The Global Japanese Tea Association – Japanese Tea Marathon- Day 13 | Saitama

The last days of the Japanese tea marathon have started to arrive and today for Day 13 we are travelling to Saitama which is one of a few land-locked prefectures and one of the smallest in Japan. However, it has one of the biggest population densities. This can be explained by its geographical location. Saitama is just north of Tokyo and partially located in Kanto plain – the largest plain in Japan. This position has allowed Saitama to become a transport hub between Tokyo and the northern part of the country, as well as a sleeping town for people working in Tokyo. Saitama is also known for its Bonsai – Japanese miniature trees. There is a Bonsai village and museum in Omiya. Visitors can come to enjoy the display and even take Bonsai classes.

Talking about tea in Saitama, it is believed that tea cultivation here started centuries ago, but the details are not completely clear. Around the 1400s, tea in Sayama (that is part of Saitama) is mentioned in a few written sources along with tea from Uji in Kyoto and Suruga in Shizuoka. This has even been weaved into the tea picking folk songs, with the lyrics claiming that ‘The color is Shizuoka, the scent is Uji, and the taste is Sayama’.

In the early 1800s, tea steaming method was introduced in Saitama from Uji and steamed tea production began. When Yokohama port opened in 1859 (after a long period of Japan’s self isolation – ‘sakoku’), tea became a popular export item and a lot of exported tea was from Saitama. Noticing the rising tea export trends and the low efficiency of tea production by hand, a medical doctor from Saitama – Kenzo Takabayashi, decided to build a tea processing machine that was completed and patented in 1885. This led to the great improvement in the efficiency of tea production. Currently Saitama ranks No.10 in Japanese tea production and in 2020 made 754t of tea. Originally tea was cultivated in the west of the prefecture, but it is now concentrated in the south, and the largest tea producing area is Iruma city, accounting for about 60% of Saitama’s tea. Other tea producing areas close by are Tokorozawa city, Sayama city and Kawagoe city.

Saitama is known for the most urbanized tea production. The proximity to Tokyo and the population growth subsequently has led to the increase in the land price and the drop in tea cultivation area. Being much further north (compared to other tea regions of Japan), Saitama is also only able to harvest tea twice a year: in spring and summer. Due to the shrinking tea production areas and limited harvesting time, competing in quantity is hard and there is much more focus on quality. Tea made in Saitama is generally known as Sayama tea (name coming from Sayama hills at the south of the prefecture). Sayama tea trademark was registered in 1945. The main tea produced in Saitama is Sencha, that is recognized for its pleasant roasty aroma gained from additional firing.

Today our guest tea producer was Hideki Ikeya who is a tea farmer and the future president of Ikenoyaen, a family tea farm in Iruma region of Saitama prefecture. The Ikeya family has been making tea since the Edo period and is counting over 200 years of history. Their tea was among the first to be exported outside of Japan. In 1883 tea made by the Ikeya family participated in a Chicago exhibition in the USA and even won a bronze medal. Today, Ikenoyaen makes various Japanese tea including Kabusecha, Fukamushicha, Bocha, Hojicha, etc. Recently they have even started making high class bottled tea using hand-picked Sencha.

They have a tea farm size of 9ha; for 8ha they use conventional methods and for 1ha they use organic methods. Tea is harvested using driven harvesting machines because the land in this area is very flat. Over many years they have won a large number of awards, including a 1st place award at a national tea competition around 10 years ago.

Leaves are harvest with driven harvesting machine, fresh leaves are then steamed for around 90-100 seconds as it is deep steamed tea. After that they are taken out of the steamer and to take out the moister they are put through a machine that removes it. Then they are soft rolled twice, then strong rolled, middle rolled and they take the trademark shape of Fukamushicha. After that they are dried, packaged and finally stored in the fridge. Because of the weather in the north of Japan, teas can often be a little stronger than they are from other regions, this can also affect the viscosity and the sweetness. This deep steamed tea is also not shaded which means it steeps up a green yellow color.

The first tea that was prepared in today’s session was a Yabukita Fukamushicha. It was prepared in the following way for the session: 5g 200ml water at 80C steeped for one min (for the first brew) and tea lovers in the chat had the following things to say about both the aroma and taste of the tea overall: A bit astringent but not unpleasantly sharp, boiled chestnuts, sweet but also umami, wonderful mouth feel, umami, sweet, nutty, cinnamon. A fiery firing character in aftertaste, unripe pear sun, green, earth and citrus oil.

I have tried a few Fukamushicha’s before but they are not something I reach for too regularly as I just prefer others like Gyokuro and Kabusecha. However, the people in today’s chat really did make this tea sound fantastic so maybe I need to broaden my horizons a little bit when it comes to deep steamed Japanese green teas. If you have any recommendations at all please leave them in the comments.

The second tea prepared in this session was another Bo Hojicha (Fukumidori)! We have talked about Bo Hojicha before from other region so I was interested to see what the tea lovers in the chat had to say about how this one compared to the one they had already tried. This region is not normally known for it’s Bo Hojicha and because of the stronger and thicker leaves in the region they can withstand a lot of roasting which is why they choose to produce this tea. It was a very light brown Hojicha but that is because unlike other Hojichas it is lightly roasted. This tea is all stems and Ikeya -san mentioned that it was quite hard to get so many steams from the thicker leaves so he set up machines in his factory specifically to make that process easier.

Its was prepared in the following way during today’s session: 5g of tea, 100c water used to amplify and fully experience the aroma of the Hojicha, steeped for 60secs. Tea lover in the chat has this to say about the tea: very strong sweeter taste like brown sugar, nutty, a bit milky, compared to the Bo Hojicha tried previously, this one is sweeter, brown sugar, dark caramel, more dessert like. Less body then the ones we had before, more cloudy, milky, thick on the tongue, compared to other Hojicha, not so thick in the finish though (especially compared to Tsukigase / Nara). There is a light smokiness in with the sweetness, but this tea doesn’t leave a heavy layer in your mouth (like some other hojichas) and it remains light.

Ikeya-san suggest 5 steps for drinking tea: look at the tea leaves and notice their shape and color (use a tray or a plate), look at the color of the brew and enjoy it try to take in the aromatics and try think about whether or not it is similar to what you imaged it would be from inspecting the leaves. Compare the aroma from the dry leaves and see if they match up, one step we all already do, drink the tea and think about how it makes you feel, finally step 5 is to write your whole experience down, then you can go back to this each time you drink it and see how it might change for you. This is already pretty much my process when it comes to writing my reviews and my physical notes about teas, whether I feature them on my blog or not this is always what I have done. It has really helped me to learn how to better describe my experience with teas over the years and I really recommend putting it into practice.

Yet another fantastic session today it was interesting to learn about how the cooler weather in the north of Japan can really effect the tea and it was great to see another Bo Hojicha and see how it compared to the other one tried previously in the marathon due to the leaves that it comes from and the unique cultivar used. I left this session as always feeling inspired and I’ll definitely be doing some more in depth research.

Until tomorrow. Happy Steeping – Kimberley

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