After more than a year, on March 22, 2021, we finally could visit Tsuru san's family and their tea fields. While we met a couple of times recently at local farmer's markets in Fukuoka, and are constantly in touch online, since the start of the pandemic we hadn't been able to see them. As they are only 45 minutes away by train, this had been all the more frustrating.
Needless to say, we were looking forward to our trip to Kiyama (Saga prefecture) and on a cloudy Sunday morning, Joëlle, Jana and myself, along with our kids, boarded our train, hoping for the sun to pierce through the clouds to enjoy the view from Tsuru san's tea fields.
As many of you know, Tsuru san's teas are completely organic, with absolutely no use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This is quite rare in Japan, because of the lack of available space away from any other non-organic farming areas. To avoid cross contamination, tea farmers who wish to go completely organic need to find an ideal location, usually higher in the mountains. All of this means that growing organic teas is really difficult and requires hard work and dedication.
Tsuru san's tea fields are located at different elevations, the highest ones are difficult to reach as the road is barely a trail and any episode of heavy rain makes it impossible to access. When we visited the tea fields for the first time we could get there in the back of a small truck (to the great joy and also a bit of fear of my son when he realized how small the distance separating us to the ravine was). The view from the top of the hill was astounding.
As tradition demands, after being picked at the train station, our meeting started at Tsuru san's family home, sitting in "seiza" (on our knees) on the main tatami room, on both sides of a wonderful long wooden table. We had to catch up on so many things and also talk about new projects we would like to share with you (but...it's still a surprise for now ;). Tasting and enjoying new teas was a delight, while the kids raided all the Japanese snacks on the table.
We also talked about the current COVID-19 situation that affects many small green tea producers in Japan. Many farmers rely on popular fairs either locally or in bigger cities to sell their teas. Usually these are held around train stations for good visibility and sales. The pandemic cancelled many of them, especially the most important ones and this hit the industry hard.
Online sales are still not so popular in Japan, also because green tea is mainly considered a drink for older people (although, following the rise of interest in foreign countries, the younger generation is getting more and more interested into this local gem. A bit like Japanese whiskey... that now is enjoyed all around the world and locally).
Tsuru san told us that they were relieved that IKKYU could create this bridge for them, as they lack time and resources to focus on online retail. This way, they can only focus on the quality of their teas. We all acknowledged the situation and committed to do our best to deliver the best products possible all around the world.
After that, it was time to have visit the tea fields and have a look at the new leaves, as the first harvest was 2-3 weeks ahead.
To our surprise and pleasure the weather cleared out completely, and we had an incredible afternoon light with many insects flying around after the rain. The kids were so happy to climb around the fields with the help of Tsuru san's son.
We took the time to appreciate the color of the young leaves, the beauty of the scenery and talk about the different cultivars used for their tea. One of them is the very rare Asatsuyu (あさつゆ), also called natural "gyokuro" and known for its sweetness and low astringency.
As you see in the pictures, the tea fields are fenced, because of their proximity to a forest where wild boars roam and inflict heavy damages to the fields. We also removed bad weed together, knowing that Tsuru san's family has to this on all their fields on a regular basis as they don't use any kind of pesticide.
After that, we drove up to the second level of tea fields and enjoyed a pretty view of the valley, always surrounded by this intense green either from the tea leaves, the nearby bamboo forest...and the sweater of my son. As I shot the picture, it struck to me how fast he has grown. The sight of him looking at the sky in the middle of the tea trees and first leaves made me emotional... I kept myself busy with the pictures with his smile softly engraved in my memory.
The afternoon was getting late, and it was already time to get back to the train station, but not before properly thanking the Tsuru family for the wonderful welcome we got, with our eyes replenished with the intense colors of their tea fields. Thank you Tsuru san, and let's have a wonderful 2021 shincha! For more pictures of this short trip, have a look at our dedicated gallery.