For today’s tea farmer interview at Yunomi, we are with 3rd generation tea farmer and CEO of Sueyoshi Tea Atelier in Soo City, Kagoshima Prefecture, Mataki Tatefumi. Mataki-san strongly believes that tea is more than just a drink that may satisfy your thirst. Tea helps people to loosen up, bringing people closer together. With this philosophy in mind the tea farmers at Sueyoshi Tea Atelier strive to deliver their delicately and finely grown teas to as many people as possible. They also strive to promote a resourceful way of living that will extend beyond one’s cup of tea!
I stumbled upon Mataki-san’s tea fortuitously on Yunomi as I was asked to help write up the tea descriptions on Yunomi for their teas back in the year 2020. Since then, I have been savoring his delicate and delicious kabusecha and their teas have received numerous recognitions, which Mataki-san did not mention at all during our interview! While some time has passed since I was first introduced to his teas, I was finally able to interview Mataki-san in the beginning of February (2023). Just like he mentioned a cup of tea helps one to loosen up, I was very touched by his kindness and generosity, which allowed me to relax during our time chatting. I hope that you will enjoy getting to know more about Mataki-san as well as Sueyoshi Tea Atelier!
Moé: To get us started, I would like to ask you about your journey in becoming a tea farmer. How did you, and your family enter the tea world?
Mataki-san: My grandpa was the one who started making tea in my family. An acquaintance of his was making tea in Soo City. And they were going to quit making tea. But my grandpa suggested that he himself would take over and continue, and he bought their tea fields and that was the very beginning of tea making for our family. My father who is the 2nd generation tea farmer then expanded onto our tea fields and renewed the machinery in our tea factory in order to make better tea and more tea. And so while my family has been making tea since the times of my grandfather, I officially started as a tea farmer rather recently, in the year 2017. I’ve been making tea alongside my father. Soon, it will be my 6th year in making tea. As for me, watching my father make tea I knew from when I was little that I also wanted to be a tea farmer. However, I didn’t know exactly when I wanted to start. First, I had an ambition to see the world outside of tea and agriculture. I started as an accountant, I am a certified public accountant (CPA). But when I turned 30 years old, it was a time when I reflected on my life and my future. That was when I remembered my father saying that tea making only happens once a year. And I thought that a person cannot make 100 teas in one’s lifetime… And so when I turned 30, it felt like the right time. I returned to Soo City to get started with tea farming, that's the way I started.
Moé: How would you describe your transition in becoming a tea farmer? Was it a natural process for you?
Mataki-san: Well, I would say emotionally, it was quite natural because even from a young age, I was set on becoming a tea farmer. So the transition from being an accountant to a tea farmer was smooth. One of the challenges however was in the physical realm because I went from doing hours of desk work (i.e., leading a sedentary lifestyle) to being out in the tea fields. The physical labor clearly took time to get used to! Also, financially, as an accountant, no matter what, one obtains a regular pay at a certain time (i.e., a typical salaryman). As a tea farmer, that’s not the case. I very much felt the financial strains as well as differences.
Moé: Recently, it is often touched on how the younger generations do not drink tea from a kyusu (teapot) but that we are a “pet-bottle” (plastic bottle) generation. Coming from a tea farmer family, how has this phenomenon impacted, or not impacted your family? Or the tea farming communities in general? This could be financially, or in other aspects.
Mataki-san: To clarify, you are asking whether tea farmers are struggling nowadays since the majority of people now drink tea from plastic bottles?
Moé: Yes, that’s it. I apologize for my question being so long-winded!
Mataki-san: Yes. I very much sense that. We experience it ourselves at Sueyoshi Tea Atelier. It has become more difficult since the times of my grandfather. And when I look around, I see many tea farmers that have quit. In the 6 years that I have been a tea farmer, I have seen tea farmers who make exceptionally good tea abandon their profession due to economic and financial strains. And I will share that they were tea farmers who made very delicious tea. Still, the fact that these tea farmers no longer want to continue making tea is influenced by the stark reality of people not drinking tea from a teapot.
