IN SEARCH OF TOSA CHA
Kōchi, Shikoku Island
The once much better-known tea from Kōchi prefecture is now disappearing. On Shikoku Island more than anywhere else in Japan, the aging population struggles to maintain its craft. The market keeps shrinking every year and what youth remains on the island shows no interest in trying to revitalize it. Being a tea farmer on Shikoku is hard work and pays very little money. Nonetheless, there are still pockets of hard-leathered individuals making a living out of it.
Finding such pockets proved to be quite a challenge. I set out to meet tea farmers having no prior knowledge of where to find them, except somewhere in Kōchi prefecture ("Tosa", as in Tosa cha, is the old name of Kōchi prefecture). So I turned on Google Maps' satellite view, looked around for tea farms and spotted a few. I drove to a couple of locations and found actual tea fields, but very little tea to buy or to taste. Selling tea here is too hard, so most farmers don't bother with it. They simply bring their leaves to the nearest JA factory ("Japan Agriculture") and let them take care of them. In return, the association gives them money. Just a bit more than nothing.
So one farmer leads me to another, and this one to another and another, and at one point someone says there's a factory NOT run by JA in a neighboring village. So I reached my first pocket of Tosa cha just before nightfall on Day 1.
Driving up and down the mountains following the trails, I'm literally hunting tea. This gives meaning to my work. But I'm also in the middle of Golden Week (a national holiday) and I've got no plan and no reservation anywhere. Everything is booked, everywhere. No choice but to camp on a public beach. The night is fresh, the food is cold but my heart is warm.
Tomorrow, the hunt continues.
Ikegawa, Shikoku Island
The Niyodo river ("Niyodogawa") in Kōchi prefecture is known to be one of the cleanest river in Japan. People from across the country come here on vacation to paddle board or camp on its shores. Enough people anyway to run a profitable cafe selling local tea and tea sweets. This is where the story becomes interesting. These teas do not come from the big JA factory in the village. The JA factories operate on a very large scale and this one, like the others, is mostly concerned with selling wholesale tea to other markets. No, this tea comes from a smaller factory and is locally branded.
To be fair, this quest for Tosa tea has been a sad one so far. The hunt is exciting but everywhere I look, the signs all point towards a disappearing craft in these rural regions of Japan. The elderly farmers are everywhere working way past the age of retirement and none of them have any plans for succession. Their tea fields are either abandoned or repurposed for a more profitable farming industry.
Actually, not everywhere. Some pockets of farmers here and there still maintain enough of an economy to sell their teas locally without having to deal with JA. In Ikegawa, eight families have gathered together and built a farming cooperative, They sell their teas both locally and to other markets. Their effort appears to be relatively successful because, for the first time since I arrived on Shikoku, I met a young tea farmer. Younger than me...
The tea produced in Ikegawa is soft and lightly umami, almost void of bitterness. In many ways, it seems to share the village's spirit. Every producer I've spoken with, every factory employee, and even the two locals to whom I had to ask for direction, all answered me with a smile. This is for sure the first Tosa tea I'll be bringing back home. I've settled for a smooth and elegant sencha (Yabukita) and a very limited quantity of Kabusecha (there's literally one plot used to make shaded tea in the village). And I'm so excited to share it.
Kurohara, Shikoku Island
In Kurohara, where Okabayashi-san lives, there used to be more than 100 acres of tea farms not so long ago. Today, less than 10 acres remain. Okabayashi-san owns about 3 of them.
The tea around Niyodogawa (the town bearing the same name as the river) is all transformed at the local JA factory ("Japan Agriculture"). Okabayashi-san leads the local association of farmers who use it to make a living. And he's the only one who doesn't sell all of his production to JA. He keeps about 2/5 of what he can harvest and tries to sell it himself.
Selling tea is the hardest part of being a tea producer in Japan. Making good tea is not nearly as difficult. The tea drinkers market has gotten so small that whoever doesn't have the necessary skills or energy to sell on his/her own has to go through JA. And JA doesn't pay well. Not well at all...
Okabayashi-san works with his wife to sell their tea wherever they can. To local tourist spots and cafes, to supermarkets, and to whoever seems lost enough to set foot in Kurohara. His wife lived in Kyoto and is a certified senchado teacher ("the way of sencha"). A rare skill in these regions. And they produce single-origin teas. I mean, what are the odds?
Okabayashi-san does not only produces excellent sencha (they really are), but he also likes to explore other types of transformation such as shaded tea (kabusecha), black tea, and oolong tea. I haven't tasted everything yet but what I've tried was impressive. Okabayashi-san has gardens in the mountains and in the plains, but because he's now old and hired help is very limited, he mainly focuses on the plains. With modern machinery, they are much easier to produce. Nonetheless, he keeps harvesting mountain tea every year. A little bit. Each year less than the year before. Too bad, he says, because there are great teas that can be made from the Zairai trees high up the slopes. "But it's just not worth it anymore. A shame, really, because the trees were planted by my grandfather in 1932 and their taste is so unique."
When I said this Tosa tea sourcing quest was a bit sad, this is what I meant. 91 years old seed-grown heritage mountain tea trees are left abandoned because they're not worth the trouble anymore. Okabayashi-san offered to come and see the trees with him. He's going to make one more harvest this year but this will most likely be their last yield. My tea hunt is turning into historical record...