Long before my passion for tea blossomed, there was my passion for the beautiful game, fútbol (soccer). Apparently I’ve been missing playing soccer recently as I’ve found myself drawn to soccer-related works like famous US soccer player Megan Rapinoe's autobiography, One Life and I’ve also been envying the young soccer players practicing in our neighborhood field. So when tea and soccer came together in the Japanese news, of course, it caught my attention. And now, we have Japan in the World Cup, and the men’s team is surprisingly off to a fantastic start. Woot!
As some may already be aware, for some time now, the very famous and retired Japanese professional soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata has been investing his energy to promote Japanese culture (crafts, food, drinks, lifestyle) to a global audience. While initially, his emphasis was in promoting Japanese sake, his most recent project is one which revolves around Japanese tea. It appears that Nakata has visited most of the major tea producing regions throughout Japan. Seeing the tea farms and talking to the tea farmers face-to-face have allowed him to learn about the art of cultivating Japanese tea — something that I would love to spend more time doing, upon return to my motherland!
Nakata's Vision for Japanese Tea
Similar to sake, Nakata sees potential in the foreign market for Japanese tea. While I will not get too much into Japanese tea statistics today; overall, the Japanese people are consuming less loose leaf tea in kyusus (Japanese teapots; I touched on the phenomenon, “kyusu banare” recently) and drinking more bottled tea. So, it is not necessarily a decline in consumption, but a decline in consumption of higher quality tea. With these consumption habits, the average price of tea is on a decline, and the tea farmers who are impacted are unfortunately the small-scale specialty tea producers. These are often the family-run tea farms located in mountainous areas (See Yunomi article: What’s so special about mountain grown tea?) with terroir suitable for producing high quality loose leaf teas, but that are unsuitable to harvesting by larger and more efficient machines. In general, the large scale tea farmers who can bring their machines in for harvesting are doing okay because they have a greater degree of cost efficiency but the small farmers are finding it more and more difficult to compete.
On the other hand, similar to the trends in sake, demand for higher quality Japanese tea in the international market continues to be on a rise. This is where Nakata, in line with a few Japanese government initiatives, sees potential for Japanese tea to be promoted internationally. Further, due to the pandemic, people are becoming more and more health conscious. While consumption for alcohol is on the decline (so much that the Japanese government has been trying to get more young people to consume more alcohol for tax revenue purposes), people are turning more towards non-alcoholic drinks such as tea. In fact, the most recent report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan indicates the export value of green tea was a record high of 204 billion yen in the year 2021. This is due to the pandemic which increased the number of people staying at home AND with the recovered economic activity, more people are, at last, eating out again.
This is where Nakata sees the window of opportunity for Japanese tea. That is, in the hospitality realm where people will be able to pair and enjoy Japanese teas with their food. While some high quality teas such as sencha and gyokuro may be better off on their own (i.e., they are better enjoyed without food pairings, perhaps, especially the teas with strong umami), the Japanese tea brand Nakata came up with called "HANAAHU TEA" places emphasis on teas that will pair well with meals - together and/or teas that transition well onto the subsequent dish. For instance, previously, it used to be that at sushi restaurants green tea (what is called agari) was served after the meal as a way of “resetting” the mouth with the astringent taste of tannin from the tea which washed away the fat and raw smell of the fish. The bactericidal action of the green tea may also play a role in preventing upset tummies. Yet, nowadays people not only eat raw fish at sushi restaurants, they also order various kinds of cooked fish. And so, master sushi chefs have commented on how Nakata’s teas hold substantial potential.
Additionally, I recently read that the HANAAHU teas were specifically blended in collaboration with tea artisans and culinary experts to express the seasonality of Japan, which is an essential aspect of our culture. To illustrate, one of the refreshing blends called “Kusawakaba” was developed precisely (e.g., from the degree of roasting of the tea leaves and the ratio of the blend) to capture spring and to pair with certain dishes, like a cold basil pasta and vinegared seafood. Another blend called “Akizakura” (literally meaning autumn cherry blossoms) is characterized by a rich flavor suitable for an abundant autumn. This one is said to have a magnificent roasty aroma and refreshing umami, making it a perfect companion with simmered dishes soaked in the umami of dashi stock or freshly fried tempura.
What are your thoughts on pairing Japanese teas with food? Do you have any favorite pairings or have you discovered any exceptional pairings with certain meals, desserts, or cheese? Personally, I generally enjoy pairing various types of banchas (e.g., hojicha, kancha, sannen bancha) with dessert but also on their own, as a sort of winding down process of the day. That being said, Nakata's initiative has got me thinking more about pairing teas with savory dishes. There's much exploration to be done!
A delicious slice of home made pumpkin pie. I must have gotten lost in the good company of friends such that the tea is not in the photo (oops!) but my Japanese tea choice with pumpkin pie would be a cup of Uejima-san's sannen-bancha or a smokey hojicha.
While Hidetoshi Nakata's objective is not to create an exceptional brand, he hopes to gradually create a larger market for craft, which will hopefully help the small-scale tea farmers. And of course, to promote Japanese tea to the rest of the world! Nakata's project commenced this fall 2022. If you are traveling in Japan keep a look out for his HANAAHU teas. Although, they may only be found in high-end restaurants!
Featured image: Scenary from a rustic, French mountain-style summer breakfast with freshly harvested strawberries and camomile flowers. My preferred cup of morning tea is a Japanese sencha. While I enjoy the first few sips by itself, I've found certain senchas pair refreshingly with fresh fruits and simple dishes like an omelette.