’t harvest tea leaves, we needed to do something! But, we couldn’t do much, even with the help from our mother. Our neighboring tea farmers helped us out. But of course, their help came after their own tea farm got harvested (you know, everyone prioritized their own farm) so our tea farm got further behind and behind… And my brother and I just couldn’t accept this situation!
Well, so this is kind of a funny story now, but we made what is called this daihachiguruma (Japanese: 大八車). I guess you could say it’s like a traditional wheelbarrow. And with my brother, we put two pairs of hand-scissors on the wheelbarrow that we were planning to use to harvest tea leaves, got excited and said,
“Okay! Let’s go tea harvesting!!”
But, as we were heading to the tea farm by foot with this wheelbarrow of ours, we saw these creepy black crows. They started squawking “kraa, kraa” at us. And we were still quite young and these crows really scared us. So, in the end, we didn’t harvest any tea leaves [laughter]. But, I just remember this intense feeling of wanting to protect our tea farm. The feeling of wanting to do something because our father couldn’t be out in the fields.
Photo by Peter Lloyd.
Uejima-san’s father ended up being out for one tea season. Even though the wheelbarrow incident with his brother was unsuccessful, after this incident, when Uejima-san was 15, he took the first step in committing to the path of tea by deciding that he would attend a 4-year agricultural high school, specialising in tea. He thought tea was fun and interesting. And, he knew he wanted to protect the family’s tea farm due to the hard work of the generations before him - they had expanded the family’s tea fields and he knew he wanted to follow their path.
The Joy of Making Custom-made Tea
Showa period 52 (April 1977): Uejima-san entered the tea business world at 22yrs old, helping out on his family tea farm. He hadn’t taken over the business yet but he shared with me how he started selling tea directly to customers.
Uejima-san: Even though I say I am the 5th generation tea farmer in our family, up until the 4th generation (i.e., my father), everyone just brought their teas to auctions or markets. Tea was sold only by wholesale. So once I committed to the path of tea, I started questioning,
“Why can’t we sell directly to our customers?”
I thought, it really isn’t that fun to just bring tea to the agricultural cooperative and to have our teas sold by them. So back then, I still didn’t have much authority over the tea work. But I asked my father if I could have some tea so that I could try selling on my own, by putting the tea in little bags and trying to sell it. And my father told me to do as I wanted. So I gave my first shot at trying to sell my own tea at some of what you would call flea-markets today. I would go to the Gangoji temple in Nara, that was maybe my very first attempt. But at first, I couldn’t sell any tea...
I have to say, I just really liked tea. And so that’s why I decided to follow my ancestors, my father’s footsteps. And also, I wanted to help my father out. There was a strong feeling for that back then. And of course, it was not all easy. Like when I was trying to sell those small bags of tea by myself, it was not all glorious. But when this one woman who bought my tea told me it was good tea, that became my savior. And then the tea dialogues began. I would ask what kind of tea the customers wanted to drink and they started telling me. And that’s when I realized that by selling my own tea, I could hear customers’ voices and make tea that they enjoyed, which I found joy in.
With early experiences of his tea dialogues with customers and selling directly to them, Uejima-san now always makes tea while keeping his customers in mind. He enjoys making custom-made tea, making tea that is pesticide and chemical free, grown with resources that are readily available in Japan, and tea that is environmentally friendly. When I asked Uejima-san what his visions for the future of his tea farming and business were, he let me know that one goal he has is to be able to deliver all of his tea directly to the hands of the people asking for the tea. There is nothing he values more than being able to make the tea that people ask for!
Diligence as a Tea Farmer
Moé: So a characteristic I am sensing from your work ethic, Uejima-san is diligence. It sounds like you and your father worked countless hours; perhaps, overworking at times, in the tea business. Was there a time when you got sick or burned out from work?
Uejima-san: Well, I’ve never hurt my body or gotten sick from tea farming. However, there was one time when I got a gastric ulcer. I actually had three holes in my stomach...
