creating a tea garden where the best matcha grows

Tea is many things to many people. To some it is an art. To others it is a science. And to an intern in Japan turned farmhand tea is a pain in the ass. 

I'll fully admit I never looked forward to doing the actual farming of a tea farm. I had worked at a tree nursery for near a decade as a summer student by the time I made my way to Japan. The last thing I wanted to do was pull weeds, plant trees, and sweat in the summer heat. Fortunately I did none of those. Instead, having arrived in January, I was able to dig holes, cut bamboo, and feast on BBQ'd sweet potatoes in an effort to stay warm. Totally better.

Okay, maybe I didn't dig the entire hole. But I did kick the dirt away.

Okay, maybe I didn't dig the entire hole. But I did kick the dirt away.

A farmers work is never over. For Japanese tea farmers this may have a special meaning. Land is scarce in Japan and so unlike here in the west where our farm fields are typically close, in Japan a farmer may have tea fields spread across several mountains. This field wasn't on a mountain, but is was shoehorned into a back lot some thirty minutes outside of town.

The field in question was being cleared for planting. On one side of the field was forest of bamboo and on the other was a small stream at the bottom of a ditch. The goal was to convert the field (from the looks of things it was wild and overgrown) into a suitable place to grow tea.This tea in particular was of the gokou cultivar and would be harvested, processed into tencha, and milled into a creamy and thick matcha.

The problem, it turned out, was that the farmers needed to cut back bamboo which, through succession, was making its way into the field. Bamboo is in fact a very quick growing grass and poses a threat to nearby tea seedlings and bushes. As it turns out, one need not let the cut bamboo rot where it fell. Imagine my surprise when I was informed that the bamboo would be used as a drainage system. The farmers intended to bury the shoots near the water line below the ground to funnel any run-off from the mountain directly and swiftly into the stream.

I believe we had 7 or 9 holes to fill with fresh bamboo. I'll never forget the sound they make clacking together as we tossed them in.

I believe we had 7 or 9 holes to fill with fresh bamboo. I'll never forget the sound they make clacking together as we tossed them in.

Bamboo grows in sections and these sections never fill in. They remain hollow. With only a thin wall of wood (re: grass) separating each section, water can easily make its way through an entire length of bamboo.

A humorous prank grew out of these photographs when I told my friends back in Canada that I was setting tiger traps. I had one close friend begin to discuss the dangerous and ethical nature of this undertaking at his workplace and I was soon to hear the uproar. I was sure to inform him of my prank in quick cessation.  

Totally not hunting tigers. There aren't even tigers in Japan.

Totally not hunting tigers. There aren't even tigers in Japan.

Tea seedlings will do well in a well drained sandy loam to sandy clay soil. But it wont tolerate being flooded with water. Using these bamboo shoots to drain the water was a clever idea. Unfortunately here in Ontario we have no species of bamboo to utilize. 

The installation has some notable benefits. Primarily is that the inclusion of the entire grass, including the bamboo leaves, means that there is a layer of fertilizer for the tea seedlings to grow. The bamboo wont stay forever, it will eventually degrade many years from now long after the tea trees have served their purpose.

You can see in the background where the bamboo had been cut back to prevent it falling into the tea garden.

You can see in the background where the bamboo had been cut back to prevent it falling into the tea garden.

A benefit from working all day to setup the bamboo was that I was able to get a great look into the infrastructure of the soon to be tencha and matcha field. Notice the grey pole on the right-hand side of the photo? If you look closely you'll see wires passing beside it which create a grid above the field. This grid is used to support the black plastic tarps hanging in the lower left corner.  These tarps come in several colours and with different disbursements of holes. As the tea plant grows it is covered to minimize the amount of catechins within the tea. The shading also prevents the tea plant from photosynthesizing, eliciting a response from the plant to increase the chlorophyll in the leaves. This is where tencha, and similarly gyokuro gain their deep and rich green hue. Farmers will begin the shading with a tarp with a high hole count. The will then reduce the sunlight weekly by again covering the tea plants in a tarp with less and less holes.

I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking which tea I'm going to brew next.

I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking which tea I'm going to brew next.

Finally  wanted to end with a visual of just how deep these holes are and the amount of effort needed to complete the project. Tea farmers offer us a fantastic crop and the amount of effort that goes into maintaining their place of work is widely understated. So next time you whisk up a bowl of matcha, just recall that no tigers were hurt in the making of this blog. Oh, and give a cheers to the farmers, they've worked for it.