Interview with Mr. Hideki Kakiuchi and Mr. Tetsuya Yasui

Ujitawara, Birthplace of the Green Tea called Sencha.

Mr. Hideki Kakiuchi and Mr. Tetsuya Yasui, they are green tea producers whose families have owned ancestral tea plantations for more than 500 years, and who own the innovative tea producing and marketing business Kyoto Chaen (Kyoto Tea Plantation). They work hard during the spring-summer seasons at their tea plantations. They explained about the important history of green tea in Japan.

Green tea is famous worldwide now; how has it been developed in Japan? Modern green tea history dates back to the end of the 12th century. Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, brought the plant called tea (cha in Japanese) from China. In the beginning, tea was used as medicine. Eisai explained its efficiency in his book called “Kissa Yojo-Ki (Drinking Tea for a Healthy Life). From Zen monks who did not want to fall asleep during meditation, and then through aristocrats and samurais, tea drinking customs have spread throughout Japan. From the end of the Kamakura period, around the beginning of the 14th century, a type of powdered tea (the origin of Matcha) became popular among samurai warriors, and that led to the aesthetic aspects of drinking tea, including the appreciation of tea bowls, containers, and decorations such as flowers and calligraphy. In the 16th century the great tea master Sen no Rikyu developed Sado, Tea Ceremony, as the consummate total art form.

In 1738, during the Edo period, in the place called Ujitawara, near Kyoto, Nagatani Soen discovered the way of preparing green tea leaves by steaming only new leaves, to make Sencha (regular green tea), which has a clear green color, a nice aroma and a good taste. Soen is now enshrined in the Shinto shrine next to his birthplace on the hill in Ujitawara as the inventor of Sencha. And since then, the most high quality green tea has been developed in this historic place.

Hideki Kakiuchi used to work in the post office, but he decided to succeed as the 22nd generation head of his family business, and started to work at the family tea plantation. He found a fellow tea developer in Tetsuya Yasui, who also succeeded to his own ancestral tea plantation business. They both grew up in Ujitawara, and both families have stayed rooted in this region from generation to generation. They both could easily accept their fates to keep their tea plantations as their family heritage.

How several different types of green tea are produced, and what is Gyokuro: the most high-quality tea in this particular region called Ujitawara

In Japan there is a traditional song called Chatsumi, Picking Tea Leaves, which starts with the lyric “the 88th night when the summer season will start soon”.  That means they start to pick new tea leaves around 88 days after the vernal equinox in the lunar calendar.  The high season of picking new tea leaves (first flash) is actually the beginning of May, when the early morning  mist still covers the hilly tea plantations. 

 

In Ujitawara, for the last several days before the first flash they cover tea plants with black sheets until just before picking the new leaves. With these fresh new leaves they make mainly the high quality green tea called Gyokuro, as well as Tencha for making Matcha (powdered green tea for Tea Ceremony).  Gyokuro is high ranked tea which develops a good savor because of the covered black sheet. New leaves stop photosynthesis and increase Umami (an Amino acid) by reducing Tannin (bitter taste). Gyokuro is considered as the highest ranked most expensive steeped green tea. But you have to be careful in making this tea because the good savor (Umami) can be elicited only with tepid water of less than 60 degrees centigrade (140 degrees Fahrenheit). On the other hand, Tencha is made by steaming new leaves and grinding them by stone mill into powder. This powdered tea has been used mainly for Tea Ceremony, but nowadays Matcha is also used for ice cream and sweets.   These two kinds of tea (Gyokuro and Tencha) are only made from these tea leaves cared for in this special way.  In the processing of Gyokuro, the same as Sencha, between the steaming and drying procedures they are kneaded (nowadays by machine). Before the second flash around June, the tea leaves grow under the flaming sun and are cut for other types of tea such as Sencha and roasted tea called Bancha.

 

The big difference between Japanese green tea and English black tea is that the green tea is not fermented while the black tea is fermented. (Chinese Oolong tea is half fermented.)  Green tea contains more vitamin B and C than black tea, which is one reason why we believe that Japanese green tea is good for health.

Revolution: standing apart from the traditional business processes. Now their challenge, as the founders of Kyoto Chaen, is expanding their own market and developing new tea products to enhance their capacity for a world-wide sales plan.

In the typical way of tea sales, tea producers offer their tea to the wholesalers, whose professional tea tasters evaluate each tea, and finally tea shops buy the different types of tea according to the evaluations, for blending and making their own shop’s special tea, to which they give the same name every year.  In this pyramid shaped hierarchical society, the tea producers have to stay in the bottom place, and even though they know the qualities of their own tea, they can’t do anything for the creation of any tea products.  And wholesalers (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives) control all the procedures for taking profits.  Mr. Kakiuchi and Mr. Yasui resist the limits in this prevalent conservative system and try to innovate.

 

That is why they started their own company, called Kyoto Chaen, and from producing to packaging and selling they try to do every step all by themselves.  For finding new markets they have started new products such as black tea using Gyokuro leaves.  They prepared a special facility for producing only black tea products.  Kyoto Chaen’s black tea can be found at the local food shops in Ujitawara.

 

Their challenge is still going on, such as making organic green tea for export to European countries where  strict regulations have to be met.  They are researching making new products such as flavored organic green teas with rose, yuzu citron, and ginger flavors.  They are expanding into new markets, for example to major hotels in Kyoto where you can find their welcoming green tea-bags in the rooms.

 

They also want to reintroduce Chakabuki, which was popular during the 13th century. It was a traditional game in which people guess which kinds of tea by smell and taste.  Their continuous innovations enhance the attraction of real green tea worldwide and they hope that their children will succeed to the family businesses and Kyoto Chaen in the future.

If you would like to get more information about Mr.Kakiuchi and Mr. Yasui and their tea company, Kyoto Chaen, please contact us and we will be happy to arrange a special visit.