Moé: I would like to know a bit more about your hometown, Soo City. Personally, I am no expert on Kagoshima Prefecture… Although, I am of course aware that it is one of the major tea growing regions in Japan. Would you say that there are numerous tea farmers in Soo City?
Mataki-san: Actually, there are not many tea farmers in this area and that has always been the case. First of all, Soo City is actually small to begin with. But another reason is due to the fact that when you look at tea production in Kagoshima Prefecture as a whole, the tea in Soo City is the last to be ready. The tea season starts late here. Even though we are located in the South, Soo City has lower average temperatures so it can even be slower than Shizuoka Prefecture! That being said, tea harvesting occurs at a later time. Generally, this is part of Japanese culture but people really value the “firsts”. The first tea, the first X and Y. They associate it with being auspicious. And so the very early teas can often be priced at a higher price. When the harvest season occurs at a later time like in Soo City, often, the people that wanted the very first ichibancha (first flush) are already done buying their teas. In this sense, it is difficult for the tea farmers in Soo City to be competitive with the rest of the tea producing regions in Kagoshima Prefecture. That’s one of the reasons why there aren’t many tea producers in this area.
Moé: I see… But you are continuing to produce tea in this challenging context. I very much respect that!
Mataki-san: Thank you. Well, there is a region here. Which includes Soo City and the surrounding valleys. There is a record that tea was produced here during the Edo Period and sent to the Edo Shogunate. This area is called the Miyakonojyo (Miyako Castle) Basin. It is an area that is embedded with tea history. And so I believe it is a region that is very well-suited for growing tea.
Moé: I see… so it is worth waiting for the tea made from you in Soo city!? Sort of related to what we are talking about, what would you say are the strengths and/or qualities of Sueyoshi Tea Atelier?
Mataki-san: Yes. The environment in Soo City where we are located is suitable for growing tea. The climate is said to be very similar to Kyoto.
Moé: Oh, Kyoto?
Mataki-san: Yes, Kyoto. Like Uji…
Moé: It just took me by surprise as I’m actually in Kyoto right now [laughter].
Mataki-san: [laughter] I see, I see. Well, Kyoto is well known for being very cold in the mornings and nights. And then the temperature rises during the day. So, it’s well set up for fog which is a valuable factor for growing good tea. Miyakonojyo Basin, which includes Soo City, is said to have a similar climate to Kyoto. And that’s why tea making started here because Soo City has terroir well-suited for growing tea. Another strength is, well, I am not certain about how tea farmers do it in Kyoto but at Sueyoshi Tea Atelier, we do everything right here. That is, we grow the tea, we harvest the tea, we make the aracha (unrefined tea), of course, and we process and finish the tea ourselves. This is a quality that I think is rare in recent times. For instance, in the Kanto area, I think many tea farmers utilize the tea factories for processing their tea.
Moé: I see. Yes, I think I’ve observed situations like that even in Wazuka (a famous tea growing region in the Kyoto area) where the tea is harvested by the tea farmers and then they bring the bags of tea leaves to drop off at the shared collective tea processing factory. I heard this type of shared factories are becoming more common these days. So, at Sueyoshi Tea Atelier, you have been doing the entire process from growing to processing tea yourselves, correct?
Mataki-san: That’s right. Since my grandfather’s generation. We process the tea ourselves at our own processing factory. Importantly, we have always taken value in our customers’ voices. Their feedback is what matters the most. I believe that is our key strength.
Sueyoshi Tea Atelier's Kitchen Car
Moé: As an everyday Japanese tea drinker, I appreciate that you care about the people that drink your tea. Oh! Before I forget, something I have been curious about on your website and social media photos is your kitchen car. Would you be able to tell me more about its presence? How is it used?
Mataki-san: We use the kitchen car when we participate in events. Also, for when we open shop at the local train station or go to the neighboring cities by the general shop, and so on. Originally, we started the kitchen car in hopes to spread awareness and knowledge about making tea in a teapot. Nowadays, people are making tea less and less in teapots. With this background in mind, we wanted to first make people interested in making tea in a teapot. I actually feel that people drinking tea from plastic bottles are not making the choice about whether to drink tea from tea in a teapot or from a plastic bottle. They actually don’t know that such an option exists because I feel that the majority of people grew up with just having a plastic tea bottle as something that is familiar, something that always existed in their lives. So I sensed that they do not know about this other option of drinking tea out of a teapot. However, no matter how much we may promote making tea in a teapot from say, our Instagram account, I don’t think it will actually change the way people consume their Japanese teas. I would like these people to be aware of the other option and so I thought, well, why don’t I just go and interact with people myself and make tea for them in a teapot!? That’s why we have the kitchen car.
