Tea time in Uji

Although Kyoto is believed to be the original site of tea-growing in Japan, from 1100 tea grown in Uji, a small city between the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara, was considered to be of superior quality. Those glory days may have passed as it’s been well overtaken by other places but Uji tea is still considered among Japan’s finest.

A new method of tea cultivation, Ōishita Saibai, was developed in Uji in the latter half of the 16th century. This produced tea with vivid, dark green leaves and a strong flavour and became known as the best in Japan. It is thought that this tea was used to produce the first batch of matcha, Japan’s famous powdered green tea, the very best of which sells for about $500/kg.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Shogunate commanded the Kanbayashi family of Uji to create high-quality tea for the court and the Shogun’s personal use. He also ordered the creation of the ‘Chatsubo-Dochu’ (Tea Pot Journey), a road used for 250 years to deliver new tea to Edo (present-day Tokyo). The journey took about 2 weeks on foot.

The eight teas produced in Uji. Image: visitujitawara.com

The types of tea associated with Uji are:

  • Gyokuro is made with leaves grown in fields shaded from sunlight for about 3 weeks before the picking season. Blocking sunlight increases chlorophyll in the leaves and turns the colour bright green. Uji Gyokuro is the highest grade of all Japanese green tea varieties.
  • Kabusecha is made with leaves from plantations covered with straw or cheesecloth (covered cultivation) for about a week before picking.
  • Sencha is the most common green tea variety. It is a non-fermented tea (black tea is fermented).
  • Matcha is a green tea powder ground in a stone mortar. It is made with the tea leaves that are steamed and dried without the rolling process. Used in the tea ceremony.
  • Karigane uses the stems and stalks removed during the manufacturing of Uji Gyokuro and Uji Sencha.
  • Genmaicha is a blend of Uji tea with roasted brown rice.
  • Hojicha is composed of tea leaves roasted at a high temperature to bring out a rich aroma. It is low in caffeine.
  • Kyobancha is made with late-harvest leaves (ie, older leaves). In this area the leaves are  steamed, dried without rolling, then roasted like Hojicha. A lot of fragmented leaves and stems can be found in Kyobancha.  

Read more about Uji tea, including history, processing methods and brewing recommendations, at the Visit Ujitawara website.

Akinobu Hattori, now 80, is an organic grower of green tea in Uji, the 18th generation of his family in the business (which means something like 500 years). Unfortunately, there will not be a 19th generation as his son is a teacher and has no plans to work the site.

Part of the organic tea-growing field of Akinobu Hattori in Uji. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Hattori-san and his wife now only have 0.4ha (1 acre) of tea, having loaned what was their other field to a children’s sportsclub for a baseball diamond.

They cut their tea by hand with 10 people taking one month to complete the harvest – and they cut only once. Most tea in Japan is machine harvested and cut two to three times over the growing season.

They steam the leaves for 4 hours as soon as they’re picked, roll them and dry. The same tea leaves can be used three times with Hattori-san saying the most important part of making the tea is to get the water temperature right (60-70C degrees). Their tea is supplied to the Imperial Palace and he’s rightly very proud of that.

Why is Uji so good for tea? Autumn and winter fogs from the Uji River create high humidity for the plants; very little, if any, winter snow; high humidity in summer; plenty of rain year-round; and free-draining. The same tea bush can be picked for 100 years; or be cut off at ground level after 50 years and allowed to regrow; or replanted.

Sannyu Konbayashi with the street-side tea roaster outside his store and museum in Uji. He is a 16th-generation tea master. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Sannyu Konbayashi is a 16th-generation Uji tea master with children involved in the business (including his English-speaking Swiss son-in-law) – and yes, that’s the same family mentioned above that received the Shogun’s orders. In their own museum, above the store in Byodoin Omotesando (Green Tea Street), are 400-year-old tea jars and hand-written orders of a similar vintage. The family and their tea were part of Japan’s exhibition at the 1876 World Fair in Philadelphia.

They also supply the royal household, and sell their tea only at their own store in in Uji, which has been in business for more than 450 years.

Happily, although Uji isn’t the tea powerhouse it once was, there are younger people joining the Teagrowers’ Association.

Showing your roots

A common theme of lockdown – at least among people I’ve been talking to – is that we didn’t manage a haircut before we went into Level 4. Mostly we’ve just let it be (and hopefully Level 2 is around the corner) but there are a few doing their own retouching dye jobs to hide their roots.

Which is kind of an awkward segue into a post about showing off your roots but my excuse is a case of lockdown fatigue!

Learning to manage a tree’s roots to dwarf it is an inherent part of bonsai culture and there’s also a term for the style of showing some natural surface roots – nebari, or root flare. Read an article about working the roots of a bonsai here.

A bonsai maple in the collection of bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi in Tokyo. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Another Japanese plant technique, nearai, isn’t often seen in the West. Nearai refers to pot-grown single plants or mixed plantings that, when the pot is full of roots, are removed and displayed on a flat container. The purpose is to show off the plant top and bottom, and I’ve read that the roots can be washed for a more dramatic effect, although, presumably, washing off the soil would shorten the time plants could be displayed. Most of what I’ve read suggests that nearai is a relation to both bonsai and kokedama. It actually sounds quite puzzling!

From the small to the huge! Memorable wedding photos amid the giant roots of a Ficus (fig) tree in Bali Botanic Gardens. The tree is believed to be more than 100 years old. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, the Khasi people make living bridges using the aerial roots of the tree Ficus elastica (rubber plant). The living bridges strengthen themselves over time due to adaptive secondary growth and the roots growing together. A 2019 report in Nature claimed that the living bridges provide the ‘only known example of repeated, predictable use of tree growth for structural purposes’. Read the full (technical) report here or see the Wikipedia entry.

This living root bridge, at 50m-plus, is the longest known. Photo: Ansel M Rogers, via Wikimedia

The Khasi don’t know how long they’ve been making bridges like this, but the earliest written record appeared in a British journal in 1844.

Autumn is the time to appreciate the outstanding tree that is the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichium) but unfortunately lockdown has prevented a visit to the beauties at McLaren Falls Park. (Apparently, the rangers are asked every autumn about the trees that are dying in the lake but this is one conifer that not only likes to grow with wet feet, it also changes colour in autumn to a vibrant rusty-orange and drops its needles.)

A swamp cypress growing in Lake McLaren near Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The other odd thing about these trees are the ‘knobbly knees’ that grow around its base. This is about as large as they get at the park, but in the wild they can apparently be several metres high.

Two researchers at the University of Kansas have proved by experiment that at least one function of these protuberances is to gather air for the tree’s submerged roots, but admit they might have more than one function, including to give the tree some stability in wet or swampy ground, or maybe a storage organ for food.

The technical term, by the way, for a root that gathers air for its tree (mangroves, for another example) is pneumatophore, literally an ‘air stalk’.