Chapter 5

Cultivating Uji tea

Only hand-picked first-picked tea is grown

To produce delicious tea, we must first grow good tea plants. And in the Okunoyama Tea Garden, we continue to grow tea using “Shizen-Shitate” (literally means “natural shape bush formation”), a traditional cultivation method.

In summer, these tea plants can grow as tall as an adult as their branches grow freely. “Shizen-Shitate” tea plantations offer a very different view from the tea plantations where the tea plants are often pruned into a semi-cylindrical shape. The shade-grown cultivation method used to grow matcha and gyokuro blocks sunlight and hinders the growth of tea leaves. That is why it is important to grow strong tea plants that make use of its natural vitality.

A big difference between Shizen-Shitate tea plantations and semi-cylindrical shaped tea plantations is how the tea leaves are picked – this greatly affects the quality of tea.

Machines are now used to harvest tea leaves in many producing areas. To facilitate mechanized harvesting at one go, the tea plants need to be uniformly pruned into a semi-cylindrical shape. Nowadays, there are many tea plantations that would harvest tea leaves a second time, or even a third time, each time the shoots emerge. Although this produces a higher yield, the tea leaves will become tougher with each picking, resulting in less aroma and flavor (umami).

In contrast, only shoots that sprouted in spring are hand-picked in Shizen-Shitate tea plantations. Shoots grown under the shade-grown cultivation method are tender and delicate, and can be easily hand-picked by simply giving the stem a light squeeze. The translucent green interior of these shoots is full of nutrients stored during the winter, giving it a deep yet mellow flavor. Matcha, in particular, is powdered tea leaves that is made to be drunk as it is. This is why hand-picked first-picked tea is the best, as it is free of any impurities and has a concentrated umami flavor.

Hand-picked to carefully pick only the leaf sprouts

Our commitment to shade-grown cultivation

There are no off-days when it comes to working in a tea plantation. Pruning, plowing with fertilizer, laying straw over the fields to prevent weeds and drying out – tea plants require looking after throughout the entire year.

When spring comes, it is finally time to prepare for harvest. The most important work is “covering”.

Two coverings are usually used in “shade-grown cultivation”, but we use three instead. The first covering, from the end of March to April, is to protect the tea plants from frost. Around mid-April, we lay the next fine mesh covering over the top and sides of the tea plants to completely block out the sunlight.

When shoots emerge, the tea plant normally draws up nutrients through its roots and undergoes photosynthesis to produce catechins and tannins, which are the source of the tea’s astringency and bitterness. When light is blocked, the amino acid, L-theanine – the source of umami – is stored as nutrients in the leaves instead, and the plant attempts to expand the surface area of the leaves so as to absorb as much light as possible. The result is tender and thin shoots full of umami and sweetness. Another characteristic unique to shade-grown cultivation is that the tea is infused with a unique aroma, called “covering aroma”, which is described as a scent similar to that of the sea.

At our tea plantation, we will add the third covering about a week before the tea plants are to be picked.

The first and second coverings are made of black synthetic fibers, while the third covering is a woven straw mat. In the past, shade-grown cultivation was actually “honzu cultivation”, in which rice straw was placed on top of woven screens using reeds from Lake Biwa. A feature of the honzu cultivation is the slight aroma of rice straw that is infused into the tea leaves from the rain-drenched coverings, which enhances the flavor. We attempt to replicate this situation as much as possible.

Cultivation under cover with cheesecloth
The park's unique three-tiered covering that covers the "komo" woven straw

Then, on the 88th day from the first day of spring – so called the “88th Night” – when the coverings are enveloped in a heady fragrance, only the tender shoots are gently picked by hand.

There are “harvesting seasons” for tea. Especially in the case of tencha, it is called “three days within”, meaning that the shoots must be picked within three days from when they have stopped growing. If the shoots are harvested too early, it will have a sharp taste; if it is too late, the taste will be mediocre. We mobilize all of our tea-pickers when we determine the shape, color and luster, aroma, and flavor have reached their peak. The tea leaves are then carefully hand-picked one by one, and transported to the tea processing plant on the very same day to turn them into tea.

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