It was in my early 30’s, I think. Well, you may be surprised to hear this but you know the railways? And there are railroad crossings, right? There are these blocks beneath the tracks but I used to do work that replaced these blocks underneath. This wasn’t an all year job. During the warm seasons, there wasn’t much work. But from November to about March, there was high demand. So what the job entails is… after the last train ran for that day, those of us who did this job would go, “Okay, let’s get to it!” and we would remove all of the spikes from the railroad tracks, remove the rails and the blocks from underneath. Then we replaced the blocks, put the tracks on and drove the spikes back in. That was my part-time night job across a period of about 10 years.
So why was I doing such a job? Maybe you could say it’s because of my father. For a tea farmer to survive in Wazuka, one needed more tea fields. That was the central focus of our family. But because we were a branch house of a larger generation of tea farmers (i.e., which goes back 20 or so generations), we didn’t have much land to start off with. In order for us to make more tea, we needed more tea fields, and the only way to do that was to buy or rent more land. So in order for us to get ahead, we needed to do something different than others. That was a habitual saying of my father.
My father did the same thing when I was in high school. He would work in the tea fields during the middle of the day (as opposed to starting in the morning like other tea farmers), eat dinner, take a bath, then get ready to go to the railroad work. He would arrive at the railroad tracks before 12AM. Then, the railroad work was done around 4-5AM, you get back home around 7-8AM, sleep, and at noon (12PM), wake up to go into the tea fields, work half a day, repeat… that was our cycle. And that’s how we were able to make a living, save up to buy more tea fields. That’s our family history. And when the railroad work was relatively close by, it was possible for me to come back home. But during the very busy period, I had work in other parts of Japan like Shikoku, Takamatsu, Kochi, Tokushima prefecture, etc… I was extremely busy during this time traveling to different places and this is when I got three holes in my stomach [laughter].
Actually it happened on a job site. One night during our night work, I thought,
“Wow, I really don’t feel well.” and then literally collapsed on-site. When I went to the local hospital the next day and got an X-ray, they sent me right away to a bigger hospital. And so when I got there, I found out I had three holes. That week, I stayed relatively quiet and rested.
And night railroad work was very cold you know; below 0 degrees Celsius, especially during the winters. When everyone was sleeping, we worked and believed we were getting ahead little by little. That’s the way my father thought. Maybe there was an easier way forward but we are clumsy so that was our strategy [laughter]. So I stuck with it and that was the routine of my work days in my 30’s. And yes, people did laugh at me, and tease me. They said, he has a wife but he’s never home at night… [laughter].
But those days of hard work have gotten me to where I am now. Now, I have a respected presence in the tea industry. And, “I am the only *Mr. Perfect” [laughter]. Perhaps, I am boasting too much… But you know, I hear that for Westerners it is normal to brag, they call it “promotion” or something.
*To elaborate on the Mr. Perfect comment above, in the 90+ year old tea tasting competition held in Kyoto, Uejima-san is the only winner to ever achieve a perfect score!
Below, with actual numbers, you can also see how Uejima-san's family has expanded their tea fields over the years. Nowadays, there are three that take care of the tea farms. Uejima-san usually employs two additional employees to help during the busy time(s) and his wife also helps with the harvesting during the peak season.
1st generation - 300 *tsubo 坪 (0.099 ha)
*Tsubo is the area of two standardised tatami mats in Japan, a unit that is still commonly used.
2nd generation - 0.25 ha
3rd generation - 0.5 ha
Father’s generation - 1.5 ha
- Uejima-san's father went through a process of kaikon (cut down forest to create tea fields), transformed rice fields into tea fields, and expanded the cultivated area to 1.5 hectares.
Uejima-san - 4 ha
- Continuing the efforts of his father, Uejima-san now owns about 4 ha of tea fields not just limited to Wazuka but across surrounding areas where he grows specific types of tea: Kyotonabe (tencha, gyokuro), Kamo (kabusecha), Wazuka (kabusecha, sencha) and Ide.
