I have already mentioned Akiyama Katsuhide (52 years old) many times, and I described his work in detail when I reported on a visit to his farm at the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture. This time I am publishing an interview, which can be read in parallel with the one with Hiruma Yoshiaki because the questions are so similar. (I am a terrible journalist!)
A: When I graduated from university(*1), right in the middle of the second oil crisis, Japan’s economy was at its lowest, and it seemed to me that returning to the countryside and becoming a farmer was not a bad idea.
The family farm, Akiyama-en, was fairly large and we also engaged in direct sales, so I thought there were some possibilities that could be pursued.
Q: What is special about the teas you produce?
A: In short, I would say it is “serious tea,” tea that simply expresses the flavours of the tea leaves themselves.
Q: What led you to grow such a wide variety of cultivars?
A: If you compare different cultivars with the Yabukita cultivar(*2), it is easier to understand Yabukita’s strong and weak points, and identify the special aspects of its growing method and processing more clearly. That was the initial reason.
Later, as I started to look at other features, such as the yield, whether the leaves came out late or early, the colour, etc., I started to get my hands on more and more cultivars.
What has also made it possible for me to have so many different cultivars is that there are machines that can process very small quantities, machines that we already had at home when I was in primary school.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of your way of working?
A: The biggest problem is the quantity of work owing to the fact that I do everything myself, from the raw aracha to the finished product. It’s just my nature; I cannot delegate any of my work, and I really want to make and sell a product with which I am 100% satisfied.
The big risk is that all the growing, processing and finishing methods are only in my head, and if something happened to me nothing would function anymore.
So, by doing everything myself, my labour costs are extremely low, but the weight on my shoulders is very heavy. I create lots of worries for my wife and family.
However, my teas are always well received on the market. The tea market’s judgment is a good thing that makes sure one does not rest on one’s laurels.
Q: Despite the fact that fukamushi sencha has become the standard in Japan, you still place great importance on the traditional futsumushi sencha.(*3) Why?
A: For a long time, I considered fukamushi cha to be a way of pulling the wool over people’s eyes. I visited many factories specializing in that type of processing, and it never persuaded me.
Today this is no longer the case, but there was a time when many companies made huge profits selling coloured teas, and teas with added flavouring.
I want to be known in the Japanese tea world as a purist committed to authenticity.
With the normal steaming of futsumushi cha, the fresh leaves, the qualities specific to them, are everything. There is no way to fool the drinker.
Q: In what spirit, why do you also produce black tea?
A: I am extremely interested in the characteristics of black tea cultivars developed in Japan. The way the scents change gives me the impression that I am doing magic!
When you are processing and by accident you bring out a superb scent, it is really wonderful, and my role is to make such accidents into intentional products. In one way or another, I want to establish a set mode of production. I would also like to have a strong brand image and reputation for quality for “Japanese black tea,” but I still don’t have enough experience.
Finally, black tea cultivars have very special flavours, and I think there are major possibilities for developing new products.
Q: What are you planning to do from now on?
A: The fragrance. I want to perfect tea production techniques that bring out fragrances that are still unknown. Of course, I am not talking about “scented tea,” but about elusive natural fragrances. I am also not talking about the aroma produced through roasting, but indeed about something contained naturally in raw leaves.
Q: Shizuoka Prefecture is the biggest tea-producing area in Japan. How do you see your position and that of your work in this immense tea-producing area?
A: As far as sencha goes, Shizuoka is at the forefront in terms of knowledge, techniques, human resources and research centres.
In that world, I think I am known for my research into finding responses and techniques applying to questions with no answers. By making hypotheses, I initiate questions and debates among researchers in research centres.
There is, for example, the Kôshun cultivar, which requires wilting, and the Inzatsu 131, which has too much personality to be infused, but which is very specific and unique, and opens the way to new consumer markets, even though it has been highly criticized by conservatives attached to the Yabukita cultivar.
Personally, I feel I am playing the role of a pioneer opening a way towards new tea drinkers.
Q: Japanese tea has been in difficulty for many years. How do you see its future? What do you think needs to be changed?
A: I would not dare to imagine changing anything. However, since Japanese society is ageing, it is easy to guess what kinds of changes will occur in the lifestyles of Japanese people.
If the Japanese paid attention to the French art de vivre(*4), then the type of tea I produce would have much more meaning.
However, right now the situation is still moving towards two extremes: mass market tea and tea for fans who are true connoisseurs. In other words, the bag and bottle tea school, and that of the teapot.
Awareness has to be raised of the importance of food education, which needs to be done at school. I think society is moving in this direction. The Japanese should realize the importance of culinary culture and the Japanese lifestyle.
Q: What is your personal relationship to tea?
A: Sen no Rikyû is said to have said: “When I die, tea will go out of fashion.” I would like to be able to leave behind a saying like that.
For some time now, I have had the impression that I am like a craftsman who makes musical instruments for an orchestra. An orchestra gives life to a piece of music through a wide variety of musical instruments, and I see each cultivar as a different instrument. If they are made perfectly and we succeed in arranging and playing them well, I think it will be possible to get them to produce a scintillating harmony as well as to play an accompanying role in everyone’s life.
I think that tea should not be the lead player. It cannot be the lead. I think that tea has meaning as a secondary player, an accompaniment.
To go back to the comparison with an orchestra, I am not the conductor, but a simple artisan who makes musical instruments. Antonio Stradivari was not a musician, but a craftsman.(*5).
(*1) Mr. Akiyama has a law degree from the prestigious Waseda University.
(*2) Yabukita is the most widely grown of Japanese tea cultivars, accounting for 80% of the land devoted to tea farming in Japan, and 90% in Shizuoka Prefecture!
(*3) Futsumushi: normal steaming process for leaves; the traditional method.
Fukamushi: deep steaming, a recently invented method.
(*4) In French in the original.
(*5) In junior high school, Akiyama-San enjoyed folk music and played the guitar. In senior high school, he played tenor saxophone in the brass band, and when he was at university, he became a fan of jazz-fusion.