Tea cultivation in Uji began in the late 12th century (Kamakura era). In the early 15th century, the Oishita-saibai cultivation method was developed. Using this method, the tea farmers of Uji have produced extremely high quality Ten-cha (leaves for Matcha) and Gyokuro leaves every growing season since.
Finding true Uji tea can be harder than it would first appear. Uji tea farms make up less than 1% of the total tea farm land area in Japan, yet you can find "Uji tea" in any department store in Japan. How can this be when so little true Uji tea is produced every year?
Japanese trademark law allows for tea to be grown in any region in Japan and as long as the packaging is done in Uji, it can be labeled "Uji tea". While many of these outside teas may in fact be quite good, they are not true Uji tea. We want you to be able to experience real Uji tea, grown in Uji grown with the traditional methods that have been used for over five hundred years.
What is "Single-origin Tea"?
Most teas you buy in the shops are blended teas, using tea leaves from several different regions and farms. This is done for a couple of reasons.
One, it allows for a consistent taste throughout the year, no natural variations. It also allows the packing company to stretch out a small amount of rare tea (tea actually grown in Uji for instance) and blend it with others to get more salable product.
With single-origin tea, you get tea from only one source, one breed, one particular tea farm. In this way, you are able to experience the tea in the way that the tea farmer intended.
The breed, soil and climate where the tea grows as well as the processing of the leaves all contribute to the character of the tea. With single-origin teas you are able to enjoy many different tastes.
What is "Terroir" of tea?
Terroir is a French word used in the wine industry, but the concept is applicable to tea as well.
A tea's terrior are the comprehensive set of conditions that determine the flavor of a particular tea. Soil, temperature, duration of sunshine, angle of the land, amount of rainfall, humidity, the direction of the wind and of course the work of the farmer all contribute to form a tea's flavor.
Due to fluctuations in these factors the flavor of single-origin teas changes every year. This is the enjoyment of "following" a single-origin tea. To feel and taste how it grows over time.
The Kitamura Family's Efforts for No-Pesticide, No-Fertilizer Organic Tea
Many, if not most tea farmers within Uji use pesticides and chemical fertilizers when farming the tea plants. In the quest for increasing the rich taste (Umami) of tea, the quality of fertilizers used in Japan increased significantly in the late 1940s.
During the 1950s the Japanese economy grew very quickly and usage of fertilizers increased 12 fold from the 1920s. There are however, downsides to using fertilizers. Fertilizer usage often causes increases in pests which then cause increases in pesticide usage. Customers become accustomed the richer taste of tea grown with fertilizers and want more and more. This creates a negative cycle of upping the fertilizer and then upping the required pesticide.
Unfortunately, the standards for pesticides differ between Japan and the West. As a result of this, real Uji tea is not available for export to the U.S.A or Europe.
Currently, I am experimenting with cultivating the special Kitamura breed of Uji tea plants with no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. This is how people in the 19th century enjoyed tea, why should we not try the same in the 21st century? We leave everything to nature, so weeds and bamboo grow rampant. I spend many weekends weeding our plots. If anyone wants to volunteer to help, I would hugely appreciate it!
Uji's Indigenous (and Endangered) Breed of Tea
For many centuries, every tea producing region in Japan has had their own indigenous breed of tea. Each of these breeds have their own distinctive flavor due to the climate and cultivation method (the aforementioned "terrior"). Uji's special breed of tea is famous for it's thick, rounded leaves. Many high quality tea breeds through out Japan are descended from Uji tea and thus it is considered very important for breeding.
Despite the huge impact that Uji tea has had on the Japanese tea industry, the number of Uji breeds are decreasing rapidly due to the decrease in actual tea farming in Uji and the development of other high quality teas. In Uji city, where tea farmers still use old breeds for historical reasons, the land dedicated to tea farming has decreased significantly. Many older tea farms are now abandoned due to the farmer retiring with no successors (a common problem in Japan). Land is also lost to changing hands and real estate development. Financially, it can be difficult to maintain a small tea farm dedicated to heritage breeds. Both my father and myself must maintain outside jobs during the week and are only able to work in the farm on the weekends.
It is sad to say, but the land area dedicated to tea cultivation in Uji city has decreased over 86% since 1960. Today there are only about 50 acres of active tea farming land being cultivated in Uji city, of which my family's farm makes up 2,000 square meters. The Uji breed is over 300 years old and we would hate to see it die simply due to attrition.