Mataki-san's kitchen car makes appearances across the seasons. Their kitchen car has been highlighted by the local newspaper, too. If you ever come across this truck, don't miss your opportunity to enjoy Mataki-san's heartwarming tea!
Moé: I see, so then, the tea you are serving from your kitchen car is made in an actual teapot?
Mataki-san: Yes, that’s right. In most cases, people are surprised when I serve tea from a teapot…
Moé: It’s a neat idea, I think. I’ve interviewed a couple of tea farmers for Yunomi and have also written some tea farm descriptions for our website. However, you are the only tea farmer I know with a kitchen car. That being said, the kitchen car definitely caught my attention [laughter].
Mataki-san: Thank you.
Utilizing Local Resources and the Secret to delicious Kabusecha
Moé: Changing subject a bit, is it correct that you employ the chagusaba agricultural method on your tea farm? I was hoping you could elaborate on this a bit or share any other cropping system(s) you use?
Mataki-san: Of course. I am not sure if we can actually call it the chagusaba method per se. But yes, we utilize kaya, susuki (Japanese pampas grass), as well as fallen leaves. We grow these grasses and we will harvest them to lay down in-between our tea bushes. We also receive straw from the rice farmers after the rice harvesting season for similar purposes. These resources slowly return to the soil to become organic fertilizers. This process is essential for our tea making process.
Snapshot which captures the Japanese pampas grass and fallen leaves that is put in between the tea bushes. These natural resources will slowly return to the soil, becoming organic fertilizers.
Moé: For the straw that you obtain from the rice farmer, is this person a rice farmer in the local area?
Mataki-san: Yes. Usually we receive these resources from rice farmers within Soo City. Sometimes, from neighboring cities but not anywhere further.
Moé: That’s wonderful to hear that you are utilizing local resources. The way you take care of your tea farm reminds me of Ayumi Kinezuka, a tea farmer I very much respect in Shizuoka Prefecture. Is there anything else that you find is unique with respect to your cropping and or planting method(s)?
Mataki-san: Would hifuku saibai (shade growing cultivation) fall under this topic of conversation? If so, we grow mainly kabusecha by shading methods. We shade a bit longer than what is perhaps considered average, a duration of 12 days to 2 weeks. Generally, the other tea farmers around us shade for about a week so our shading period can last twice as long.
Moé: Hmm, is that perhaps the secret to your delicious teas?
Mataki-san: [laughter] It could be… actually, this relates to the previous strength I touched on about processing our own teas and obtaining customer feedback. So when you shade for about a week like most of the other tea farmers, one obtains a reasonable balance of the amount of tea leaves that are harvested with shaded tea. In a sense, one obtains a win-win situation. In our case, since my grandfather started making tea, we’ve been obtaining feedback from our customers and one of the comments we received was that the duration we shade our tea wasn’t long enough for a kabusecha with just a week. So, we decided to shade for a longer duration of time to emphasize the characteristic of kabusecha (shaded tea) even though that leads to less tea leaves being harvested. Because the tea will grow more in sunlight but we are going the opposite direction with extended shading… So the longer one shades their teas, the less amount of tea leaves for a tea harvest. Still, we wanted to value our customers’ voices. And so we’ve stuck to our long duration of shading.
Moé: You are truly valuing your customers’ feedback, even with the smaller tea harvest!
Mataki-san: Yes. As I touched on earlier, I guess that’s our strength. Having a contact point with our customers. It’s my grandfather’s wisdom. He had the vision to see into the future.
Tea Farmer Mataki Tatefumi's Future Visions
Moé: Before we wrap up, I would like to ask about your future visions. Do you have a specific ideal in your tea world? For instance, in 10 years if you could see a way of tea farming that would be your ideal, what would that look like?
