A warm hello to you! I hope this blogpost finds you healthy and well as we welcome the winter solstice today and approach the end of year.
If you are familiar with the typical Japanese tea, you probably think of the end of April ~ beginning of May to be the prime tea harvest season. After all, there is that famous traditional Japanese tea song which mentions the nearing of summer and the 88th night for tea harvesting. There is, however, a traditional tea in Japan called “Kancha” (寒茶) that is harvested during the coldest months of the year. Kancha literally means “cold tea” in English (i.e., ‘kan’ means cold and ‘cha’ means tea) as the leaves are harvested during the winter season. Traditionally, this period corresponded to “daikan” (Japanese: 大寒；meaning big cold) in the the old East Asian calendar before “risshun” or the beginning of Spring (approximately January 20 ~ February 4th).
Currently, the harvest period varies from region to region but usually happens between January to mid-February. In this sense, kancha could be thought of as the earliest harvested tea leaves of the New Year! The leaves look like fallen leaves in the winter and it is categorized in the broad bancha (coarse late harvested tea) category.
Thick and broad kancha leaves with a gentle sweet aroma; photos by Tea Farm Mitocha.
How Kancha is Made
The major difference between tea bushes for kancha in comparison to tea bushes grown for what is now considered to be the typical Japanese tea (e.g., sencha, gyokuro) is that the tea leaves harvested to make kancha will come from tea plants that are generally left in the wild (i.e., without much human tending and caring) along with their surrounding environment. So, the tea plants of kancha are more like trees as they are not trimmed down as is typical with other commercial tea fields. This may perhaps remind one of the sannen bancha that is made by letting the tea bushes grow for three years.
Another element to note about kancha is that the tea leaves to make kancha are harvested by hand, scissors, or with a kama (type of sickle). The leaves will be harvested along with a good proportion of the branch. Steaming will follow the harvesting process. In comparison to other Japanese green teas, the steaming process is quite long lasting from 30 minutes to an hour. After steaming, the leaves and twigs are separated and the last step is to sun-dry the tea leaves (Tenbiboshi in Japanese).
In Shishikuichou, which is one of the villages where kancha is made, there are additional steps such that their way of making kancha goes: harvest, steam, roll leaves individually by hand, sundry, and then hand-roll again. Here, you can see some images of the kancha making process (Note: article in Japanese).
The steaming process of kancha making. The Tea leaves and stems are steamed in a steamer made from wooden barrels and placed over steam created from boiling water with firewood; Photo by Tea Farm Mitocha.
Variations of Kancha
Kancha is quite rare these days but there are two main variations of this folk tea depending on the region where it originated.
Asuke, Aichi Prefecture
While Nishio in Aichi Prefecture is well-known for their high quality matcha, there is also a town called Asuke (Japanese: 足助; currently merged into the expanded city of Toyota) that is famous for their Asuke Kancha (足助寒茶). The young tea farmer Yuuki Kayashita from Tea Farm Mitocha has been working to preserve Japanese traditional folk teas and is currently making kancha in the style of Asuke Village. While his farm is based in Nara Prefecture, he learned from farmers in Asuke Village. I recently ordered his makibi kancha firewood winter green tea to try and it was delightful to open a tea bag full of wintry tea leaves with a nice comforting sweet smell of the leaves and sunshine!
Enjoying Tea Farm Mitocha’s kancha outside on the winter solstice… Yes, tea cups can have long and pretty shadows, too!
Shishikui, Tokushima Prefecture
The other village where kancha is produced is in the town of Shishikui (Japanese: 宍喰), which is a cozy mountainous hamlet of approximately twenty farm houses in the Southernmost part of Tokushima Prefecture. If you ask the grandmas of this region that make the kancha, they will tell you with confidence that they have drank various kinds of teas but that they would prefer the coarse tea leaves picked in the winter time (rather than the soft new leaves in the spring) as they are full of nutrition and they are also the sweetest!
Here, the people in this village actually call these fields “tea fields made by field mice” as wild mice pick many of the tea seeds before hibernating to feed on them. I actually never knew wild animals were interested in tea seeds as a nutritious resource until coming across the kancha story! What is quite cute is that these field mice carry these tea seeds to their nest or hide them in storage places. However, because they are not too skillful and forgetful, the tea seeds will sprout from random places and grow into tea bushes. Thanks to these field mice, the tea fields expand naturally on their own and with tea farmers purposely planting tea seeds, that creates good teamwork!
In both Asuke and Shishikui, the tea leaves necessary to make kancha are harvested from rather wild tea fields. Thus, there is no necessary use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Often, the kancha tea fields are located in slopey mountainous areas. Moreover, rather than being separate from the forest (as is commonly seen in commercial tea fields), trees also coexist with the tea bushes. For instance, in the summertime, the deciduous trees will provide natural shading preventing the tea bushes from obtaining too much sun and therefore bitterness. In the fall, trees such as oak trees will shed their leaves providing natural fertilizer to the tea bushes. This natural environment also preserves the neat coexistence with wild mountainous animals such as field mice and wild boars. Perhaps, the regrettable aspect of kancha is that it is not produced a lot as there are only a handful of people that prepare this tea. Furthermore, the people that know how to make this tea are aging. That being said, kancha is not often sold on the market and it is a drink that is mainly for the local people. This is why kancha is considered to be a rare folk tea.
Well, since it is the shortest day on the Northern Hemisphere, I will wrap this blogpost up so that it is relatively short and light. But if you are feeling up for more related reading, please check out the links below. Enjoy!
Further Reading/Related Articles
- Discover Japanese Tea: Sannnen bancha
- Interview with Tea Farmer Yuuki Kayashita at Tea Farm Mitocha who is preserving traditional Japanese folk teas
- Regional Japanese Onomatopeia Teas
- The difference between Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Sencha, and Bancha green teas
Featured image; Makibi kancha firewood winter green tea by Tea Farm Mitocha.