Japan is a nation of Islands: When you look at a map of Japan chances are you’ll see Hokkaido at the northern end of Japan, Honshu jutting north to south being the largest of the islands, Shikoku between Honshu and its southern brother, also known as Kyushu. These are the largest and most noticeable islands of Japan. But where exactly is tea grown within Japan? Is it possible to grow sencha in Hokkaido? How much tea is grown on Honshu? Are there major tea farms on Shikoku or Kyushu?
The northern limit of tea growing operations is Ibaraki Prefecture. This prefecture is approx. a 60-minute drive north from Tokyo. With part of the Kanto plain jettisoning into Ibaraki Prefecture, green Japanese tea is grown on the plain itself and the more mountainous areas. Closer to Tokyo, in Saitama, you’ll find a more unique type of Japanese tea with thicker leaves and branches called Sayama tea. Given the climate, these tea plants have to often survive bouts of freezing.
If you’re following on a map, let’s move southwest towards Shizuoka Prefecture as we move closer and closer to Japan’s famous Mount Fuji also known as “Fuji san”. Shizuoka is the heart of tea production in Japan. Rolling hills, mountain side tea farms and beautifully lush green landscapes, the prefecture counted for over 1/3rd of Japan’s overall tea production in 2016 (Ministry of Agriculture). You’ll find most tea farms in the area focused on Ooicha (覆い茶 aka kabusecha 被せ茶) or ”coarse tea” also know as bancha before it moves into production. Most of all however, you’ll see the tea plant, camellia sinensis, arranged in neatly packed rows scatted throughout parts of Shizuoka. (Note: Our Japanese green tea is grown in Shizuoka. Please see more about it here.)
Moving further west to Aichi Prefecture, areas such as Nishio are known for their matcha production. Aichi counts for a relatively small proportion of overall tea production but accounts for nearly as much Ooicha as Shizuoka.
Mie Prefecture along with Kyoto and Nara Prefecture produce a significant amount of tea. While they don’t total Shizuoka, these 3 prefectures have a long history of green tea production in Japan. Kyoto, for example, is where green tea production began in Japan several hundred years ago. (See my other article Brief History of Japanese Green Tea for more information about this.)
The area is full of various historical tea sites and shops and known for high-quality teas. Apart from harvesting the lessor known “curly tea” or Tamaryokucha (玉緑茶), tea enthusiasts will find all types of Japanese green tea farms in these three prefectures. Ideal for tea tours and local historical sites, it’s no wonders its such a popular destination for tea lovers.
From the Kyoto region, we can take a small trip across Osaka Bay and around Awaji Island to Shikoku. Shikoku’s tea imprint on Japan’s overall production numbers isn’t large but there are unique and notable tea farms, nonetheless. In Tosa, for example, located in Kochi Prefecture, there are Yamaha team farms that grow tea in the “natural way”. Tea plants, in other words, have been able to grow in a non-controlled or lesser-controlled environment. Finding tea plants along a mountainside forest, tea farmers have been able to extra a rare type of tea not found across more common tea farms. While you’ll find various types of farms on Shikoku, Tosa tea stands out as a story worth telling.
Moving to our next island, we arrive at Kyushu. Let’s split Kyushu into 2 major tea “areas”: The first area comprises of Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Miyazaki. These areas grow all sorts of tea. They primarily focus on Futsu-sencha and Ooicha. In growing tea, Kyushu’s largest plain is practically perfect. The amount of rainfall in conjunction with its high daily temperatures and low nightly temperatures help develop rich and sweet tea leaves. Closer to Nagasaki, tea farmers grow the lesser-known Tamaryokucha (玉緑茶), using the Chinese method of “Kamairicha”( 釜炒り茶). You may also umbrella-shaped straw on farms in the area, using rice straw, these farms partially shade their team bushels from the sun.
Moving to the southern top of Kyushu we arrive at Kagoshima Prefecture. Second, to Shizuoka Prefecture, Kagoshima is a major production area for Japanese green tea. It has been home to tea farms since the 14th century and has slowly made a name for itself across Japan. If we look at the tea cultivars across Japan, Yabukita dominates with attaining 76% of all plants. In Kagoshima however, Yabukita accounts for approx. 41%. Given its milder climate, Kagoshima farms can focus on cultivars that may be more susceptible to colder weather such as Yutakamidori and Sae-Midori, Both of these cultivars are nonetheless sencha yet retain their uniqueness in terms of flavors and cultivation. Benifuki tea which is good for allergy is invented (cross-bred) in Kagoshima (See more about benifuuki here).
When reviewing green tea farms across Japan, the sheer variety is nearly endless: Whether you’re comparing cultivars or how the tea is grown or where the tea is grown there is something that everyone can learn. This side of Japanese green tea is a pure learning experience and reveals a humble yet special element that may be taken for granted.
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As tea lovers, it is ultimately to our benefit that the complicated world of tea is complicated! There are important distinctions to be made that help guide you to the best products to fit your need(s). One of those distinctions is to understand the importance of ichibancha (一番茶) or Shincha(新茶) or “first tea”. Let’s take a deeper look into what makes “first tea” unique and special.
We do certainly live in a very uncertain time due to the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that affected nations from all over the world.
In this blog I will be talking about how drinking green tea will help during quarantine or shall I say, quaranTEAn? Click here to read more.