Mataki-san: Let me see. I would say it’s rather an abstract vision but in 10 years or so, I wish to see young children in the local area, well, they don’t necessarily have to be children that are specifically from Soo City… But you know, there are a variety of professions one may aspire to become these days, like a Youtuber [laughter]. Well, I would like kids to want to become tea farmers. It would be nice if children thought becoming a tea farmer was cool and neat. It’s kind of a blurry image but I want to make tea in a way which makes children aspire to become a tea farmer.
Besides that, specifically, if it’s to touch on a vision that I would like to evolve towards, it relates to something I talked about earlier, which is that I obtain straw from the local rice farmers. It is in my best interest for local resources to keep circulating. And so, I am continuously asking myself how do we tea farmers help back? We could potentially help out with physical labor such as their rice farming work or we can offer them our tea, which, will go very well with rice balls for example [laughter]. These sorts of relationships I think do not have to be limited to meals per se, but I believe we can help each other out in the process of making our crops. Right now, it is more likely for tea farmers to just grow their tea and for rice farmers to grow their rice. We are kind of separate from each other. But my hope is, within the local area, the process of growing rice, of growing crops may flow better in interconnectedness.
And I have one additional thing! I’m sorry for taking so long [laughter]. But for me, this is perhaps the most important one. So while tea can be a drink for quenching one’s thirst, tea plays a more valuable role. It helps people to relax, to feel a sense of relief — and I also believe that tea brings people closer together. From these influences of tea, a delightful conversation could spark… In this way, tea really isn’t just something one drinks when one is thirsty. So tea can reduce the distance felt between people and help people to loosen up a bit. I wish for this particular value of tea to be preserved 300 years into the future.
Moé: Oh! 300 years, that’s quite some time into the future. That’s a bold vision. You’re touching on cha-no-ma (茶の間), then? (Note: This concept of cha no ma was also touched on in the interview with tea farmer Uejima-san in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture).
Mataki-san: Yes, although perhaps in Soo City, with global warming we may not even be able to tea any more by then. But that’s my vision to preserve this special quality of tea 300 years into the future. So I continue to make tea with this vision in mind. To continuously be aware that as tea farmers, we’re not just making something to drink.
Moé: Yes. I agree. Personally I feel that I am able to relax when there is a cup of Japanese tea. Maybe it also has to do with the color, often green in the morning (for me) and the aroma of dark-roasted hojicha after a long day, for example.
Mataki-san: Uh huh. Of course, there are people that do not like tea very much [laughter] however, I do not think that many people become violent when drinking tea. In general, I think tea leads to peace. Or creates a peaceful state of being.
Moé: True… On the other hand, I love my occasional cup of coffee but I often find that I feel a rush of adrenaline afterwards. Like I feel myself wanting to get things done. Whereas with a cup of tea, I usually feel more at peace. It gives me a gradual start to my day. Or a nice winding down process to my day, especially when I am fully present with my cup of tea.
Mataki-san: That makes me happy to hear.
Moé: Well, I am probably biased towards tea [laughter]. To bring closure to our interview for Yunomi today however, is there anything that you would like to add, or is there a message you would like to relay to the customers at Yunomi?
Mataki-san: Yes, first of all, thank you for having an interest in Japanese tea and for drinking Japanese tea. That is the biggest thing. Because to try a drink that is foreign I believe, requires a bit of courage you know… [laughter]? So I would simply like to say, thank you for taking that first step to try Japanese tea. I am very grateful. And I will do all that I can for people to continue drinking Japanese tea. Even if it is not the tea we make because there are so many Japanese teas to enjoy. They will differ depending on the tea farmer, the terroir, many factors! In a way, the exploration never ends! But I would like for people to really enjoy this exploration with Japanese tea. That’s all I have to say. Thank you!
Have comments, questions, and/or insights? Please don't hesitate to post below, or directly contact me (Moé Kishida): firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to hear from you!
To explore teas from Mataki Tatefumi on Yunomi: Sueyoshi Tea Atelier
Check out his Instagram Account: sueyoshiseichakobo
All photos are by Sueyoshi Tea Atelier in Kagoshima, Soo City.