Tokoname

On the way to Shizuoka Prefecture, after a few days in Kyoto and Uji, we decide to stop in the Nagoya prefecture in a small town named Tokoname, one of the historical cities of Japanese pottery. Our discovery of Japan tea would not be complete without a visit to one of the pottery centers of the country. Japanese teapots with their so special shapes are as renowned as their Chinese neighbors.

Tokoname is a small town on the east coast of Honshu Island. The city has carried out an impressive renovation of its historical and economic heritage.

The craftsmen of Tokoname began with the construction of terracotta pipes for the conveyance of water and electricity. The manufacture of teapots and other accessories for tea came afterwards. We walk in the small restored city center and plunge quickly into the atmosphere.

The streets are paved with bursts of pottery and many brick kilns are still in very good condition with their high chimneys. Next to them, we see large black wooden buildings which were used as workshops. In the golden age of the city, it had more than 300 chimneys.

We visit one of these great kilns.

A vaulted brick room housed the pottery to be cooked. The fire was lit on the sides which heated the bricks. The heat rose and then descended to the ground where a grating allowed the heat to flow in the pipe of the chimney. The largest kiln in the city consists of a series of adjacent kilns built on a slight slope. Thus the heat rises from oven to oven and the highest has a chimney to evacuate the smoke.

Today these kilns are no longer used, the potters preferred smaller kilns that they can dispose in their workshop.

Then, we stop by the workshop of a potter who he is devoted to the art of clay teapot. We had the chance to discover his work and his techniques. He starts his turning machine and picks up some terracotta. With his hands, he shapes very quickly two cups and then the lid of a teapot. Always with the same piece of clay, he creates a teapot and his flared handle, so specific to Japanese teapots. Precise, fast, in 15 minutes we have a full tea set in front of us!
What seems so easy to us requires years of training, he also teaches pottery to students. He explains by gestures (he does not speak English) that it is finished for today because it will be necessary to heat the pieces first to be able to keep working on them. In his shop, he shows us the different models of Japanese pottery.

Did you know ?

Japanese teapots are called “Kyusu”. Made in clay, they incorporate a filter which let past the micro particles of tea, beneficial for health.

There are several models :

– The Yokode that have a side handle (the most common model)
– The ushirode who have a dorsal handle
– The Uwades who have a handle (like the Chinese teapots)

After this first visit, we visit other workshops and shops where craftsmen redouble in creativity and originality. As in Yixing , in China, the master potters create piece of art sold several hundred (even thousand) of euros. We finally crack for a small Kyusu Yokode teapot for our Japanese green tea consumption. Our collection of teapots doesn’t stop growing!

Shizuoka

The day after, we take the bus along the east coast. Our next destination is the city of Shizuoka, capital of the prefecture of the same name. Country’s first producing region, it is the land of Sencha, which represents about 80% of Japan’s production.

Did you know ?

Four annual harvests punctuate the life of the Shizuoka producers : the 1st harvest from late March to early June (the spring harvest, the most popular season), the 2nd harvest in late June, the 3rd in early August and the 4th in autumn.

After the harvest, the leaves are directly steamed to stop the oxidation process. Then the leaves are cooled and rolled into fine needles. To do this, the leaves pass in successive machines. In Japan, everything is automated. The last machine is dedicated to drying. For 20 to 30 minutes, the leaves are subjected to a temperature of more than 80 ° in order to leave only 5% of moisture. It only remains to select the leaves and remove the dust and the sencha is ready to be sold!

When we arrive in Shizuoka the weather is covered as often in August. Do you know these pictures of Japanese tea plantations with Mount Fuji as a backdrop? Well, it is in this region that we can see these landscapes. Obviously, when the weather is good!

We take a bus to go one hour from Shizuoka, up a hill from where you can enjoy a beautiful view of Mount Fuji and the tea plantations. In theory … Arriving to the top, we find the perfectly aligned and trimmed tea trees with a great regularity but not Mount Fuji … It is well hidden by the clouds, so we will not have in our album THE perfect picture with tea and the iconic mountain of Japan. Never mind !

We go back to the plains of Shizuoka and take the train to go around. This trip allows us to discover the huge sencha plantations. Their perfect alignment and the flat terrain allow a mechanization of the harvest as we had already seen in Kenya (link). With 4 harvests per year and an expensive workforce, the machines ensure a better economic return. These ultramodern machines of extreme precision manage to harvest only the young sprouts of tea. A technical exploit! Mechanization and automation have no secret for the Japanese…

Shizuoka Prefecture also has the particularity of being one of the most northerly tea-producing areas in the world. Therefore, producers must fight against the cold winter or even frost. To fight against the cold and improve yield, the Japanese created a cultivar named Yabukita. This is the most common cultivar in Japan, estimated at 75% of the tea plants. The Yabukita has everything to appeal to Japanese: it resists the cold, offers an interesting productivity and adapts itself to its environment. The cultivar reaches maturity after 4 years and produces young sprouts for 45 years. The profitability is thus excellent for the producers. Used in 90% of Japanese plantations for sencha production, it presents a risk for the next years. Indeed, if one day an insect or disease destroy the cultivar, all plantations would be threatened.

Japan’s domestic consumption is such that it absorbs almost all annual production. Japan imports tea leaves from China and Taiwan to compensate for its lack of plantations. Not easy to extend the plantations on an archipelago where the lack of place is everywhere!

Concerning sencha, spring harvest is the most popular and often an indicator of the quality of the harvests to come. Therefore, it is examines with attention in the microcosm of tea.

After traveling around the city, we enjoy fresh raw fish accompanied by a sencha, a delight in this harbor city that lives from tea and fishing!

Tokyo

We continue our journey northwards to reach, still by bus, one of the biggest megacities in the world: Tokyo. 4 days to plunge in this world full of fantasy and amazing contrasts!

After enjoying the crazy Tokyo, we take advantage of a rainy afternoon to discover a tea house, Torindo in the Ueno district.

The matcha bowl that the friendly owner prepares for us is accompanied by a wagachi, a Japanese pastry. When tasting the matcha, always start with the pastry, the bitterness of the matcha will be softened by the sweet flavors still on our taste buds.

This cozy tea room in modern tones serves a delicious matcha, very well prepared!

As we learned in Kyoto, the preparation of a good matcha requires training!

Did you know ?

Traditional Japanese pastries or wagachi have an important place in the consumption of tea. In any tea house, a wagashi will always come with matcha, gyokuro or sencha. These pastries are often made from rice paste or beans. The wagachi is sometimes omogashi, it means with soft paste but you can also have a higashi, meaning with hard paste. There are a multitude of them: not knowing the Japanese pastry, we always let the waiters choose for us. And we were never disappointed! Always nicely presented, they have a delicate taste but can sometimes seem sweet enough for our westerner’s palate.

After couple of days in Tokyo, it is now time for us to think about our next step which is not a tea-producing country … We are going to Mongolia and then to Russia where, who knows, new discoveries around tea maybe await us …

See you soon !

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