By Susan Gavin
I had a wonderfully serendipitous moment during a trip to Nishio, the tea-growing region in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. Because of its climate, Nishio is known for its tea cultivation, and its matcha is highly regarded.
After a tour and tasting at a matcha factory last year, I happened to peek in a window of a nearby tea-processing facility. The owner saw me looking in and waved me inside. His son, fluent in English, proceeded to give an impromptu tour of the family-run plant. In the hot, sauna-like conditions, he explained the purpose of each machine and how the freshly-picked tea leaves are processed. The experience was such an unplanned stroke of luck that I knew I wanted to learn more.
When planning my next trip, I knew that finding a tea tour during the picking season might be difficult. And after researching options and scouring Yunomi’s list of tea-picking events, I realized the logistics just wouldn't work this year. But then, friends found a small newspaper ad for the “Sayama Tea-Picking Experience Festa,” held about two hours outside of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. And even better, the event was free, with no reservations needed.
We had sunny skies as we drove through rural Saitama to the event, even glimpsing Mt. Fuji in the distance. Once we arrived at the Saitama Prefecture Tea Research Institute, we joined the throngs waiting in line to pick tea. Members of the Saitama Tea Youth Association demonstrated how to pluck the stems, then gave us plastic bags and 20 minutes in the fields.
After picking, we were led to a tent where staff members were preparing tea-leaf tempura. We chewed the leaves, expecting a hint of a tea taste, but the flavor was very….green. Although I didn't go back for seconds, it was a rare opportunity to sample something so unique.
We then crowded into the cavernous processing area where staff members explained how the machines worked, how to massage tea leaves by hand, and how to dry our freshly-picked leaves in a microwave at home.
After learning about the machines, the next step was drinking tea. In the institute’s auditorium, teachers were instructing small groups on how to make a delicious pot of tea. We tasted the distinctly different flavors of the first and the second pours, then learned that the leaves left in the pot were edible and had health benefits.
My group was surprised—and a bit skeptical—but eager to try the samples. We had a choice of condiments to mix with the tea leaves- soy sauce, goma miso, mayonnaise, ponzu and ume paste. Just like the tea-leaf tempura, the results tasted green and healthy- although we probably negated the health benefits by following it up with green tea sweets and green tea cola!
Once home, we dried our freshly-picked leaves. After microwaving and gently rolling the leaves three times, they lost their moisture and green color. It was a thrill to actually make a hot cup of tea with the leaves, and to taste the familiar flavor of green tea. I didn't pick enough leaves to last very long, so I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity. Thanks, Saitama.
From the Yunomi blog
How to get to the Saitama Tea Industry Research Institute (also referred to as the Saitama Prefectural Agricultural Research Center, Tea Research Facility)
- Nearest train station: JR Hachiko line, Kaneko station (30 min. on foot)
- Address: 244-2 Kamiyaganuki, Iruma-shi, Saitama Prefecture