Greetings! Can you spot the praying mantis lounging in the beautiful tea fields of Wazuka? Yes, today we are back highlighting some of the major tea producing regions in the Kyoto Prefecture and will be shining light on Wazuka, a heartwarming town located by the Southern edge of the prefecture.
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Magnificent Tea Field Scenery
The first time I visited the lovely town of Wazuka was in the summer of 2019 (pre COVID times), to participate in an International volunteer workcamp on tea agriculture, organic farming and Japanese culture through NICE, a non profit organization in Japan. The scenery of rural Japan is known for its natural beauty of mountainous landscapes, rice fields, and traditional housing. However, for me, it was the first time I was so awe-struck by the magnificent and artistic landscape of tea fields embedded within a village with tiled roof tops. I later learned from the tea farmers of Wazuka that the scenery shows over 800 years of the progression of tea production in the region, which is parallel to when Japanese green tea originated during the Kamakura period (1199-1334). Perhaps, one reason why it appears so beautiful to the human eye is because the tea bushes in Wazuka are trimmed and taken care of multiple times throughout the year (more than many other tea farms throughout Japan!). By arranging the tea fields in this way, tea farmers are able to efficiently cultivate their tea plants with care and optimise the amount of sunshine on the tea bushes. In addition, like the surrounding areas that are well known for producing some of the finest teas in Japan (e.g., Uji, Ujitawara) Wazuka has a favorable geographic location when it comes to climate, humidity, fog and temperature range for tea. In the year 2015, Wazuka was registered as a Japan Heritage Site. Because camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant, you can imagine the scenery to be magnificent all year round!
Ishidera Tea Fields, perhaps the most famous tea fields of Wazuka. This iconic view has been utilized for various tea products. In the spring, one may enjoy rows of cherry blossoms right by these beautiful tea fields.
Harayama; the Circular Tea Fields where it all began
In Wazuka, tea fields can literally be found everywhere, even in places you least expect them. It will make one appreciate the efforts of the Wazuka tea farmers who did kaikon (開墾；a process of cutting down forests to make space for farmland) even in very steep areas. If you ever help out on a tea field, a ride to the tea fields in the back of a farm truck up steep hills and around hairpin turns can be quite memorable and adventurous. One of the unique tea plantations in Wazuka is Harayama (Japanese: 原山の茶畑) which is well known as it is an “enkei chabatake” or circular tea field. In fact, it is difficult not to be mesmerized with the symmetrical beauty of this field, an elegant dance of nature and human hands. Harayama is also said to be the place where the first tea trees were planted in Wazuka. Where did the tea seeds come from? They were given to Jishin, a monk of Kaijusenji Temple from Myoe Shounin, who is the founder of tea farming in Japan (If you would like to review a bit of tea history in this region, please see our posts on Uji and Ujitawara). Because it is surrounded by nature, it can even be enjoyed as a hiking course. There are also electric bicycles you can rent in town and even though I am not a huge fan, I have to admit that it made the ride more pleasant. That is, you won't have to suffer that much because the electric bike is sure to help you uphill!
At times, the symmetrical beauty of the tea fields in Harayama will put one in a hypnotic state; photo by Moé Kishida.
Today, Wazuka produces only about 2% of Japan’s total tea (about 45% of the total tea is produced in Kyoto prefecture). However, Wazuka-cha (i.e., tea from Wazuka) holds a reputation for especially high quality tea with a rich umami flavor. Traditionally, this area was very well-known for sencha (which was developed in Ujitawara, a town about 10km northwest of Wazuka) and thus, tea farmers formerly produced only sencha. Yet, approximately 15 years ago, many of the Wazuka tea farmers began to also produce tencha during a period when there was almost no matcha production in Wazuka. For instance, Uejima Tea Farm's personally owned tencha factory was established in the year 2016, which is rather recent. Today, his tea production consists of 30% sencha and 70% of tencha/matcha. This reflects the state of tea agriculture in Japan but also in Wazuka. That is, an increasing demand for matcha.
Although at the national level, Wazuka may not produce much tea (e.g., in comparison to major tea producing prefectures of Shizuoka and Kagoshima), it ranks number one when it comes to places within Kyoto prefecture with respect to tea farm areas, the number of tea farmers households as well as the amount of tea produced.
Table 1. Aracha Production Volume (unit: tons) by tea types in Kyoto Prefecture. Statistics obtained from the Kyoto Prefecture Tea Industry, 2013.
Table 2. Tea Rankings in Kyoto Prefecture. Statistics obtained from the Kyoto Prefecture Tea Industry, 2013.
