Magnificent scenery with mountainous valleys and open plains
Centuries of tradition and rich cultural heritage
A welcoming rural community
If the above descriptions resonate with you, Yame may just be the tea haven for you! And today on the fall equinox, we will be touching on Yame as one of the major tea producing regions in Japan but also to share with you what makes their gyokuro shine.
To begin, Yame city is located in the heart of Kyushu, the Southernmost island of Japan. It is the second largest district (480 square kilometers) in Fukuoka prefecture. Yame is located in the southern part of the Chikugo Plain between two of the largest rivers in Kyushu; the Chikugo and Yabe rivers. Therefore, the region is blessed with fertile soil and natural water sources. Along with large amount of precipitation and temperature differences between day and night, Yame City has great conditions for producing high quality tea. This is especially true in the mountainous areas in Yame where there is a lot of fog and limited sunlight, which are well-suited to produce high-quality tea like gyokuro. Yame is also well known for their traditional folk crafts passed down through generations, such as their 400 year old tradition of handmade washi paper, Buddhist altars and lanterns, knitted bamboo baskets, pottery and more! Along with the large number of tea farmers in this region, many craftsmen who seek traditional culture can be found in Yame. Unfortunately, I have never paid a visit to this wondrous sounding place.
Why Yame Gyokuro sets the Gold Standard
While it’s true Yame city holds numerous opportunities to be in touch with Japanese tradition, cultural heritage, and nature ---- because this post is targeted for Yunomi’s exploration of identifying the major tea producing regions of Japan, we’ll focus specifically on their tea. In particular, the gyokuro in Yame. Before we get started though, let’s rewind to make sure you know what differentiates a gyokuro from a sencha. Gyokuro (Japanese: 玉露; jade dew) is a premium shade-grown Japanese green tea (but note this does not mean it is superior to a sencha! they are not teas to compare side to side) that is mellow with a rich umami flavor. Whereas sencha is generally grown under the full sun, gyokuro is grown through a shading process. Generally, the duration of the shading is said to be approximately 20 days but this time period will vary according to farmer and region. The shading shifts the balance of amino acids in the leaves towards more L-theanine, which results in the silky umami flavor.
The gyokuro style of tea was developed in Kyoto during the Edo period in 1835 through the collaboration of tea merchants and farmers. It is perhaps helpful to provide the historical context of this time. That is, gyokuro was invented during a period of great financial difficulties for the warriors (ruling class) who were the main consumers of tencha and matcha in Japan. Thus, it became necessary for tea merchants to discover novelty and find new outlets. One origin story states that a tea merchant named Kahei Yamamoto, 6th generation of tea dealer of Yamamotoyama noticed on one of his trips to Uji the tea from Kinoshita tea farmers was superior to most sencha at the time so he became curious to replicate this type of tea. No matter what he tried however, Yamamoto-san could not replicate the tea that he drank in Uji and gave up. Then, a man by the name of Eguchi Shigejuro from Uji identified the secret (covering the tea leaves) and was able to refine the method of cultivating and processing gyokuro. Actually, many Uji farmers, including the Kinoshita tea farmers covered their tea leaves with straw to protect the leaves from frost. Another story says that gyokuro was discovered by a master of sencha-do, Kashin Ogawa. Others credit a producer of tencha from Uji, Shohei Matsubayashi. In the end, perhaps the important historical fact to know is that there is probably no single inventor of gyokuro, rather it developed through collective effort by tea merchants and farmers during this era.
So, why is the gyokuro from Yame considered to be the best? Many people consider Uji, just south of Kyoto (specifically, Ujitawara and Kyotonabe areas) on the Honshu island, to be home to the highest quality gyokuro because the conditions are best there, as shown by how tea was first planted there and gyokuro was first developed there. Yame produces over 50% of all gyokuro on the Japanese tea market but clearly, the quantity of gyokuro produced doesn’t mean it is the best gyokuro. Their dominance is shown in their recent tea competition record. Yame Gyokuro has won the Best Prize in the Japanese National Tea Competition (the most prestigious tea event in Japan) for 12 consecutive years from 2001 to 2012, until a farmer from Uji broke their streak in the year 2013. Yame tea farmers continue to frequently win first place (the first place since then seems to be a battle between Yame and Uji tea farmers), including in the most recent competition just held in August in Kagoshima. This year, tea farmers in Yame took all of the places from 1st to 36th in the Gyokuro Competition (Note that farmers from other prefectures were also present. There were 119 entries this year with tea farmers from Saitama, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie, Kyoto, Nara, Kagoshima, and Fukuoka prefectures)! The second prize winner in the gyokuro competition this year was Akihiro Kurihara from Kurihara Tea Gardens who Yunomi has connections with. Akihiro-san has been growing gyokuro for approximately 15 years; yet, he states that there is still a lot to learn about the art of growing gyokuro. He is continuously challenged, but that is what keeps him engaged. In reflection of his performance at the most recent competition where he obtained 199/200 points (the 1st place winner obtained a perfect score), he shared,
“I am one step closer to #1 of Japan. My regret is doubled as this is my second time placing 2nd place. Yet at the same time, I have no regrets because I have done my best. Thank you, to everyone who cooperated!”
