Today, we share with you our interview with Yuki Kayashita, a young and creative tea farmer based in a village in Yamazoe, Nara prefecture. Over the span of 10 years his small farm has focused on production of a regional folk tea, called tenbiboshi kamairicha, which is a type of sun-dried kamaricha. His particular niche has been in developing a modern and low cost processing method that still respects the historical processing technique. Ongoing projects with less common cultivars promise exciting teas in the future!
Journey in becoming a Tea Farmer
Moé: Thank you for taking the time with me today. I am excited to be with you as Ian-san (Ian Chun) seemed very impressed by the rare teas you make and I heard that you have an inspiring story. I wanted to start by asking you about your journey in becoming a tea farmer. Would you be able to share a bit of your background with us?
Kayashita-san: Well, I’m from Osaka and none of my siblings, no one in my family is a farmer. I was born to a salaryman (white collar worker) household. And then I graduated from college and felt that I wanted to become a farmer. I wanted to live in the countryside in a place like Satoyama. So that’s why I began my farming training. In the beginning though, I had no intention to become a tea farmer. I did my training as an organic produce farmer.
During my internship, I was able to train under three different farmers for a total period of about three and a half years. In one of my internships, I was training with a producer who grew vegetables organically. And I took a seminar from a producer who grew vegetables utilizing natural cultivation methods. That interested me and I decided to do an internship with this producer. There, they were also growing tea. However, at that time, I was very much focused on produce. During the period of my internship, I never thought of becoming a tea farmer. I was going through my internships with the intention to become a vegetable producer.
Still, at that time, I heard that there was an event called,Yoshidayama Tea Ceremony in Kyoto (in Japanese: 京都吉田山大茶会; an annual tea festival which has been ongoing since the year 2010) and since I was doing some tea field work at that time in parallel with produce work, I thought to myself, why not go? It was at this event that I tried my very first kamairicha (pan-fried tea) from Kyushu and it left a strong impression on me. It made me think, “Wow, there are teas like this!” and this is when I started to think that tea could be exciting, too. So I guess by drinking this kamairicha, I was suddenly hooked on tea.
Moé: That's a neat story, just from discovering this kamairicha, you were inspired. In our tea farmer interviews that we have done at Yunomi, it just happens that the tea farmers we have interviewed thus far have all come from a tea family, sometimes generations of tea farmers. So I am curious to ask you, as a young tea farmer starting on your own, what kinds of unique challenges have you faced?
Kayashita-san: First, because we really started off from zero, it was not very realistic to think about making a living from tea provided that tea farming is quite costly. To have the right equipment and machines, necessitates a lot of money.
At that time however, I visited a tea house in Nara and I reached out to the owner to see if they could introduce me to a tea farmer that made kamairicha, as it was the tea that had left me with an impression. During my visit, they served me the tenbiboshi kamairicha (*from here on referred to as sun-dried kamairicha) that we now make today at Tea Farm Mitocha. It was the very first time that I drank this specific type of kamairicha and I was just as touched by this tea. Just like the time I drank the first kamairicha from Kyushu. It was very delicious.
And then, I was fortunate the tea house introduced me to the tea farmer that made this tea. With time, I was able to learn how to make this sun-dried kamairicha. This tea was very simple to make, and it did not require much machinery. So it did not require much cost in the beginning. Also, I feel that it doesn’t require as much technique or skill as sencha processing. And so, with this, I was able to start from zero.
Tea harvesting with a two-person machine at Tea Farm Mitocha.
Tenbiboshi (Sun-dried) Kamairicha
Moé: So if I remember correctly, you learned how to make this sun-dried kamairicha from your tea master in Kumano, correct? How long did it take you to train with him, to learn how to make this particular tea?
Kayashita-san: Well, I began learning from him when I was already independent as a farmer, so I did (and still do) this in parallel with our own farm work. The tea harvest season is a bit earlier in the Kumano region so I would go and help out and learn from him, then I would come back to Yamazoe (Tea Farm Mitocha) and make the same kind of tea. I have been doing this every year, it is kind of my tea cycle. I guess it has been about 10 years or so now.
