Day 10 of The Japanese Tea Marathon has arrived and today we are travelling to Shiga! Shiga is one of the few landlocked prefectures in Japan. Right in the center of Shiga though lies Japan’s largest lake, Biwa, and it is believed that people have lived around the lake since the stone age. Shiga is also an important transport hub, from the old days it was in the middle of the roads connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. Even today, Japan’s main roads and railroads pass through Shiga. Thus, commerce has been developing here for a long time and many founders of Japan’s leading corporate groups such as Takashimaya, Itochu, Marubeni, and Sumitomo are, in fact, from Shiga.
Shiga has some unique food culture too. Funazushi – a fermented sushi, is worth a mention. It is made with fish of the carp family found in Biwa lake, that is fermented inside boiled rice for about a year. Due to flatter lands around Biwa lake, Shiga is also able to raise cattle and Omi beef from Shiga is said to be the oldest beef brand in Japan. Shiga is known for pottery as well, with Shigarakiyaki pottery style from Shigaraki town being recognized for earthy tones and rough textures, coming from one of the six oldest kilns in Japan.
In terms of tea, Shiga is also known to have the oldest tea garden in Japan. It is said that in 805 a Buddhist monk Saicho brought some tea seeds from China and planted them around Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine at the foot of Mt. Hiei. In 815 the tea was offered to the emperor Saga, that is recorded in the old Japanese history text – Nihon Koki. Between the 14th-16th centuries, tea cultivation started to expand when tea was planted in other areas of Shiga including Asamiya, Tsuchiyama and Hino.
With 1140t of tea in 2020, currently Shiga ranks No.13 in tea production in Japan. The main tea producing areas include Koka city, Higashiomi city and Hino town. Collectively, tea from Shiga is called Omi tea (Omi being the old name of Shiga), but there also are a few local tea brands carrying the names of the inner tea regions, like Asamiya tea, Tsuchiyama tea and Mandokoro tea. Shiga mainly makes Sencha and Bancha (a common source for Hojicha and Genmaicha). But there is some kabusecha and matcha production too. Tea from their area is know as Asamiyacha.
For today’s session we were joined by Akihiko Hattori who is the president of Shouryuuen, a small tea farm in Shigaraki region of Shiga prefecture. Hattori-san’s family has been making tea since the Meiji period. In 1962 they increased the tea field area and now manage about 2.5ha of land. They use conventional 85% & organic 15% farming and production methods, and all of their teas are harvested with hand held machines, producing only non shaded Sencha, the most traditional tea in Japan aside from Matcha. He focuses on the aroma and aims for it to be as close to hand rolled tea as possible while using machines. In terms of the cultivars they work with 90% is Yabukita and 10% is Zairai. Yabukita was registers as a cultivar in 1953 and after that it spread through the whole of Japan.
75% of Japanese tea fields are covered by Yabukita, and while other varieties are increasing slowly, Yabukita still remains the king of Japanese tea when it comes to cultivars. In Asamiya, the percentage of Yabukita is even higher as while other farms are choose to replant other cultivars farmers from this region choose to continue to re plant Yabukita. In fact, the Sencha they provided for today session comes straight from the original plant as cutting were taken from it for some of the plants on their farm.
Shoryuen makes popular Japanese teas like Sencha, Hojicha and Genmaicha. But they produce some Wakocha too. For today’s session this tea producer provided two different teas, a Sencha and a Genmaicha.
The following process is how they create their Sencha: Light steaming, after steaming the tea leaves they are then soft rolled twice but the steam is connected to the roller to use wind power to take the tea leaves from open machine to the next which is a more traditional way, when blown by air it also keeps the temp of the leaves down which is very beneficial for the tea. After soft rolling it is then strong rolled, middle rolled, fine rolled to achieve the needle like appearance that we are all used to when it comes to Sencha, and then it is dried. These tea leaves are also the tea that is used for the Genmaicha that they provided for today’s session as well.
The tea was prepared in the following way during this session 5g of tea, 70C water and steep for 90secs for first brew but can be steeped over and over. Fellow tea lovers in today’s session chat described the tea in the following ways. Aroma notes: a distinct fennel aroma, fresh, clean and inviting, the bush comes to life, egg yolk note in the wet leaves. Taste notes: notes of boiled chestnut, Full umami taste, steamed custard, sweet, umami, vegetal, both rich and bright. Some even described this as the most umami Sencha they have ever had, normally I’ll go for Gyokuro over Sencha when I have the choice but I would definitely love to experience this Sencha mostly because it’s from a cutting of the very first Yabukita tree and other in the lesson described it to be very unique.
As I said earlier in this post the second tea that was provided for this session was a Genmaicha, which uses the same leaves as the Sencha previous mentioned but adds toasted rice into the mix as well. The rice that they use is white rice and after roasting it becomes brown rice. The specific type of rice they use is mochi rice rather than the kind of rice that is used for foods. The tea used is larger leaves from the spring harvest.
It was prepared in the following way for today’s session: 8g of the (4g leaves 4g rice, 100C water, steeped for 30sec for the first brew but can be steeped over and over. Tea lovers in the chat for today’s session described this tea in the following ways: Smooth, sweet, rich, nutty, vegetal, the wet leaves smell like shoyu sauce. Nori seaweed on the side of Ramen. Seasoned with soy sauce, roasted, etc. Has a similar taste to roasted onigiri, no bitterness. No astringency, steamed cabbage, steamed potato. As a lover of anything and everything Genmaicha I know I would have enjoyed this this had I had the marathon tea set and I would definitely love to get my hands on it however this tea producer no longer produces Genmaicha and made this one specially for the marathon.
Another absolutely fantastic session today, It was great to learn more about Shiga and the work that Akihiko Hattori is doing to produce traditional teas in the birth place of the the Yabukita cultivar. I look forward to hopefully being able to explore the teas from this region a little more and who know I might end up finding some new favourites over time. If you have tried teas from this region before or teas directly from this farmer before let me know your experience in the comments.
I’ll be back again Wednesday for day 11, until then Happy Steeping – Kimberley