Today, we share with you our interview with Megumi (Ui for short) Hori, 5th generation tea farmer of Kiroku Tea Garden in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture where she, her mother Yoko, and her sister Hiroe grow and process their own teas. What makes their tea so special? Kiroku Tea Garden has their own tea and matcha processing equipment and they treat each of their tea fields individually to create unique, single-origin teas. Hori-san shares with us that yes, a tea farm run by women is quite possible but that they appreciate support and comfort from the overseas connections and closer to home, from their 6 cats! While concerned about the dwindling tea industry in Japan, the women of Kiroku Tea Garden are passionate about experimenting with rare tea cultivars, using those rare cultivars to make limited batches of matcha and bringing new energy into the world of Japanese tea.
Moé: Well, Hori-san, I guess I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time today to do this interview with us, on your birthday, correct? And happy birthday! I already know a little bit about your background from the Kiroku Tea Garden page on Yunomi, but could I ask how exactly you decided to become a tea farmer?
Hori-san: Thank you for the birthday wishes. With respect to my decision to become a tea farmer… Well, my siblings are all women. And to be completely honest, at first, we really did not like tea farm work. It’s because, when we were young, we saw our parents who seemed to only care about tea. They were living just for tea and I guess I wanted more attention [laughter]. But I thought about how if we (i.e., their children) did not continue our parents’ work, nobody else would. So that was always in my heart.
And I was actually living away from Wazuka for a while due to marriage and working in Osaka. So I would visit Wazuka from Osaka to help out during the busy season. But eventually my marriage fell apart and my heart felt heavy. So I came back to the tea farm. While tea work is very hard in terms of labor, to the heart it is soft and kind, you know? So I was already back helping out with the tea farm in Wazuka when my father passed away. And I decided that I would continue the work of my parents with my mother, as it isn’t work that one can do alone. Even before I made up my mind to continue the tea work, some men inquired whether they should take over (instead of me). But I refused and told them that I can do it. And so, since then, it’s mainly been the two of us continuing the work together.
Women of Kiroku Tea Garden out in the tea fields; Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture.
Moé: So, it’s just mainly been you and your mother at Kiroku Tea Garden?
Hori-san: Yes, yes. And my sister is responsible for the work at our tencha factory. Usually, she has a job elsewhere, but when the time comes, she helps out at the factory. It’s not common for tea farmers to have their own tencha factory in Wazuka, but we are one of the few families with one. It’s in our heritage. In general, many of the tea farmers bring their harvested tea leaves to a shared collective factory where the processing is done. On the contrary, we take care of the entire process from harvesting to manufacturing the tea. It’s quite sweet, you know, like caring for a child [laughter]. That being said, during the busy seasons, we have a lot of work to do. We become sleep deprived and we may stay up working until 3:00AM… So, I guess to own a factory enhances the risks placed on one’s health and wellbeing. Thankfully, we are able to obtain a bit of help from part-time workers during the harvest seasons.
Hori-san: Yes. During this time, we say that “Senro ga inochi” (Japanese: 線路が命) . That is, during the harvest season, it’s essential to have everything ready to go. Once you harvest the tea leaves, you take it to the next step, and then to the next... That’s why we say senro is life (literally meaning railroad but referring to the processing line). With more hands from our part-time workers, we are able to make the process smoother.
Moé: In comparison to the generations before you, how has tea farming or the way of agriculture changed?
Hori-san: Well, I only have knowledge that was passed down orally so I am not 100% certain but back then, they didn’t have anything you know. No machines, no cars... My great grandfather went into the forest to cut trees down with a saw to go through the process of “kaikon” (Japanese: 開墾；a process of cutting down forests to make space for farmland). Then they would prepare the soil, dig holes to plant the tea bushes. The scale of the tea farms was a lot smaller. I believe that if you had one tea farm, it was considered to be pretty decent. When the time for harvesting came, they would pick the tea leaves manually or with a pair of scissors. They didn’t have the huge tea factories like they have today. So, within the tea farmers, there was a smaller scale tea factory where tea leaves would be massaged, processed and manufactured.
Now, with mechanization, tea farms are expanding in scale and we have machinery that allows us to harvest at a more efficient rate. Well, we at Kiroku Tea Garden, have our own tencha factory, but what is more typical is for these tea leaves now to be brought to a shared factory where tea farmers entrust their tea leaves to be massaged, processed and manufactured by someone else. From there, the agricultural cooperative members take it to the commercial sales market and that’s where the prices are determined.