Moé: When I think about kamairicha, the Kyushu area comes to mind - specifically, places such as Nagasaki, Saga, and Miyazaki prefectures. But the sun-dried kamairicha that you make, originated in Kumano (Wakayama prefecture)?
Kayashita-san: I am actually not sure it originated there… but in Japan, traditionally, many people used to make folk teas. They were just teas that people made for themselves, for their families. Not teas that were made to profit from or to make a business from. I believe these folk teas were present across different regions of Japan. However, with time, the technique of making sencha was developed… And now, Japanese tea is predominantly sencha. One rarely hears about the sun-dried kamairicha, you know? It was probably more commonly made in households in the past, but it required hard work because the tea was made without any machinery. And so perhaps, it just happens that Kumano is a precious place where this tea was preserved.
Moé: That's lovely, and it is very neat that now you are making this traditional folk tea. So this is the story of why you are making this sun-dried kamairicha today!
Kayashita-san: Yes, it was delicious and it was also a simple tea to make. And because we started from scratch, making this tea was not as costly in comparison to the other Japanese teas. I guess it was a realistic choice.
Kayashita-san talking with enthusiasum about the sun-dried kamairicha preserved in the Kumano region over our zoom interview.
Kayashita-san: No, we do not use any sort of shading system.
Moé: And what is the difference between sun-dried kamairicha and kamairicha? From the name, I would assume the part where it is dried in the sun but is that the only difference?
Kayashita-san: Basically, the first part where the tea leaves are roasted in an iron pan and kneaded is the same. However, with the sun-dried kamairicha, the latter process is natural drying instead of using a machine. And so yes, it is dried in natural sunlight.
Below, is a cartoon drawn by Tea Farm Mitocha depicting how to make sun-dried kamairicha. It compares the historical approach and how it is now made on their farm.
About Yamazoe and Tea Farm Mitocha
Hand-picking tea on one of their tea fields in Yamazoe, Nara prefecture.
Moé: At Tea Farm Mitocha, you not only grow tea but also grow produce. Amongst all these things, is there a favorite farming task, or something that you especially enjoy doing?
Kayashita-san: Personally, I have been enjoying the process of planting new seedling (young tea bushes). We have been planting new cultivars and my hope is to increase the different kinds of cultivars. Before, the majority of our tea bushes were Yabukita (which is typical in Japan) and a bit of the Zairai cultivar. However, this became a bit unexciting to me and so at the moment, I would really like to plant new cultivars in replacement for the Yabukita. This is what is most intriguing to me now.
Moé: That's something new. As a tea drinker, I have been trying to explore outside the Yabukita cultivar, too. How many cultivars do you have at your farm right now?
Kayashita-san: Our numbers have been increasing steadily. So far, I have planted about 9 different types.
Moé: Well, I am no expert on the different types of tea cultivars… but I imagine you are able to observe subtle differences across the cultivars?
Kayashita-san: Yes, that is what is interesting to me. Because of the different cultivars, I am making the same type of tea in the same way (i.e., sun-dried kamairicha) but I observe and notice the differences. Besides planting the different cultivars, I would say another task that I like is hand-picking tea. The process of making tea that we hand-pick, I find enjoyable.
Planting the Ujihikari cultivar.
Moé: You mentioned in the beginning of our time today that you are from Osaka. Was there a specific reason you chose Yamazoe in Nara prefecture as the place that you would start farming?
Kayashita-san: I wasn’t very picky actually, but because I did my farm training in Nara, I was introduced to Yamazoe through the connections I had there.
Moé: I see… And on the land that you started your farm work, were there already existing tea fields or did you have to start from scratch?
Kayashita-san: In some areas there were already existing tea fields, but in general, the places that let you rent land, they are not in very good condition. Even now, there are increasing numbers of tea farmers that are quitting tea farming work but these fields are in rather poor conditions. You know, like there are more weeds than tea bushes. Under these conditions, we simply just began the work of weeding.
Moé: Yes, I have experienced this type of weeding in Wazuka when I was helping out at an international work camp based on tea farming. So I can imagine what kinds of conditions you started in… And this weeding work, you did all by yourself and with your partner?
Kayashita-san: Yes, we weeded by ourselves. I would say it was about half and half. That is, fields that were in decent condition and those that had been abandoned. With the former, we just began renting the land and utilizing the tea fields right away. With the latter, we decided to clean it all up and start new - by planting young tea bushes.
