Kumamoto's tea field
in the clouds
The prefectural border between Kumamoto and Kagoshima. Verdant tea fields spread with Shimabara’s Mount Unzen in Nagasaki to the West and the hills of a mountain plateau at an altitude of 600 m overlooking Kirishima in Kagoshima to the South. This area where winds strong enough to make “rocks fly” blow is known as Ishitobi (flying rocks), the birthplace of Minamata tea. This area is unusual even for Japan as trees of local tea species which were planted about 90 years before can still be found here. We visited the tea plantation where the tea leaves which are picked are processed into green tea and Japanese black tea, and where a cultivation method without the use of agricultural chemicals was introduced.
Chiran tea from Kagoshima prefecture which boasts the second highest production levels in the countries heads the list, and other teas include Yame tea from Fukuoka prefecture, Miyazaki tea from Miyazaki prefecture and Ureshino tea from Saga prefecture. In Kyushu, there are numerous tea producing areas which are some of the leading areas in the country, and the teas they produce are eponymously named. “Minamata tea,” which we will introduce here, has a history which is rather different from those tea producing areas, and this tea is made from precious local species of tea bearing trees which are cultivated with a very distinctive method. Approximately 30 minutes by car from the center of Minamata. We arrived at the Ishitobi area, which is one of the areas where Minamata tea is grown, and it is in fact said to be the birthplace of Minamata tea. The history of cultivation in this area has its beginnings about 90 years ago in the Taisho Period, when Masanosuke Nonen who had studied agriculture in America started development of the land and planted the seed of tea trees. It was agriculture on a major scale which anticipated the future mechanization of the industry. During the Second World War, the tea fields were devastated at one point. However, after approximately 10 years had elapsed since the war’s end, around 60 households newly came and settled as a group in the area. Then they reclaimed the devastated lands, and they regrew
Mr. Shigeru Amano from “Amano Seichaen” who has been involved with tea production since the generation of his father, one of the original settlers, is a farmer involved in the production, processing and sales of a combined total of about 6 t of green and black tea on a tea field of 6 ha. The tea field we were shown to filled us with a sense of freedom, with nothing to block the view as far as the eye can see. It is also called the “Tea Field in the Clouds.” The entire area consists of cold uplands at an altitude of 600 m. The soil is volcanic ash. Mr. Amano says “Tea leaves grown on a plateau with variations in hot and cold temperatures produce tea which is extremely fragrant with vibrant color.” The Ishitobi area meets all the conditions required to grow good quality tea.
It has been 40 years since Mr. Amano, who took over from his father soon after graduating from high school, started cultivating tea without using agricultural chemicals. One of the reasons behind this was the existence of Minamata disease. The fact that the area of production was Minamata had an effect on sales, even for tea grown deep in the mountains. Mr.Amano says “It was not only tea. The time when people would not buy agricultural products from Minamata went on quite a while.” He says that even if he wanted to change from local species, each and every one of which had very distinct characteristics and was hard to manage, to species that would be easy to cultivate, he was not able to raise the funds to buy the seedlings. However, it is that very factor that is now having the opposite effect. It has become a tea field that grows local species which are rare anywhere in Japan.
Mr. Amano looks back on that time and says “Even if I continued to cultivate and process the tea, as soon as I said it came from Minamata no one would buy it. I just didn’t feel it was worth doing, but then I decided that I just had to face the facts.” Then he happened to come across a book on natural agricultural methods written by Masanobu Fukuoka, and he began to implement cultivation without the use of agricultural chemicals. He firmly states “Living here, I came face to face with Minamata disease. That is precisely why I thought of creating something that could be consumed safely and with complete peace of mind.” Since he also doesn’t use herbicides, he has his hands full with weeding from spring to autumn. He grins and says “Summer is hot, but we do get a nice wind blowing here,” and that grin cannot hide his strong determination to continue cultivation without agricultural chemicals.
Tea farmers turn the tea leaves they have picked and cultivated into tea and ship them as a finished product. Mr. Amano explains “Nibancha (second picked tea leaves) tend to go brown when insects come. I felt it was such a waste because even though I cultivated it without agricultural chemicals, any value as green tea was lost, so I thought I would turn it into black tea” which became the impetus for him starting to produce Japanese Black Tea. This meant that his concept of making the most of one product led him to take on the challenge of turning green tea varieties into black tea. Now Japanese Black Tea has come to comprise 80% of the tea he produces. The tea created by his method of heating and special fermentation techniques amongst others make for a finished product that is highly individual with a memorable taste.
The cafe where you will be welcomed by Ms. Michiyo Amano. In addition to Japanese Black Tea, you can also order a cake set. They also sell tea from Amano Seichaen.
Ishizakagawa, Minamata, Kumamoto prefecture
Report cooperation provided by/Amano Seichaen
370-85 Ishizakagawa, Minamata, Kumamoto prefecture