Visiting the Tea Gardens and Processing Facilities of Kyoto

Each year, The Republic of Tea organizes a trip for a group of Ministers to visit a country of origin. This year, we send you greetings from Japan! This is this first time each of us in our group have visited this incredible country and already in the first 24 hours, we have run our fingers through hillside tea plants, slurped our way through soba noodle dishes and sipped premium green tea plucked just hours before.

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After a brief stay last night in Tokyo, we dashed through the rain early this morning to the train station. There, we took the bullet train to historic Kyoto. While we will have time to explore the downtown area more later this week, today was all about tea.

As soon as we arrived at the train station, we were whisked away by bus and taken straight to a very special experience: the tea auction. In one room stood many long tables, each with plates piled high with different Sencha green teas from different tea gardens around the prefecture. Buyers moved quickly from plate to plate, each time with a standard ritual. First, they would scoop up a large handful of the leaves, examine the leaves closely, and then let the leaves fall slowly through their fingers. Next, they would pick up a handful of tea again, and this time bring the leaves so closely to their noses to smell the aromatics that they would have to dust the teas from their faces after each inhale. If the teas were of the aromatic and visual quality they were looking for, they would mark a score on the clipboard they carried. Afterward, the buyers would bring their notes to another part of the room and a bidding process would ensue. Our group even got to do a quick “cupping,” or sampling of six Sencha teas, each grown on a different garden and plucked just yesterday. We were surprised to discover how the appearance and taste varied so widely, even though all were premium green tea that had been through roughly the same process. So many factors can affect how the final tea tastes, from the weather to how much moisture was on the leaves when they were plucked, so the cupping was an enlightening experience for us all.

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Next, our bus began its climb through the winding, one-lane mountainous roads toward the southeastern region of the Kyoto prefecture. There, we visited two premium tea processing facilities to learn more about how premium tea goes from being a freshly plucked leaf to the final dried leaf that you would find in The Republic of Tea’s premium green tea or matcha collections.

The rain storm we had first encountered this morning had subsided, which was very good news. Premium tea cannot be plucked if it’s raining because it creates too high of moisture content in the leaves. Luckily for us, a decent amount of tea had been picked while we were on the train so we were able to see it go through the processing stages this afternoon.

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First, the premium tea leaves are allowed to wither briefly, which reduces their moisture levels.

Next, the leaves get steamed. This step is unique to premium Japanese green tea. The leaves fly into the air and dance their way back down to a conveyer belt. The steam brings out the chlorophyll and ensures the leaves retain a bright green color.

Then, they are dried at a very hot temperature to eliminate moisture from the leaves.

Once dry, the stems are separated from the leaves.

Next, the process diverts in one of two ways. If the leaves are destined for matcha, they are ground into a fine powder.  However, if the leaves are meant for Sencha green tea, then they are rolled into a tightly wound, twig-like form.

Finally, they are dropped into large sacks and packaged for market.

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The last stop on today’s journey was the pinnacle of our premium tea pilgrimage. After hiking up a hillside, we reached a small organic premium tea garden, which had pristine tea leaves that were very close to reaching their plucking point. This is one of the higher elevation tea gardens in Japan, meaning it takes longer for the teas to reach harvest time. Most Japanese tea gardens have their “first flush,” or first picking, in late April. But due to the high altitude, this garden will not be plucked until late May. We loved seeing all the different types of bugs hanging out on tea leaves and around the base of the plants, indicating a biodiversity balance and high quality level.

After such an incredible day one, we have more exploration to come this week! We will keep you posted on every step of our educational journey here. Talk to you soon!