For the past month and a half I’ve been living on a Japanese tea farm in the Kyoto countryside. The place I’m staying at is called Obubu Tea Farms and is a really amazing meeting hub between Japanese tea farmers and the international tea loving community.
In just the short time I’ve been here I’ve already made connections to other tea lovers and enthusiasts around the world. Some from far away, like Nairobi in Kenya and Utrecht in the Netherlands, and some as close to home as Saint John, New Brunswick in Canada.
I came here because in the past couple of years as I’ve been learning about tea, I’d never seen how a tea farm worked in person. Sure, I’d visited the tea fields on Jeju Island and been to many tea rooms around the world, but that's not the same as seeing it for yourself, from bush to cup.
I came here hoping to improve my ‘street cred’ as it were, in the tea world. But what I’m learning here is so much deeper than that. It's not just about the tea fields, but about people and their connections to tea. This crazy obsession brings us all together and creates a way of life.
An Introduction to Wazuka
The town I’m staying in is called Wazuka. It’s a small town of 3,775 people in the Kyoto countryside.
Nearly everybody here makes their living in tea, but there’s also a timber economy that was the town’s main occupation up until shortly after World War II.
23% of all Japan’s matcha is produced in Wazuka, and about 600 hectares of tea fields wind through the valley, connecting houses, factories, rice fields, and shops. The Wazuka town emblem is four circles joined together, this is because the town used to be four smaller towns that combined to form Wazuka.
The town’s name is written with the kanji for ‘wa’ (和), which roughly means harmony or peace. And ‘tsuka’ (束) which roughly means ‘to bundle’. So if you wanted to give the name an English meaning, I guess you could call the town ‘bundled peace,’ but really no one thinks like that. It’s just a name.
Here’s a quick video I made so you can take a peek.
Tea in Wazuka
Tea loves growing here. The steep mountain fields, high altitude climate, and magnesium and nitrogen-rich soil make this a tea plant paradise. Tea fields here are between 100 metres and 600 metres above sea level.
Tea plant roots like to be dry, and the mountain’s excellent drainage helps them stay that way. The hot days and cool nights also help tea plants grow, and the early morning mists wrap the young buds in a protective layer that keeps them safe from too much sun, and helps them stay tender.
Japan’s first tea plants were planted in Uji, just a thirty-minute drive from here, brought by monks from China. Originally tea in Wazuka was grown to help monks with their training at the nearby Kaijusen-ji temple. Tea was grown on Mt. Jubu in town, and slowly spread throughout the village.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of tea growing families, and they’ve been cultivating tea on the landscape for around 800 years, since the Kamakura period (1192-1333).
Obubu Tea Farms
The tea farm I’m living at is called Obubu, which in the local Kyoto dialect literally translates to ‘tea,’ so their name is kind of ‘Tea Tea Farms.’
Unlike many Japanese producers who sell their tea to auctions where it will be purchased wholesale by people who will then separate and blend it, Obubu likes to sell their ‘aracha,’ which is raw tea, or farmers’ tea, directly to consumers. Kind of like a vineyard, their teas will taste a bit different each year.
The founders of Obubu weren’t born in Wazuka, but are from the nearby city of Nara and have been living here for about 20 years. For this town, they’re a really modern entrepreneurial venture. Instead of following the traditional model of inheriting tea fields to work on, they rent about 26 tea fields spread out over three hectares.
Their most unique product is the English-language tourism and education programs they run. They also helped to start a local festival called ‘Chagenkyou Matsuri’ (Teatopia/Tea Paradise Festival), which runs every November and brings about 10,000 guests to the town of less than 4,000.
This creates a huge influx for the economy, and the Obubu team hopes that by spreading education about Japanese tea, they can not only save towns like Wazuka from disappearing as the population ages out, but also increase the consumption of Japanese tea around the world with their education programs.
Right now, only about 5% of Japanese tea is exported, but that’s something both Obubu and the Japanese government are trying to increase. Obubu also has an internship program, which brings students from all around the world to learn about tea here.
The intern program is their most unique asset, and really sets them apart from other farms in the region.