Moé: Impressive! That must have taken a lot of determination and hard work between the two of you. And is there anything special that you do with respect to your cropping system on your tea farm?
Kayashita-san: In general, we grow our tea and produce, organically without the use of any chemicals or fertilizers. However, when we plant a young tea bush, during the first few years we may utilize plant-based fertilizers. We use fallen leaves and also cut the kaya (a type of rice plant) and bamboo grass in the surrounding area and we layer it on top of the in-between spaces between tea bushes and such.
Moé: Changing course a bit to the topic of climate change, global warming continues to be an ongoing and pressing issue. Being surrounded by the nature of Yamazoe and doing farm work on a day-to-day basis, have you noticed any changes?
Kayashita-san: It has been 13 years since I started farming (including the years that I did my training) however, I have been noticing more and more that the climate in Japan is becoming tropical, almost like Southeast Asia. I have the impression that there have been a lot more storms and sudden changes. And clearly, it is a lot hotter these days. Before, it did not used to be so hot.
Moé: Besides the noticeable changes in climate and temperature though, you would say that there hasn’t been huge impacts to tea farming?
Kayashita-san: I would say so, tea as a crop isn’t heavily impacted in Japan.
A snapshot depicting an everyday scene from Yamazoe.
Visions for the Future and Messages
Moé: Before we close our interview with you today, I wanted to touch on your visions for the future. I was wondering if you have a specific vision for Tea Farm Mitocha - for the future of tea farming or for farming in general. That is, in 10 years if you could see a way of tea farming that would be your ideal, what would that look like?
Kayashita-san: Right now our central focus is making the traditional Kumano bancha, the sun-dried kamairicha. And because our tea processing factory is small scale without much space, we are rather limited in what we are able to do. However, in the future, I would like to expand our tea factory. Then, we would be able to set up lines to make different types of teas such as oolong and Japanese black tea. I would also like to have a space for the ichoka process (i.e., a process in which the harvested tea leaves are withered to enhance their scent). And as I mentioned earlier, I would like to keep replacing our Yabukita cultivars with different cultivars that have a bit of character - like those that are well-suited to make oolong tea or cultivars specifically for Japanese black tea. My intention is to strive to make teas that have personality and flavor.
All sun-dried kamairichas from Tea Farm Mitocha are processed similarly but differences in cultivar, picking technique and handling results in the differences you can see above. Incredible!
Moé: That all sounds refreshing and innovative. Especially because when one thinks of Japanese tea, I feel there is such a dominant image of sencha and the Yabukita cultivar.
Kayashita-san: Well, I think that is good, too. But there are so many senior farmers out there who are all experts in making these more typical types of Japanese tea. They have abundant experience and knowledge and so, for myself, I would personally like to pave a different path. Make teas that are outside the norm.
Moé: You have definitely got me curious about the sun-dried kamairicha especially since I am a fan of kamairicha. To close our time together today, is there anything else that you would perhaps like to say to the customers at Yunomi? Or to the people who drink/will be drinking your tea?
Kayashita-san: The sun-dried kamairicha is a very rare, minority tea. It is a local tea so I would like for people to discover the presence of such teas. That would make me happy. For them to get to know the bancha culture in Japan. In particular, the banchas that are specific to a region… For instance, the awabancha from Tokushima prefecture is an example. The sun-dried kamairicha is such a type of tea that has long been produced in the Kumano (Wakayama prefecture) area, it is rooted in the tea culture of this region and also in the land. If people can discover and become aware of such a culture, I would be delighted.
Moé: I would like to thank you very much for your time today, Kayashita-san. I feel that I have a new appreciation of traditional folk teas and of their significance. I very much look forward to trying your tea in the near future!
A simple but comforting tea, the sun-dried kamairicha from Tea Farm Mitocha.
This interview was done on August 6th, 2021 in Japanese and has been translated into English. The article was updated on November 23, 2023. All photos were provided by Tea Farm Mitocha. You can also follow their Instagram account.
Featured Image; Yuki Kayashita in the tea fields of Tea Farm Mitocha in Yamazoe, Nara prefecture.