Tea farmers used to be able to make a living just by growing tea but now, that is a bit more challenging. And this past year, with Covid, things have been different. In the tea market, the price of shincha (the newly harvested tea) dropped, being only worth the amount of nibancha (summer harvest) tea. It’s put a bit of pressure on the Japanese tea industry, I am sensing a bit of a crisis. I didn’t think that it would have such a direct impact on us.
Zoom world snapshot capturing our interview with Megumi Hori from Kiroku Tea Garden
Moé: Yes, Covid has, and is still having its (in)direct influences in diverse ways, I guess it illustrates our inter-connectivity with one another and it seems to be the new normal... But with respect to Wazuka specifically, when I was there, I personally got a sense that there were some young tea farmers with a lot of enthusiasm, (Like “Akky” (Akihiro Kita) from Obubu Tea Farms and Osamu-san)?
Hori-san: Well, that’s only a few tea farmers. I still think that with population aging, we do not have enough younger generations that will pursue this work. Compared to when I was first in Wazuka, the population here has decreased by half… That means that there will be even less people that will continue the tea work. I guess I am afraid that in the next 10-15 years, we may find ourselves in Wazuka with a bunch of abandoned tea fields. It’s a pity but the generation of Japanese these days has changed in that people drink tea out of plastic bottles as opposed to having a kyusu (tea pot). It seems that the Japanese people themselves do not have much respect for tea.
This is the reality here, you know… the tea used for bottled tea can be bought at a cheaper price, and so, who will buy the high quality good tea like ours? On the contrary, there is more hope on the foreign market. Actually, at Kiroku Tea Garden, we have been obtaining a bit more attention and support thanks to social media. It’s actually a pleasant surprise, seeing people appreciate or comment when I upload a photo of whisking a matcha for instance [soft laughter]. It warmed my heart especially during these times. I have more connections and friends abroad now since the pandemic. Well, I haven’t actually met these people in person but they are our friends. In Japan, this doesn’t really seem to get people’s attention, but overseas, many people have told us they want to support us because we are three women running a tea farm.
Moé: The situation in Japan is unfortunate, but it makes me happy to hear that people are supporting you from overseas. That is definitely encouraging! Along with this line of thought, would you say that one of the unique aspects of Kiroku Tea Garden is the fact that you are three women running a tea farm? And what are some of the challenges you have faced because of it?
Hori-san: Yes, I would say that’s number 1. And with respect to the challenges we face, it’s actually quite simple. Well, basically, I am rather short and do not have much stamina. But in the end, it’s possible to do everything [laughter]!
Moé: Ah, the mind does have a tendency to place restrictions on what we can or cannot do… I am afraid I am not familiar with the teas at Kiroku Tea Garden yet. Is there a tea that defines your tea farm or one that you would highlight?
Hori-san: There’s a tea cultivar called asanoka. It is a cultivar which originates from Kagoshima (developed at the Makurazaki Research Center; registered in 1996), a breed between Yabukita and a variety from China. We were the first tea farm in Wazuka to grow asanoka. Now, I think there’s someone else that grows asanoka and makes sencha, as it’s a cultivar that is generally used to make sencha. On our tea farm however, we use asanoka to make matcha. Even at the national level, I wonder if there are any others who make asanoka matcha… I am not sure! In that sense, we may be pretty unique. So, I would say it’s our top product. As a matcha (when whisked), you will obtain a very nice foam, a velvety smoothness with a fruity essence. Oh, and this year, we tried something new with our customers in which we made matcha with 7 different tea cultivars. And we sent a matcha sampler to our customers with a survey, so that we could obtain a grasp of what they liked most, to hear their opinions…
[The sound of bells]
Moé: Excuse me, my cat is just playing by herself… she is the only one that’s awake at this hour (around 6:30AM CET Time).
Hori-san: We have six cats...
Moé: Wow, six, that’s quite a lot!
Hori-san: They are all very cute. I am a cat-person, I really love them! [Hori-san brings a cat to herself] This one is named Yuzu. And all of our cats are named after Wagashi (Japanese sweets): Kinako, Anko, Dora (after dorayaki), Monaka, Yuzu…the mother is named Mike. They are all tea cats, you know. They sometimes make an appearance on our Instagram page. And when I am feeling tired from working in the tea fields, they are like therapy for me.
