🌱 2024 Shincha Pre-Orders 🌱

How Shishikui kancha is made

How Shishikui kancha is made

Moé  Kishida |

Shishikuicho city, is in the southernmost district of Tokushima Prefecture, called Kaiyo. As its name Kaiyo (in Japanese: 海陽) suggests in Japanese, it is a "sea town" that is famous for its sea. It is quite well-known for surfing and diving. Additionally, those who are going on pilgrimage through the Shikoku pilgrimage may pass this town. However, in this region the mountains are also rich in their blessings. In fact, there is a treasured mountain tea from this area! 

The treasured tea is called Shishikui kancha (寒茶), a tea that is currerently only grown in Kuo village by tea farmer Akemi Ishikawa (87 years old in the year 2024). Kuo village is about a 40-minute drive from downtown Shishikui. Kancha is a traditional folk tea that is harvested during the coldest months of the year. Previously many more people in this district made kancha, mostly for home use but also for sale. However, other producers of this unique folk tea have grown older and stopped making tea, leaving only Akemi-san to maintain the tradition.

Earlier in February, we had the honor of visiting Akemi-san at her home and farm. She was in the midst of kancha harvest. In this article, we will highlight Shishikui kancha, and talk about how kancha is processed, Akemi-san’s way.

Before we dive into the kancha making process, a little note about Akemi-san. She has been making kancha in Kuo village for more than 35 years, and is affectionately called "Kancha Ba-chan” (translates roughly, to kancha granny) by the people in this region. She told us that she has never met anyone that loves kancha more than herself, and this message was evident to us as we witnessed her make her beautiful tea. 

For Akemi-san, the kancha harvest period starts around January 1st and can last up to March 10th. While she does not harvest in the rain, during the tea harvest period, she will work from 7:00 a.m. to 19:00 p.m. without taking breaks. She says that part of the secret to her longevity is staying busy! 

Akemi-san’s tea fields are located just behind her house and up the hill. From the first photo (below), you can see two ladders. They are the direct routes to the tea bushes. And while it is hard to see from the first image, with the second, you can see that her tea fields are quite extensive and expand upwards, along the terraces. 

Shishikui kancha is made from these open pollinated tea bushes, which have grown naturally in the mountains in Kuo village. The water here is also said to be of very high quality.

We were curious what was grown on these terraces before there was tea, and Akemi-san let us know that they grew rice (she still grows rice, but on one of the lower terraces) and that the tea bushes were not planted here, but started to grow naturally at one point. She says that the field mice helped to plant the fallen tea bush seeds, and that is how it spread (I’ve also touched on this on a previous article on kancha but if you understand and can read Japanese, she has shared this story with a sense of humor, here, too)! Her tea fields are now 1,000 tsubo (~0.82 acres).

Making Shishikui kancha

Incredibly, all of the tea harvesting is done by hand. Her tea fields are definetly natural and wild looking. The tea bushes (zairai cultivar) reach up towards the sky, and there is little space between tea bushes. 

We got to experience picking the tea leaves by hand. The speed by which Akemi-san picks is incomparable to us, of course (video of Akemi-san hand-picking kancha leaves by Asahi Shinbun). She shared that she kind of gets into this flow state with the sound of tea leaves being picked. Only 4 kg of tea can be harvested in a day, much less if you:re not an expert like Akemi-san.

After the tea leaves are picked, Akemi-san spreads them out on her engawa (refers to a floor extension that is typically seen in a traditional Japanese-style house, usually facing outwards to a yard/garden and serves as a sitting space and passageway) where she will take out any immature leaves, sticks and such. It is a sorting process, where she shuffles the leaves around, then picks out anything that may not belong.

Afterwards, it is time to boil the tea leaves for 25-minutes. Akemi-san does this in a small side-kitchen space. She looks at a digital clock to measure 25-minutes and told us that she has never forgotten about her kancha even when she goes off to take care of something else.

Left: Kancha leaves cooling off after being boiled for 25-minutes. Right: Akemi-san conversing with us and smiling. Her smile reminded me of my grandmother, who was also a farmer. 

After the steamed leaves are cooled down a bit with the outside air, Akemi-san will use this well-seasoned machine to massage out the deliciousness from the mature and hard tea leaves. To acquire this machine, she visited a farmer in the neighboring town. In action, the machine reminded me of a character from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, Kamaji (don't worry if you do not see any connection). 

For the last touch, Akemi-san massages the tea leaves herself, she says its important to put the human energy into the leaves. Note that in the past, it was all laboriously massaged by hand!

After the tea leaves are massaged, they are left in an old wooden bucket for 24 hours. The bucket was passed down from her mother. 

The next day, the leaves are removed from the bucket and taken to Akemi-san’s greenhouse and spread out to dry for 2-5 days. The length of time depends on weather conditions. We were surprised to hear that on a usual day (when there aren’t guests around), she will put the tea leaves in her wheelbarrow and walk to her greenhouse which is located across the bridge. She shared that by walking, it gives her a little bit of exercise.

Another interesting fact about her greenhouse. Apparently, the greenhouse was initially utilized for keeping soft-shelled turtles (i.e., for eating). Yet, once it was abandoned, it became Akemi-san’s greenhouse. Perfect for drying her kancha leaves. Akemi-san told us that if some part of the greenhouse needs to be fixed, she can ask someone in the village or neighboring villages to fix it. She says it was a lucky find.

Lastly, the leaves are taken outside to sundry. We did not have a chance to witness this final step as the weather was rather rainy during our limited time in Kuo village. Still, Akemi-san says the last sun drying step is very important in her kancha making process. She says there is something special about receiving energy from the sun.

Thanks to Akemi-san, we got to enjoy her delicious kancha right outside of her house overlooking her beautiful tea fields. Kancha made directly with the mountain water from Kuo village and by Akemi-san herself was a very special treat. We are grateful to Akemi-san for welcoming us and sharing with us her passion for kancha.

A more detailed article will follow about kancha ba-chan (i.e., Akemi-san). Stay tuned. 

Have additional insights? Please don't hesitate to post comments and/or questions below. Or directly contact me (Moé Kishida): moe@yunomi.life. Thank you! 

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.