Kyushu (九州) is Japan’s third largest island and is located at the very Southwest end of Japan. It is made up of the following 8 prefectures: Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Saga, Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Oita, and Okinawa. Due to its Southern location, Kyushu is characterized by its warm climate with productive agricultural and abundant natural areas. In addition to the volcanic activity that this region is famous for, Kyushu is also one of the treasured heritage areas for high quality Japanese green tea! Indeed, there is quite a lot to cover in Kyushu. So today, we’ll be going over the major tea producing regions in just Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures.
Although “Ureshii” in Japanese means happy/joyful, Ureshino tea doesn’t indicate happy and joyful tea (although the quality of this tea may put you in this state of being!), it simply refers to a region in Saga prefecture that is well known for their teas. In 2002, Ureshino Tea (嬉野茶) was branded as the name for tea produced in the two prefectures of Saga and Nagasaki. If you’ve ever tried tea from the Ureshino region, perhaps you will recall the unique shape of the tea leaves. It has a unique rounded shape and is called tamaryokucha (when steamed, it is also known as guri-cha, or “curly” tea—see our List of Japanese Teas & Terminology).
This shape is formed when the last rolling step is skipped during the rolling process, resulting in a curled, rather than straight leaf shape. Owing to this shape, the tea leaves take a little longer to open up, and to also release its umami flavors. Because of this protective rolled shape, tamaryokucha has the potential to present a variety of flavors, scents, and umami that straight leaf teas cannot, allowing you to appreciate this tea over time.
This historic Kyushu specialty currently accounts for only 2% of the tea production in Japan. Tamaryokucha can be produced using two general methods. The first is the more prevalent steamed tamaryokucha (guricha) accounting for 95% of tamaryokucha production and the latter is pan-fired or pan-roasted and can be considered a kamairicha (though not all kamairicha is skips the last step becoming tamaryokucha).
Ureshino's first tea: Kamairicha
Kamairicha results from the method of stopping tea leaf oxidation after picking by applying heat through pan-firing (not "frying" which would involve oil...) or pan-roasting. It is the common method or producing Chinese green tea, but is quite rare today in Japan. It was the method introduced by the originator of Japanese tea, the Buddhist monk Eisai, who introduced the process from China. But rather than producing the typical round pellet shape associated with gunpowder tea, the Japanese method gives the shape of a comma (the punctuation mark).
The drying process involves scalding and turning, or rolling, the tea in a cast-iron pan or cauldron (in Japanese, kama) at a temperature between 300 and 450 degrees Celsius. The Kamairicha method was initially implemented at the household level by families producing their own tea, sometimes in the same cauldrons that were used to make rice, but was also offered to Shoguns as tribute tea. The scalding and rolling gives a unique comma shape, imparts characteristic kama flavor from the accumulated residue of previous batches of tea and allows for "sap liberation" to steam the tea with its own sap.
Kamairicha masters and aficionados will argue that this method stops the oxidation process in a way that most accurately preserves the unique essence of the tea leaves and their terroir. Kamairicha reveals the growing conditions of that particular season and harvest by revealing the delicate aroma-based flavors rather than foregrounding an umami based mouth feel, associated with deep-steamed teas.
Scalding and sap liberation methods have now been modernized but one will still be able to taste the different facet of the tea’s essence revealed by tea farmers who produce this very rare tea. During the post-war period there was a shift to the production of steamed tamaryokucha. Currently, it is said that the best quality kamairicha is produced in Miyazaki, which we will cover in the upcoming blog post.
To elaborate on the tea producing regions in Saga and Nagasaki, we’ll start with Ureshino as it is a location that is historically known to have a deep relationship with tea. Ureshino is renowned as the birthplace of Japanese tea. Centuries back in 1119 the monk Eisai brought tea seeds back with him from China. He then planted these seeds at the base of Mount Sefuri, in present day Yoshinogaricho city, Saga prefecture.
The very beginning of Ureshino Tea is said to be around 1440, when the Chinese potters from the Ming Dynasty immigrated to Ureshino, cultivated and produced tea for their own use. The actual spread of Ureshino Tea is said to have begun around 1648 – 1651, due to efforts by Jinbei Yoshimura to clear his own forest land and start a tea farm to cultivate tea seeds and promote the tea industry.
Large-scale cutting and clearing of mountain forest area for agricultural use is a practice referred to as kaikon (開墾) in Japanese. In fact, there are local folk songs celebrating this. One tea bush which Jinbei Yoshimura planted still exists today (over 350 years old) designated as a National Natural Monument, and is said to be one of the largest tea bushes in the world. (Image credit: Q32 / PIXTA)
In addition to tea, Ureshino also attracts tourists for their Ureshino hot springs, which are considered to be one of Japan’s three best hot springs for beautiful skin (So, you may have guessed correctly that the water in this region is also exceptional for tea). If you are fortunate to find yourself in Ureshino, you’ll want to soak in the hot springs and treat yourself to a cup of ureshino tea. We also only covered the surface of the tea history in Saga prefecture so you may even want to learn more about it from the locals over more tea!
Another enchanting tea town worth mentioning with respect to Ureshino-cha (although they also refer to their teas as Sonogi-tea) is Higashi-Sonogi. It’s a calm, relaxed agricultural town known for having multiple generations of families working together.
Higashi-Sonogi is, located by the beautiful Omura Bay in the North-central part of Nagasaki prefecture. Notably, approximately 60% of the tea in Nagasaki prefecture is produced here. While this region may be less well known as a famous tea producing region in Japan, the tea farmers here have won dozens of awards – both at the regional and national level – including the top Minister’s Award for the steamed tamaryokucha (guricha) division.
Higashi-Sonogi is also important in tea history and specifically with respect to tea exportation. It is located at the intersection where Nagasaki Kaido road (path connecting Nagasaki to Edo (Tokyo)) met the Hirado Kaido (path connecting Hirado to other regions in Kyushu).
For this reason, during the Edo period (1603 - 1868), when Nagasaki was the only port in Japan open for foreign trade, the town of Higashi-Sonogi was a vibrant cross-roads station where many people passed. There must have been a vibrant roadside tea-house culture in this town!
Another famous figure from Nagasaki is Ohura Keio (1828-84; born in Aburaya town in Nagasaki), a female merchant, who was the first to export Japanese tea to foreign countries. The very first tea samplers she exported were to Great Britain, the United States and Arabia. In 1853 she successfully filled an order to export 72 tons of tea to the United States. This event marks the very beginning of the tea export to the United States.
To spotlight some Ureshino teas from Yunomi
- Interested in trying an authentic tamaryokucha straight from this region? Tea from Kikizu Tea Garden in Sonogi, Nagasaki comes from a 5-generation, century-old tea garden.
- Although in Japan, the processing and sale of tea is largely dominated by men, Yunomi has connections to mother-daughter tea merchants, Sachiko Nakashima and her daughter Miyuki. They are based in Imari-shi, Saga Prefecture and their tea shop, Chakouan has quite a nice selection of Ureshinocha from the original kamairicha method and even, kamairi matcha, a selection of green teas and Ureshino black tea.
- While not based in Saga or Nagasaki, Yamane-en (a family-operated tea shop in Tokyo) holds the first flush 2020 harvested tamaryokucha for those of you hungry for more shincha from the very first harvest!
Voilà! That's all there is to share for today. Hopefully the bits of history about Japanese tea is keeping you curious rather than bored. In the next post, we’ll be going over Miyazaki and Kumamoto prefectures to dive deeper into the unique folk teas (i.e. kamairicha, tamaryokucha) of this area.
Until next time, friends!
Banner image credit: kattyan / PIXTA(ピクスタ)