Chapter 4

Tea plants with a history of 600 years

Handing over the roots of Uji tea to the future

It was said that tea plant seeds were brought over from China by Japanese envoys sent to the Tang Dynasty, China, in the 9th century, and by Eisai, a Zen priest, in the late 12th century. Since then, the sowing of tea plant seeds – also known as “seedling cultivation” – has long been practiced in Japan.

As the flowers bloom and fruits grow, they grow into seeds. These seeds are then sown and grown again. Repeating this process over a long period of time allowed us to cultivate native tea plants that have adapted to the climate and terrain of each region.

But there was one drawback to this method: those tea plants do not self-pollinate. Growing tea plants from seeds led to the cultivation of plants with slightly different characteristics, which would in turn result in inconsistent harvest time and quality. Tea farmers therefore tried to use different cultivation methods since the early Showa period (1926-1989) to increase the quantity of the same tea plant with cuttings. It was not until after the war that the cultivation techniques for cuttings were established and domestication of tea plants in tea plantations moved into full swing.

Until the 1970s, our Okunoyama Tea Garden was a tea plantation of native tea plants.

At that time, about 2,000 tea plants were planted in the shape of an island in a natural way. Those plants were, so to speak, essentially the roots of Uji tea. Despite the fact that the plants were carefully protected and cultivated for a long period of time, they were, beyond any doubt, getting old. The harvested yield also varied from plant to plant; this created a problem because tea-pickers were assigned specific plants to pick from and they were paid based on the amount they picked.

To deal with this, Nobuo Horii, the fifth-generation owner, decided to replant the tea plantation. But he could not bring himself to eradicate the native tea plants that have been carefully passed down through generations in this region. After much consideration, he decided to select the best tea plants from amongst the native ones that were planted back then in order to preserve them for future generations.

Current state of Okunoyama Tea Garden

“Narino” and “Okunoyama” – fruits of labor over 20 years

For an individual, not laboratories or large-scale tea plantations, selecting cultivars of the tea plants was a monumental task.

The selection process started in 1981. Since then, Nobuo, the fifth-generation owner, has carefully observed all the tea plants in the tea plantation every single year. We have handwritten notes preserved from that time that not only described the taste and aroma, but also the number of shoots, weight, and harvested yield in great detail.

The initial 2,000 tea plants were gradually narrowed down to 58 cultivars, then 24 varieties, and eventually 8 varieties. In 1994, two final candidate varieties were selected. These two varieties were cultivated on an experimental basis before they were finally registered in 2002 – a good 20 years after we started working on the selection of varieties.

The original varieties native to Uji created in this way are “Narino” for tencha and “Okunoyama” for gyokuro.

“Narino” contains twice as much L-theanine, the source of umami, as the conventional varieties; it also has lower levels of tannins and catechins, compounds that elicit astringency and bitterness. It is characterized by a rich and mellow flavor that goes down smooth. On the other hand, “Okunoyama” has dark green leaves in which the smooth umami flavor is concentrated in, so much so that Nobuo named it “natural gyokuro”.

In 2010, “Narino” received the Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Award at the 64th National Tea Competition held in Nara Prefecture. We are proud to be the number one in Japan for our tea plants, with their genetic ancestry dating all the way back to the Muromachi period.

In a small section of the Okunoyama Tea Garden is a 400-year-old tea plant, the actual and original cultivar of “Okunoyama”. Tea plants that have spread their roots deep down in the earth have lives that can be said to be eternal. Although delicious tea can only be harvested from tree plants aged up to about 100 years old or so, we still give this old tree plant our love and care like we do with the others because its existence is an important reminder of the deep connection between the tea and the land.

An estimated 400-year-old mother tree that still exists today
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