This lovely little cafe is definitely the place to go to peruse the largest selection of Wazuka teas! The Uejima family from Uejima Tea Farm is one of the families that manages this cafe. During my interview with Uejima-san, I appreciated hearing the history of Wazuka-cha cafe:
Uejima-san: “Last year was an exceptional year for Wazuka-cha cafe due to the pandemic, but nowadays, the cafe can make a profit of about 40 thousand yen (approximately $3700.00) in sales. This is a stark contrast to the very beginning when the four founding members of this cafe set out to start this place. There were days when we didn’t sell anything. The cash register drawer wouldn’t budge or make any little “ding” sounds! There were times when we needed to buy a 100 yen drink ourselves just to prevent the cash register from getting rusty… Actually, this gloomy period lasted for a period of about 3-4 years. And it would have been okay if we actually had customers but back in the initial years, the other farmers actually made fun of us. They were very doubtful and wondered, “Who will come to such a place to buy tea?” Things started to pick up around the 6th year, and in our 10th year we really started selling. That’s because there were changes in our society. The community building activities and cultural promotions started to include sightseeing of tea fields and tea drinking. And through social media and marketing, people came from outside Wazuka. And there was also the help from sightseeing buses. There is a president of the Keihan bus who is in charge of the Tea of Kyoto route and we asked them to develop a route that went through the Southern parts of Kyoto...”
Tea selection at Wazuka-cha Cafe. There is also a place to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea with an option for dessert! Photo by Wazukacha Cafe.
Heartwarming Town, Heartwarming People
Perhaps, one of the strong imprints I took away from Wazuka was simply the kindness of the tea farmers and people of this town who deeply care about their home town and about sharing the tea culture that is deeply rooted in the land and people. If you ever have a chance to visit, I encourage you to interact with the locals, even if you do not speak Japanese. A good place to do that may be at the Wazukacha cafe, visiting during their annual Chagenkyo Tea Festival (note: site in Japanese), or try going to the local bathhouse where you will likely be able to hear the dialect of this region!
Autumn tea harvest with the Nishiyama family in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture (top photo). Tea farmers, friends, and volunteers who help out with tea farming often gather at Nishiyama-san's place to enjoy okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes, bottom photo). In addition to tea farming, Nishiyama-san is also quite masterful when it comes to making okonomiyaki! Photos by Jimmy Burridge.
Yunomi's Ties with Wazuka Tea Farmers
Of course, we are aware that this may not be the best time to visit Wazuka and buy tea at the Wazuka-cha cafe. The good news is that Yunomi has quite a selection of teas from these hardworking and heartwarming tea farmers:
- Uejima Tea Farm: One of the most renowned tea farmers in Wazuka and in the Japanese tea world. Uejima-san takes great care in making tea that his customers enjoy, appreciates “cha-no-ma” (the time and space of making and serving tea to others), and promises that his tea will quench your heart! These points are all elaborated in our recent interview with Uejima-san so don’t forget to check out his humorous and inspirational stories!
- Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms: If it was not for Obubu, perhaps, Yunomi would not exist today! One unique aspect of Obubu lies in the internship and training courses they offer. If you are interested in obtaining tea farming and/or tea knowledge experience in Japan, Obubu is one place that may be able to provide you with what you are looking for. Their website is also English-friendly and often humorous; in fact, one may even enjoy a blogpost from their goats.
Kiroku Tea Garden: Another tea farm in Wazuka, Kiroku is run by three inspiring women who wanted to keep their tea farm going after the passing of their husband/father. They say their 100% single origin teas is aided by their cats who provide a soft balance to their sometimes hard tea work. Coming up, we will be sharing our recent interview with Megumi-san, one of the sisters.
Photo by Kiroku Tea Garden.
- Nakai Tea Farm: The Nakai family has been cultivating tea in Wazuka since the 17th century. In 1980, the 6th generation tea master Masao Nakai began organic and non-pesticide cultivation, a time when few people in Japan were concerned about organic farming. Today, his son Michio Nakai, proudly continues to produce high quality organic tea.
- Azuma Tea Gardens: If you are a matcha lover, Azuma Tea Gardens may be a familiar name for you. At Yunomi in the fall, we were excited to share the 10-cultivar matcha sampler from Azuma-san. It quickly sold out, but you can still enjoy their matchas and other offerings.
We hope you enjoyed learning a bit about Wazuka, the hidden tea town tucked in the mountains of Southern Kyoto. Cheers to Wazuka-cha!
Feature image credit: A praying mantis tea field bathing; Wazuka, Japan; photo by Moé Kishida.