Growing Conditions and Climate of Green Tea
After talking a bit about the different tea growing regions in Japan, let’s discuss how the different climates of these regions influence the tea that’s grown there.
First, lets begin in the far south of Japan, on the beautiful island of Yakushima. Yakushima is home to a breathtaking array of flora and fauna. Here you can find troops of Japanese Macaques, as well as plenty of Sika deer. The island is also famous for having some of the oldest trees in all of Japan. During a brief tour of Yakushima national park, you can see old growth trees that have been around for hundreds, and in many cases thousands of years. Without a doubt, Yakushima has one of the most unique climates in all of Japan. A mountainous, subtropical island with plenty of rainfall and surprisingly cold temperatures.
The high rainfall of the island acts as a natural insect repellent, making it easier to grow tea without the use of pesticides. This is one of the main reasons why organic farming is far more common in Yakushima than the rest of Japan. The people of Yakushima are also more in touch with the natural world, and try to live a life of sustainability wherever possible. This is another contributing factor that influences their push to organic farming.
Although Yakushima is a subtropical island, it can actually get quite cold in the winter and spring. This leads to a longer resting period for the tea plant. The tea plant typically builds up nutrients all winter long, so that by the time spring comes around, it is packed with flavor, making the spring harvest particularly sought after. The first harvest in Yakushima is even later, giving the tea plant even more time to build up nutrients before it is harvested. The farmer, Mr. Watanabe (below) explains that his goal with the tea is to not only produce it in a natural way, but to have it taste natural as well. This means that the teas will take on a milder flavor, without these powerful sweet and savory notes.
Next on our journey, we head north to Kagoshima, a region heavily influenced by volcanic activity. Here, major volcanoes such as Kaimondake and Sakurajima can create mineral rich soils that can greatly improve the flavor of the tea. This volcanic activity cycles in new nutrients, and keeps the soil fertile.
This more tropical region also benefits from milder winters, making it easier to grow a diverse array of tea plant varieties or cultivars. In northern Japan, tea fields are dominated by the frost resistant Yabukita cultivar, a thicker and tougher tea leaf. These plants can handle the cold, but also produces a slightly more bitter flavor. The more delicate cultivars like Okumidori and Saemidori, produce smoother and sweeter flavors, but are more labor intensive to grow, particularly in colder climates. These rare cultivars thrive in warm environments, giving Kagoshima teas a reputation for being sweeter than their Shizuoka counterparts.
Here in Shizuoka, the farmers have chosen to grow their tea up in the mountains, allowing them to benefit from mineral-rich soils. Here, you can see the soils are very rocky. This can actually have a profound impact on the flavor of the tea. The teas produced by Mr. Osada have a nice minerality to them. You may notice a tingling sensation on your tongue when you drink these teas, and that is exactly how they are designed. This minerality works particularly well with drier sencha and Kukicha like the sencha Isagawa and Kukicha Osada. These teas are actually produced in the so-called organic village of Isagawa. In Isagawa, small family farms grow tea without the use of pesticides or chemicals. By sourcing their tea from small producers like this, the Osada family is able to ensure greater attention to detail and quality control.
As you can see, the landscape of Japan is very diverse, and this leads to great variety in Japanese green teas. While the difference in these teas is subtle, it is important to recognize the role that climate plays in the production of Japanese green tea.