By Chris Bourgea
I am just like any other tea geek. It has always been a dream to work on a tea farm and pluck two leaves and a bud while seeing the entire processing of the tea happen. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Obubu Tea on their farm in Wazuka, Japan. After cutting the tea, I was able to join them at a tencha factory located near their farm and see the processing of the leaf.
Journey to the Farm
I arrived at Obubu Headquarters just before 8AM on a Sunday morning. The goal was to head to their fields around 8, which were located around different parts of Wazuka. In the front of the truck was Akky, who is the president of Obubu and in the passengers seat was Fumi, who was Akky’s main source of help during the picking season. I was sitting in the back of the truck on a bunch of empty tea bags and next to a tea cutting machine, just enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Unfortunately, about halfway to the farm it started pouring so we ended up turning around and heading back to headquarters. I spent the first half of the day hanging out with the interns of Obubu, which were about 7 people from all over the world. It started to clear up around noon, so Akky picked me up again and we headed back to the farm. On our way there we stopped to have lunch at his house. He made a veggie dish using vegetables he was given from local farmers.
Day 1 – Field 1
The farm was located beautifully on a hillside and I could see other farms around the area. The tea bushes were covered with a tarp, so the first thing we needed to do was take the tarp off. This part of the process took the most amount of time. We were picking this tea to make tencha. Since this would technically be the second flush for the tencha, the tarps were put on the bushes 12 days before.
I will say that I’m no farm boy, and after growing up in the city, I am not fond of bugs or insects of any kind. I cannot even joke about this, there were literally hundreds of spider webs between the tea bushes. Here I am walking around in shorts, a t-shirt, and boots. I was literally dancing around these webs like there was no tomorrow. Actually, after about one hour, I got used to the insects and just got used to walking through the webs. It took some dedication, though. I’m still mind blown that I could walk through an entire row, getting rid of all webs. And once I was at the end and turned around, more webs had formed. Anyone who hates spiders would understand this pain.
Anyway, so after the tarps were off the bushes, we then put brown burlap bags at the end of each row of tea. We put one bag on each side, so there was a total of two bags per row. After this was done I walked through each row of tea and looked for any weeds that I could find growing in the bushes. During this time Akky and Fumi started cutting the tea.
The machine was small and weighed about 20KG. It takes two people to use the machine as each person has to walk on one side of the bush. The brown bag was attached to the machine and after it cut the tea, the machine would blow the tea into the tea bag. When they would get to the end of the row, they would take off the bag full of tea and put on the empty bag. It way my job to pick up the bags at the end of the rows and put them into the back of the truck. After all of the tea was cut we took the tea to the warehouse to let them air out since we were going to another farm. When we were at the warehouse, we opened the bags and shaped the bag full of tea like a doughnut. This was done to keep the leaves fresh before we took all the leaves from the day to the factory for processing.
Day 1 – Field 2
The work on the second farm was the same as the first farm. The only difference was this farm was located in between houses. I really felt like we were farming tea literally in the middle of a neighborhood. This farm was really cool in its own way. There was a tree growing in the middle of the bushes and the rows of tea were not perfectly straight, which is not what you usually see when you Google tea farms in Japan. It really opened my eyes and I liked the uniqueness of it.
Right when we were about finished, Akky asked me if I wanted to cut the last row of tea with him. Of course I said yes! I was literally so excited to do this. I wanted to ask him all day if I could, but I didn’t cause I could see how much precision they were putting into it and I knew I had no idea what I was doing. It was so much fun! The machine really wasn’t too heavy and the toughest part was keeping the machine level while cutting. When you are at the end of the row you do not just cut straight off. You have to angle it downward at the end to make sure you capture all of the tea leaves. The motion looked similar to an upside down L, but with more of a curve. After we were done at the second farm we went back to the warehouse to pick up the leaves from the first farm and we brought all of the tea leaves to the factory for processing.
Day 2 – Field 1
During this day we also got rained out in the morning, so both days I ended up working on the tea farm for half a day. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because working on the tea farm was a lot of work and two full days would have been really intense. I have so much respect for farmers who can go out into the farms daily and take care of the bushes. What a lot of work! This farm was similar to the other farms, but it was much bigger. It was at least twice the size of the first two farms that I went to. It was also much steeper then the first two.
Luckily, this was on a Monday and two of the interns (Diana from Ukraine and Leanna from the UK) came out to help us. With 5 people working on the farm it was a lot of fun and relaxed. After we were about 70% done with the cutting it started pouring rain. We kept cutting the tea since we had already started. By the time we were done we all were literally soaked from head to toe, but we were having so much fun I do not think anyone even noticed. Again, at the end of the day Akky let me cut the last tea bush with him! It is also important to note that there were not any spider webs between these bushes. I’m not really sure why, but I was happy about it.
Something I didn’t realize was that there are basically two types of factories in Japan for making Japanese tea. There is one factory for making tencha and another factory for making every other kind of Japanese tea. [NOTE from YUNOMIUS: Matcha grinding factories are a 3rd type of factory, and you also have factories that specialize in packing teas into bags and/or tea bags as well.]
When we arrived at the factory, we backed our truck up to the machine. Fumi and I stood on the machine where we dump the tea leaves into the machine and the process began. Akky was standing in the truck and handing us the bags full of tea. Also the factory manager Higashi and one of his workers were helping us. This whole process at the factory is not as hands on as higher-end teas, but it was quite interesting to see the process.
See the video below for a quick run though of how tea was made in the factory. Akky also took me to see his factory where he usually makes sencha for Obubu tea and other farmers in the area. I did not have a chance to see the machines running, but it was exciting to learn about the process and his lifework.
I have to say that I went into the experience very open-minded and with little expectations other than just getting a feel for what it was like to be on the farm and around the bushes. I was really blown away for a number of different reasons. The first being the hospitality that Akky and everyone at Obubu showed me. It was above and beyond. They treated me like family and welcomed me with open arms. I was touched by their kindness and generosity.
The second reason would be that I had no idea how difficult the farm work would be. I had not given it much thought, but after working two half days on different farms I have a whole new perspective on the amount of work that went into my morning cup of tea. The more I learn about tea, the more I fall in love with the leaf. There is literally a great deal of artwork that goes into every aspect of tea. Whether it is the harvesting, scheduling, cutting techniques, processing, packaging, blending, brewing, etc.
Also, If anyone finds themselves traveling to Japan, I highly recommend that you send Obubu a message and do a tour of their tea farms. They offer this openly to anyone and it is a great experience. I did a tea tour at Obubu with my friends when I first arrived in Japan and we had a great time. My friends knew nothing about tea and they learned a lot and said it was well worth it.
If you are interested in working at Obubu you can also apply to be an Intern. They have interns from all over the world and I could tell that everyone working there was loving the opportunity. Read more about Obubu here.