Wazuka: Home of Varietal Sencha Tea

Today we travelled one and a half hours by train and bus from Kyoto to Wazuka to tour d:Matcha’s tea operations.
Wazuka is a centre of boutique green tea production in Japan. Other regions have larger commercial operations. Wazuka has fewer fields, mostly family-run farms and higher quality products. D:Matcha is a newcomer to the town. It was started by a handful of young people with degrees in Agriculture and a lot of ambition. Now, in its sixth year, many staff are people who came on a tour like we did.

As with wine, lobelia, dahlias or most other plants, there are a great many cultivars. Each has its own flavour profile. The most distinguishing features are the colour of the leaves and the harvesting time. The plant is camellia senesis, and Japanese tea is most like Chinese tea, rather than Indian, Sri Lankan or Kenyan tea. The latter tend to be processed as black tea.

Processing impacts the flavour, as does the cultivar. In Wazuka, every effort is made to harvest in the morning and process in the afternoon. Many farmers have their own processing shed adjacent to their house. D:Matcha’s shed is across the street and a few houses down from their retail store. They process tea in 60 kg batches and during the lucrative Spring harvest. A day’s cuttings can be 300 kg, and batches are spaced more than 30 minutes apart. These are long days with all hands on deck.

Sencha green tea is steamed, then dried. Machines take out all but 5% of the moisture and cut the leaves into 1.5 cm long strips. Drying is done in a series of three or four machines, sometimes in drums, sometimes on conveyors.

A tea plant is productive for about forty years, and takes five to reach harvestable status. Farmers get shoots through the government. If someone wants a tea plant in their home garden, they must buy and germinate seeds.

Tea needs a lot of moisture. It grows best in areas that get more than 1,000 mm of rain annually. It likes fog, which helps trap the warmth. Farmers have automated fans in the fields to help keep the ground warm when there’s a threat of frost. Sometimes the plants are shaded, and this action changes the flavour profile. More antioxidants, less bitterness.
in keeping with its desire to promote cultivars, d:Matcha publishes the cultivar name, harvest date and number of days shaded on its packaging.

There are three harvests a year. The first is the most lucrative, and is 50 times more valuable than the third October harvest. Tea harvested in June brings in about a third as much as the May harvest, and d:Matcha uses much of this harvest to make confectionery. We has some tea chocolates that were wonderful.

After our tour of the fields, we went inside the brand new cafe/gift shop for a tasting. Sencha, we were told, should be brewed at 70 to 80 degrees Celsius. Our three samples tasted nothing like the Sencha I prepare at home. They had umami galore, with the Gokuo having the most robust flavour. This cultivar was shaded for 15 days, and was the last to be harvested.

We also whipped up our own matcha, having tried our hand at grinding it. Matcha is much smoother, though I’m not a fan.

The tour included lunch, with several gluten free options. I chose some brown rice noodles in a peanut sauce.

The tour was wonderful. We booked before leaving Canada, and ended up being the only two people. There is another company in Wazuka that offers tours. These are given by interns who may not have the same passion for the industry. Our guides were informative, invested and spoke excellent English. They even helped us make our bus.

d:Matcha has an informative website, with information in English and videos with subtitles. We learned about it from the YouTube channel “Life Where I’m From”.