The Art of Growing Gyokuro
Earning the highest recognition requires perfection (or very close to it!) in all aspects of the tea from the taste, aroma and the shape of the tea leaves to the subtle color(s) of tea. As with all skills, cultivating gyokuro comes with its challenges. It is an arduous task requiring years of experience involving trial and error and the ability to listen to one’s insight, and maybe even a little bit of luck. Because it is no easy task, throughout Japan, the number of gyokuro farmers are declining, although so is the overall number of tea farmers. In Fukuoka prefecture, in the year 2000, there were 2,217 tea farmers. This number decreased to 962 in 2015 (Census of Agriculture and Forestry in Japan).
For those of you familiar with tea farm landscapes in Japan, tea fields can often be found in mountainous areas or on slopes. Gyokuro is often best grown in such places, in mountain valleys where the sunlight is limited. To grow the most authentic gyokuro, the tea bushes are not pruned but left to grow on their own. This type of gyokuro is only harvested once a year through a manual harvest process. Most importantly, high quality gyokuro requires a delicate dance with shading. In fact, to protect the tea leaves for gyokuro from sunlight, entire tea fields will be covered with screens when 1-1.5 new buds appear. As noted earlier, what the shading does is increases the content of theanine; which is the amino acid which provides green tea its unique taste. The shading process generally occurs under a ceiling shelf (i.e., the shading structure does not directly cover the tea plants). Recently, synthetic fiber has replaced the traditional straw shading methods and it is used all throughout the tea farms producing gyokuro. This is another aspect of why Yame gyokuro stands out, as many Yame tea farmers have adhered to traditional methods using woven straw screens to cover the plants (while synthetic fiber facilitates installing and removing the shades, it also raises the temperature in the tea canopy). The shading process also impacts the color of the tea, which gyokuro farmers tend to be very fussy about. Depending on the amount of shade, the tea leaves color can vary greatly but an emerald green which has an inner glow is considered ideal. In fact, there is an entire category in the tea competition about color.
Traditional shading with handmade bamboo and/or straw. The moisture which drips from the natural shading flavors the tea, Kurihara Tea Gardens.
People, Community, Connection
There may be something more important than the recognition that Yame tea farmers have received over the years for their top quality gyokuro. If you ask the people in Yame, they may share with you the reason their gyokuro is number one is because of the people and the community in Yame. The large number of Yame tea farmers also contribute to the rural community. These people are hardworking, talented, and cooperative. They are passionate about tea and care about preserving the tradition and culture of Japan. They are also welcoming and happy to share their tea culture with others - through the Tea Cultural Center in Yame, tea festivals and hands-on tea experiences. It is no wonder they call this place the country of tea!
Explore Yamechas from Yunomi
- Kurihara Tea Farm: This year’s gyokuro division 2nd place Minister’s Award winner, Akio Kurihara’s farm. Kurihara Tea Farm is respected as specialists in gyokuro tea leaf cultivation and processing. They started as a wholesaler in 1922 but in 1942, the first master made a decision to move the entire business to the Yame region (due to the reputation of high quality Yamecha) to start growing tea himself. His son, Kippei Kurihara is now a respected member of the Yame City legislature while sons Yuji and Akio have begun to take over the tea agriculture business. Their entire selection is worth checking out!
- Kuma Tea Gardens: Another award winning tea garden based in Yame, this tea garden is managed by Kazumi Nakatani who is a Japanese tea instructor representing her tea farmer uncles and cousins. While their tea garden has received multiple awards over the years, cousin Masahiro Kuma is their recent young star winning the top prize (Minister’s Award) in the gyokuro tea category at the 2017 National Tea Competition. That year, his gyokuro was the only one receiving 200 out of 200 points, a perfect score! Unfortunately, his gyokuro is sold out this year. A fun bit of trivia is that he and Akio Kurihara (from Kurihara Tea Farm) are actually high school classmates who frequently compete against each other.
- Chiyonoen: Located in the midst of evergreen mountains (600m above sea level) in Yabe village, Yame, Fukuoka, this small third generation tea farm is run by husband and wife farmers Masashi and Eri Harashima. Three time winner of Japan's top agricultural prize, the Minister's Award, Masashi Harashima is one of Japan's top farmers. While located in the South, Chiyonoen’s tea plantations are covered with snow in the winter due to the higher altitude. The cooler weather reduces the amount of pests and they are able to grow tea without the use of chemicals. While Harashima-sans’ farm specializes in high grade mountain-grown sencha and gyokuro, I recently enjoyed their superior genmaicha. I’ve always been a fan of the roasty aroma of genmaichas but this genmaicha is topped with the mountainous aroma of Yabe village (located in the Yame region), absolutely delightful and grounding… mmm!
Yamechamaru, the Teapot character for Yame-city
Last but not least, another interesting tea fact about this tea haven, and one that proves Yame takes their tea seriously, is that it has an official tea mascot! In 2007, the Fukuoka Tea Industry Promotion Council decided to adopt the “Yamechamaru” mascot (literally meaning, tea from Yame), a cute teapot character with the color of tea leaves. They also made a pleasantly understated motto for Yamecha, “Fukuoka Yamecha has good color, good taste, and good aroma” (「福岡の八女茶は いい色 いい味 いい香り」). If you find yourself in Yame city, you may be lucky to stumble upon a cute stuffed Yamechamaru character!
Featured image credit: Chiyonoen; Yame, Fukuoka.