It is a gorgeous November day, over 20°C (68°F) with a beautiful blue sky; the only clouds I can see are those maliciously hiding Mt. Fuji. I am in the valleys in the countryside around Fuji City, visiting Akiyama Katsuhide, many of whose teas I present in my selection.
His numerous tea gardens, or rather “gardenettes,” since so many of them are so small, are located at an altitude of 300-400 metres (around 1000-1300 feet). This does not make them mountain teas, but the environment is nonetheless very different from the plains that are home to most of the teas produced in Japan. This is especially since in this region, when you are above 200 meters (around 650 feet), the fields are already covered in mist in the morning.
In this season, the third harvest is finished, and most of the pre-winter pruning is too. In Akiyama San’s gardens, there are two clearly different kinds of fields. There are those that are perfectly pruned, with the typical shape of tea plants in Japan. These take up the greatest portion of his fields, and they are picked (and pruned) mechanically. The other fields are more disheveled, and a little taller; they are picked and pruned by hand. In general, the hand-picked plants are harvested only once, and in some cases there are no more than a dozen plants.
One of the special characteristics of this producer is the incredible number of cultivars that he grows and experiments with: 40 in all, not counting those that he has not found satisfactory and that he no longer grows, from the most widespread of Japanese Yabukita cultivars to Taiwanese cultivars, such as Jinxuan, and including black tea cultivars, such as Benifuki. The list is long. Of course, in many cases he has only a few plants, which he uses in experiments. Those that he likes best, the most promising, will be planted in relatively larger number. Thus, he has many plantations of young bushes (less than 3 years old) that will be transplanted later.
Mr. Akiyama’s gardens are inspired by fragrance. He is seeking to bring greater fragrance to Japanese teas through the use of cultivars. He is a passionate advocate of futsumushi-cha (normal steamed tea) as opposed to fukamushi-cha (deep steamed tea), or at least as opposed to fukamushi when it is designed to camouflage poor quality materials. Normal steaming is also better for bringing out the fragrance of the tea leaves. To maintain the natural fragrance of the leaves of these famous cultivars, he prefers a light hi-ire (final drying stage, a kind of roasting).
He studies each cultivar one by one, and conducts experiments, first with a few plants, which are often simply grown along the edges of the fields. Later, for some of them, he creates gardens, which are very often small. Nothing is on a grand scale in his gardens, aside from his passion for tea and tea growing. According to him, each cultivar requires different treatment and maintenance, and it is only through trial and error that one can discover how to bring out the best in a variety.
He considers that even the hour at which the leaves are picked influences the tea’s fragrance.
He thus hopes to be able, for example, to find the ideal conditions to enhance the citrus fragrance of the Shôshun cultivar that he has created, in the same way that he has understood the ideal time and conditions to (hand) harvest Kôshun (photo below).
Akiyama San uses no chemical fertilizers, and as little fertilizer as possible in general (it all depends on the needs of each cultivar). Fertilizers increase the quantity of amino acids in the tea, thereby making it sweeter. However, at the same time they lead to a loss of the tea’s natural fragrance. This is, it seems, even more of a problem when the tea is wilted. Indeed, this may be why the finest Chinese and Taiwanese teas are grown without fertilizer.