The brilliant tea producer from Saitama Prefecture, Hiruma Yoshiaki 比留間嘉章, agreed to answer my questions. Always among the winners in competitions, a hand-rolling (temomi 手揉み) artist, he is renowned for his senchas produced using a wilting technique that creates fragrance new to Japan.
In the summer of my last year of senior high school, I had still not decided what path I would take in the future, and my father suggested that I could perhaps go and study tea farming in Shizuoka. At that time I was a member of the track and field club and was considering possibly becoming a gym teacher, but I followed by father’s suggestion and entered the tea farming section in the Shizuoka Prefectural Agricultural College. With my diploma in hand, I began working with my father.
Could you tell us what is special about the tea you produce?
The most original thing is without a doubt my ultraviolet wilting system.
I think that all tea factories are designed to achieve a certain originality, but mine has the very personal special feature of giving tea a “wilted fragrance.”(*1).
Why do you have such a strong interest in the tea wilting process, which does not seem to be very common in Japanese tea production techniques, and in black and semi-fermented teas (*3)?
Even when it is not consciously employed in order to create a fragrance, wilting processes are nothing special in Japan. They are an integral part of the drying process.
In my case, I am interested in the wide range of fragrances that can be brought out thanks to wilting.
This does not apply to green tea only; it is a powerful tool for innovation in tea production.
Nonetheless, learning and perfecting such a technique must not have been easy in Japan. How did you study?
Originally, it was not voluntary: one of my teas chanced to have that specific fragrance, and one of my buyers really liked it. So, I had to experiment to be able to meet the client’s demand.
Rather than getting outside advice, I perfected my techniques gradually, through trial and error. Then, in reverse, when I started to become known for my unusual work, I started receiving a lot of help and advice, which allowed me to progress further.
Also, I have been lucky to be able to go and study tea production in Taiwan many times. I have learned a lot from that.
Do you have a specific goal that leads you to produce black and semi-fermented teas? Have your experiences given you insights into sencha production?
My ultimate goal is really to be able to give sencha an attractive fragrance.
Whether what is in question is black tea or semi-fermented tea, I always aim to create high-quality products, but at the same time, I do not want to make products that exist only for themselves.
What challenges are you facing now?
It seems to me that I do not have time to create teas that are completely new, so I need to focus on trying to produce a very personal fragrance.
Tea’s flavour is largely dependent on the way the tea plant is grown, but the fragrance is determined after picking, when the tea is processed.
I would like to succeed in producing a tea that has enough taste as a sencha, but a fragrance full of personality.
What is special about teas from Saitama Prefecture (*4)? What is your position on them?
Since the same cultivars and also the same machines are used everywhere in Japan, I think that regional differences among teas have been reduced.
I think that it would be good to do as in Kagoshima, and grow cultivars that are typical of the region, using appropriate farming and processing methods. However, today in Saitama, nothing like this is having any major impact.
The only thing is what is known as “Saitama bi-ire” (*5), but it is originally a hand-roasting method, and when it is done by machine, the same thing can be achieved anywhere that the same machine is used.
Among Saitama tea producers, I am considered a little eccentric.
We often hear people speak of “Sayama bi-ire,” but what is it more precisely? Is tea still hand roasted in Japan?
I think that there is probably almost no commercially produced hand roasted tea any more.
I am the President of the Sayama Hi-ire Preservation Association. Sayama hi-ire hand roasting was done on a hoiro (*6), and the members of the association are the same as those of the Iruma City Hand-Rolled Tea Preservation Association.
What is special about Sayama bi-ire, is the importance placed on very thorough drying. The fact that it is not considered to be an advantage to have a strong roasted fragrance is interesting. (…) In the phase when the leaves are rubbed, they become covered in a kind of white powder, and it is said that this slows down the tea’s deterioration. Thus, during the great period of Japanese tea exports (*7), this “white tea” was very sought after. .
Japanese tea has been experiencing difficulties for some years now. How do you see its future? What changes do you think are needed?
At a time when culture, culinary culture in particular, is undergoing deep changes, it seems to me unlikely that the demand for loose tea will increase.
Should we work on offering a food culture in accord with Japanese tea? Or, on the contrary, should we develop new tea in accord with today’s food culture?
In either case, it is something impossible to achieve at the individual level. A broad movement led by the authorities and major enterprises is required.
You are a grand master of the technique for hand-rolling tea. In what spirit do you try to maintain and transmit this technique?
I do not think that I am a grand master of the technique, but in any case, hand rolling tea seems to me to be a magnificent traditional art.
Yet, even though I am speaking of tradition, when you consider the very long history of tea, this technique is not even 300 years old, and it cannot be said to be completely perfect yet.
So long as there are young people to perpetuate it, I will work in the spirit more of training than of preservation.
What is your personal relationship to tea?
I am a tea producer, but at the same time I am also a great fan of tea. Thus, just as for the tea that I produce, I expect the tea that I buy to be of the highest quality.
Do you have a message for fans of Japanese tea around the world?
Just as I have had few occasions to be in contact with the world abroad, I think that the chances of finding the teas they desire to be very limited for foreigners.
I hope that they will be able to try those teas, that they will be authentic teas, teas that suit them, and I would be very happy if some of my teas were among those available for them to try.
Teas by Hiruma Yoshiaki at Teas of Japan:
(*1): ichô-ka 萎凋香 is the floral fragrance produced by wilted tea leaves.
(*2): Hiruma UVT, patented machine used on all sencha lines in Mr. Hiruma’s factory.
(*3): Semi-fermented teas are in fact “semi-oxidized teas,” in other words, teas that have been heated in a metal pan to stop oxidation. (This is the Chinese method, in contrast with the Japanese method, in which steam is used.)
(*4): A prefecture located just north of Tokyo. The teas produced there are called Sayama Teas.
(*5): From “hi-ire” (火入れ), a form of roasting, the final drying stage for tea.
(*6): The hoiro 焙炉 is the rectangular surface on which Japanese tea is rolled. It is made up of a hearth, a source of heat, over which is placed a piece of Japanese paper reinforced by a metal frame.
(*7): In the second half of the nineteenth century, sencha became such a major export product that it was second only to silk as a driving force behind Japan’s growth. For more information, see the article here.
Interview: Florent Weugue
Photographs: Hiruma Yoshiaki