Life on a Japanese Tea Farm
I’ve gotta say, life in the Japanese countryside is pretty nice. Here I can walk six minutes down the road and get six freshly-cased venison sausages for six bucks. Not a bad way to live.
There are three main harvest seasons here: spring, summer, and autumn. Each has about a week or so in between while the tea plants recover. Tea plants in Wazuka take about 40 days to regrow their leaves to prepare for the next cutting.
During the harvest season, the farming team goes out every day that it’s not raining at around 7:30 a.m. and starts working for the day. They can be harvested the tea, shading it, trimming, weeding, fertilizing, or doing whatever the tea bushes need that day.
When harvesting, the team uses a small machine harvester, basically this saw-like machine held by two people that gets passed over the tea bushes, giving them a ‘haircut’ at whatever depth the farmer needs (shallow for fine teas like sencha, deeper for teas using older leaves like bancha).
As the saw goes over the bushes, it collects leaves in the big, billowing bag attached to the machine. Each bag gets filled with around 40 pounds of leaves, and thrown in the truck to take back to the factory.
After a supper break, the farming and factory team will head back to the factory and spend the night processing all the leaves. Sometimes it only takes them until 11 p.m., but during the crazy busy times, like spring harvest, they were up some nights until 2 or 4 a.m.
It’s a small crew here. There’s one main farmer, Obubu founder Akky-san, who’s helped mostly by Kon-chan, a seasonal labourer (and snowboarder!) from Hyogo. During the spring harvest they also had an agricultural intern to help them, and then usually every day one intern will also go to help with the farming, and factory work.
Tourism on a Japanese Tea Farm
Obubu runs tea tours year-round for Japanese students, domestic tourists, and foreign visitors.
Surprisingly, tea tourism has not taken off so quickly in Japan yet. For many Japanese people, tea bushes and farms are just a way of life. It might be similar to touring a dairy or corn farm if you’re from North America. Just, why would you do it? It’s always there.
I’ve given demonstrations since being here for some Japanese guests, at a tourism college in Kyoto, for a group of taxi drivers, and also to pastry school students from Kanagawa prefecture.
When it came to talking about Japanese teas and doing matcha demonstrations, I was actually kind of nervous—what is this white girl going to teach these Japanese students about matcha? They’re from JAPAN.
But during the lessons I quickly learned that not everyone from Japan drinks matcha on a daily basis. A lot of people don’t know how to make it, and it doesn’t exactly enjoy the same Insta-famous, health food reputation that it does in the west. It’s more of like an old person’s drink.
If anything, sencha is much more common and popular in Japan, and even then it’s usually sold in bottles at the convenience store, or at vending machines.
Even all the matcha snacks here are only a recent phenomenon, growing for the last 20 years or so. Obubu founder Matsu is in his mid-40s and says that they never had those matcha treats when he was growing up.
The English language tours at Obubu are four hours long, and typically people will taste all these teas prepared seveal different ways, including cold brew, ice brew, whisked, and steeped at several different temperatures and times. From left to right the teas are: samidori matcha, wakoucha, sencha of the spring sun, kabuse sencha, tsubame kukicha, genmaicha, houjicha basic, and houjicha amber.
Most of the tourists here are come from western countries—America, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Although, they’re seeing more tourists from Asian countries like Singapore also start to come.
Wazuka’s future depends on the growth of economies like sustainable tourism. This town is a perfect case study of the plight facing small towns in rural Japan and other small towns all over the world.
Just 20 years ago, when Obubu founders Hiro, Matsu, and Akky came to Wazuka, their population was about 6,000. Now, it’s less than 4,000.
The town loses about 100 people per year, either when the elderly residents die, or when people move away as their children grow up and need to go to school elsewhere, as Wazuka only has an elementary school.
I hope I’m not ending this post on too dark a note! Actually it’s really inspiring to see entrepreneurial business like Obubu Tea Farms and d:matcha, another new business in Wazuka that specializes in unique tea food and tea field hikes bringing new business to the community.
It’s been such a privilege to learn about these Japanese tea businesses in Kyoto up close, plus experience getting my hands on some tea and processing while I’ve been here.
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