Moé: Mmm, my cat is my best teacher when it comes to the importance of napping and rest. I guess I could keep asking you questions about your cats [soft laughter] but I will steer us back to tea. Is there anything special that you do with respect to your cropping system on your tea farm?
Hori-san: Well, there is really nothing that particular we do at Kiroku Tea Garden but we take into consideration how to minimize the stress placed on our tea bushes. When we harvest for the nibancha we make sure to do a rotation. That is, every 2-3 years, in order to allow the tea bushes to rest we will do something that is called a "chugari" (Japanese:中刈り) which is to prune some of the tea bushes deeply.
Additionally, my mother is quite meticulous about everything. So if I stress out the tea bushes even a little bit, she will get angry at me. With my mother, her heart is really into every process of tea farming and everything is done with great care, even when picking weeds.
Hori-san’s mother serves as a role model for Kiroku Tea Garden.
Moé: Oh, the weeding dance! Much of the work I was involved in at Wazuka in the summer of 2019 was with weeding. But if we did it with more heart like your mother, maybe it would have been a bit different. I was curious to know whether you have a favorite task or a favorite season on the tea farm?
Hori-san: For me, the harvest season is my favorite time. Even though we have a lot of work, we have new part-time workers that help out on our farm, so there is new energy, it’s like a fresh spring breeze. Outside of those times, I am working with my mother day-to-day, diligently, throughout cold and hot humid days. Oh, this past year, we had an American girl interning with us for 2-3 months. We got connected through the Global Japanese Tea Association, Simona introduced me to her. I think it’s wonderful that some foreigners seem to have a deep passion for Japanese tea and are interested in tea farming work. If I could be fluent in English, it would be better [laughter]... But I cannot talk at all.
Moé: I struggle with the language barrier, too, in France. But that’s okay, after all, you are in Japan. And you can communicate through body language, listening by observing, tea work can be done that way, no? Did she speak any Japanese?
Hori-san: Yes, she could a bit because she came to Japan as a English teacher. But there were some challenges in communication. Still, she did the work properly and I also tried my best with my poor English [laughter]. So in all, it was a very good experience for us. I hope that perhaps once Covid settles down, I can do something similar. I am really concerned about the abandonment of tea farms and the future of the tea industry in Japan. It's not enough with just the people of Wazuka. And the reason why I say people outside of Wazuka, is because perhaps, they may be more enthusiastic. But, for the time being, we will continue our work here, even with the most recent challenge of the pandemic. After many years of hard work, it’s hard to let go of something that our family has invested so much care and energy into.
Moé: I very much respect and honor your commitment and spirit to the tea work. And perhaps, in the near future, new opportunities and relationships will arise from the abandoned tea fields. We shall see... Well, I would like to thank you again for your time today. It was a pleasure to get to know more about the women behind Kiroku Tea Garden. To bring closure to our time together, is there anything else that you would perhaps like to mention to the customers at Yunomi? Or to the people who drink your tea? Or something else that you wanted to talk about?
Hori-san: Thank you for always drinking our tea and matcha. Thanks to Yunomi and Instagram, we have many friends throughout the world. I would also like everyone to drink more Japanese tea [laughter]. And if they start to care a little bit more, my vision would be for people all over the world to help out so that tea farms can prosper and not be abandoned. And please come visit Kiroku Tea Garden. It would be wonderful to meet you!
From left to right: Hori-san and her pink highlights; mother and daughter. Thanks to Hori-san's graphic art background, Kiroku Tea Garden has quite a savvy website and Instagram account with beautiful tea farm photos. And, if you are also a cat-lover, that is a bonus!
At the end of the interview, Hori-san also showed me the pink highlights in her hair letting me know that adding color gives her pepp in the step in the tea fields. Her mother also enjoys adding purple to her hair. While Hori-san told me she wasn’t doing anything special for her birthday, I felt fortunate to have been a part of this day.
Note: This interview was done on January 19th, 2021 in Japanese during the off season on the tea farm. Now, the women are getting busy as they tend and care for their tea bushes preparing for the first flush season. All photos from this blogpost were provided by Kiroku Tea Garden. In the feature photo the three women are together in front of their tea farm from left to right; Hiroe (sister), Yoko (mother) and Ui.