Moé: Just out of curiosity, is there a time on the tea farm that you enjoy most?
Uejima-san: September in Wazuka is a very nice time. The time before the fall harvest season is when I really like the tea fields. Maybe you are surprised, you probably thought the 1st flush season!? I like this time, too, but this is a time when I am in this warrior mode so I cannot really get in this mood to appreciate the tea fields. Because everyday, I am strategically planning about what needs to be done next [laughter]. So don’t get me wrong - I do think the shincha season is a nice time, but I appreciate more the time around September.
Embodying “Cha no Ma”
Photo by the Wazuka-cha Cafe in Wazuka, Japan.
Moé: Do you have any last messages for the Yunomi customers, as we would like to do our best to connect our tea farmers to our customers?
Uejima-san: Thank you, always for drinking our tea [soft laughter]! Japanese tea is very healthy so please drink a lot and stay healthy. That’s the one thing I would like to say… And I would also like for them to hold value in what we call, “cha-no-ma” (in Japanese: 茶の間).
This may be a difficult expression, but it is the process of preparing, steeping, presenting and drinking tea. We have this traditional and ancient saying, cha-no-ma in Japan. There is the word, ma in Japanese (間；spaciousness).
The “ma” of steeping tea.
The “ma” of communication…
So cha-no-ma is a specific way of inviting guests to one’s house and making the tea in front of them. It is a type of hospitality that creates a relaxed space for interaction, that’s how we do it in Wazuka. So I would like the customers at Yunomi to make space for cha-no-ma and to embody this cha-no-ma. And to share it with their family and friends.
Many foreigners think that tea is just something that is served freely after a meal in Japan (which may be true at some restaurants). But Japanese tea is much more than that. It is an essential element of what we refer to as the cha-no-ma. Tea as the central item. We utilize the tea to create space for and initiate communication. So I would like the people who drink my tea, who drink Japanese tea, to have a good way of being and living through tea.
Moé: I appreciate you bringing this up, as it has not been mentioned in our previous tea farmer interviews.
Uejima-san: Well, the word “cha” is used a lot in the Japanese daily conversation. Not just in cha-no-ma but… we use it in our daily conversation like, muchakucha (無茶苦茶 - unreasonable), ochame（お茶目- mischievous)... You can just see how much tea is ingrained in our day-to-day lives in Japan. Well, for a long time now, society has equated success with doing things faster and we’ve forgotten how to take things slow. Enjoy a simple kind of life. People don’t seem to have time. But, if I could show, if I could communicate, that it is possible for one to make just a little bit more time, space, and care… and that by doing so, it is possible to create a slightly different world. That’s what I would like to transmit. Take time to make tea in a teapot (kyusu, 急須 in Japanese). And for people to enjoy the process of steeping tea for themselves but for others, too. After all, tea is not something you drink when you are thirsty, you know?
When you are thirsty, you drink water. The tea we make is not to quench thirst, you know that right [laughter]? Anyhow, usually after I have talked a lot about this and that with respect to tea, to make a final closure, I wrap up by saying, well then, what kind of tea do I want for my customers to drink? So, the punch statement for my tea goes, when you are thirsty, you drink water. But, the tea I make is what you drink when your heart is thirsty [laughter].
Moé: Fantastic! You have it all down, Uejima-san [laughter].
Perhaps, Uejima-san’s teas are what we all need to quench our heart thirst during these times… I hope that you enjoyed his ways of storytelling and his sense of humor as much as I did. During our interview, I also learned more about the history of the Wazuka-cha cafe from Uejima-san, so I am hoping to include some of this information in our upcoming major tea region’s post on Wazuka. Be well, drink tea, and take the time and space to enjoy the whole process of sharing tea!
*Note: All photos for this post are from Uejima Sourakuen (Uejima Tea Farm) unless otherwise noted. If you are curious to check out Uejima-san's teas, you can access them here.