Kyôto, Uji, the land of Yamashiro, an history of tea in Japan

Whatever the reality is, it remains true that the name “Uji tea” continues to make the the tea sale. Uji tea does not mean tea produced in the city of Uji only, but in the whole Kyôto prefecture, mainly in the area south of the Kyoto city, Uji in the north and Minami-yamashiro in the South. Nevertheless, “Uji tea” may in fact also contain a certain proportion of teas produced in neighboring prefecture of Shiga (east) and Nara (south) but also Mie (northeast).

Main tea-producing areas in Kyoto

The history of tea in this area is long, and one can even say that it is the center responsible for the spread of tea and tea culture in Japan.

In the 9th century, back from China, the monks Saichô, Kukai, and more especially Eichû brought back tea. The latter, in a monastery at the foot of Mt. Hiei, on the current Shiga prefecture side (one can see here the origins of Asamiya tea), served tea to the Emperor Saga who recognized the medicinal values and ordered to produce it in several places in the Kansai region, but there is actually no real trace or even documents. The only specifically identifiable older plantation in documents is the so-called Daidairi plantation, which was located in the northeast corner of the Imperial Palace in Heian-kyô (the former name of Kyôto). The tea was used for Buddhist rituals.

It is in 1191 when Monk Eisai (or Yôsai) came back from his 2nd trip to China that the history of Uji tea, and therefore Japanese tea, really begins. This monk, founder of the Rinzai Buddhist school (zen) in Japan is also the one who brought from China tea seeds and a method of making: that of matcha.
After returning to Kyôto, he would have in 1207 offered tea tree seeds to Monk Myôe, founder of the Kôzanji monastry in Toganoo 栂ノ尾, northwest of Kyôto, where he planted those seeds. This is the beginning of the “Toganoo tea”, the most famous then. Today nothing remains of these plantations of Toganoo, and the so called “oldest tea plantation” found inside the Kôzanji was planted in a later period. It is also Myôe who recommend tea growing in Uji. But this tea that grows in Uji, then in the rest of Japan during the Middle Ages did not have the status of one of Toganoo.
It grows among the ruling class of warriors a trend for competition where they were to distinguish “honcha” 本茶, authentic tea, from “hicha” 非茶, lower tea. The “honcha” was that from Toganoo the “hicha” designating all others.
However, documents show that from the second half of the 14th century, tea from Uji acquires more recognition. It is also in a 1374 document that the term “Uji-cha” 宇治茶, Uji tea, appears for the first time.
It is finally in the early 15th century that Uji tea is elevated to “honcha” exceeding in notoriety that of Toganoo.
With the rise of the Uji tea, there appeared in the 16th century the “seven famous plantations ” six very famous tea gardens which were governed by five families of Chashi 茶師, tea masters, to which was added that of Kanbayashi family. Moreover, the teas of the seven famous plantations were associated with “seven famous waters”The only one of these plantations to have crossed the times until today is called Okunoyama. This is among the “zairai” tea plants (no clonal cultivar but trees grown from seeds), of this plantation that were selected in the 80’s the Narino and Okunoyama cultivars. “Zairai” tea plants have since were replaced by cultivars.
The right of saling tencha 碾茶 (raw material which is ground to give matcha) was reserved for a number of Chashi families. During the Momoyama period, after the death of Oda Nobunaga under the dominance of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Kanbayashi family took a very important development, before becoming in early 17th century with the beginning of the Tokugawa government in Edo (old name Tokyo), the undisputed leader of the tea “industry” in Uji.
The government then set up a system allowing the culture of tencha to only about 50 family in Uji and elsewhere it was forbidden to cultivate shaded tea. This system was maintained until the restoration of imperial power in the late 19th century.
While matcha was the prerogative of the monasteries and dominant warrior class, who made themselves tea send in jars “chatsubo” 茶壺 from Uji (as tencha obviously), a new trend appears among scholars of 17th and 18th century. This is the “leaf type” green tea, drank steeped in a pot. We attribute to the Chinese monk Ingen 隠元, who brought to Japan Ôbaku zen school, the diffusion of this new type of tea, which was still kama-iri (pan fired) type. Accessories for tea he brought are still in Manpukuji monastery in Kyôto. With the image of Baisao, aka Kôyûgai, who was a monk at Manpukuji, the trend for this type of tea spread among the painters and literati of Kyôto, with important figures such as Ikeno Taigo, Jakuchû, or the writer Ueda Akinari.
Kyôto is still the center of the diffusion of a new way of consumption of tea, but this region in the 18th century is to be the place of invention of a new type of tea. In 1738, Nagatani Sôen, develops in Uji-tawara (south of the city of Uji) a method of manufacturing a green tea, steamed as tencha (matcha), but then kneaded and rolled, and consumed brewed in a teapot like Chinese-style tea. This is the birth of Sencha. Sôen’s birth house still stands (rebuilt) in the sector of Yûyadani in Uji-Tawara.
There is no doubt that this location is the origin of the culture of Sencha (unshaded in principle) in Uji-tawara, and further south Wazuka and Minami-yamashiro. Uji-tawara has nevertheless become an important gyokuro production area, although with very little plain land, it is not as famous for gyokuro than Kyô-Tanabe for example. There is much “Sencha” in Wazuka and Minami-yamashiro, but a significant part is shaded, and there are many kabuse-cha, and, since about 20 years ago many mechanical harvest tencha. Since the year 90’, the mechanical harvest tencha, tencha from 2nd harvest, previously absent from the Kyôto prefecture, has a very important development and tencha production increases dramatically, allowing in the early 2000s to Kyoto to take the place of the first producer of tencha (matcha) then held by the Aichi Prefecture (mainly mechanical harvesting). Unfortunately, the production of premium matcha, resulting from hand picking tencha, stagnated since the 80s.
Going back to the history of tea in Kyôto, this is also in Uji, in the early 19th century that has been invented gyokuro, kind of Sencha grown shaded like tencha.

Nevertheless, throughout the Edo period, the tencha / matcha, exclusively produced in Uji, remains the prerogative of the highest class of society. With the fall of the Tokugawa and the Meiji imperial Restoration (1868), it’s a system that collapses, and the end of the warrior class was a chock to the production of tencha / matcha. It is also the end of the exclusive production and sale of tencha previously attributed to some families of Uji.
Yet despite Westernization that begins there seems to be a significant demand for tea. In 1871, 408 tons were produced in Kyôto, then in 1979, 2003 tons. The reason is exports to Western countries, primarily the United States.
In 1873, the tea cultivated area was 1595 chô, then in 1883, 2412 chô. This rapid increase is due to higher demand for Sencha for export. For reference, in 2006, the cultivated area was 1467 chô (1533 ha =), less than during the Meiji era!

The 20’s also saw a revolution born in Uji : the mechanization of tencha manufacturing, with the invention of tencha-ro 碾茶炉. Many machines were proposed, but unlike machines for rolled leaf type teas which there are still many types and manufacturers, only the model Horii (Horii-shiki tencharo 堀井式碾茶炉), developed in 1924, was finally adopted unanimously recognized. For tencha, not kneaded, this unique drying is critical, and this Horii-shiki tencharo allowed multiplying in an outstanding way the quality of tencha. And if the manual work can still compete with the machinery (especially at the time, when the various rolling/drying machines were not yet all developed) for leaf type teas, manual labor for tencha then became completely obsolete (attention, I speak of the manufacture of raw tencha, finishing work, cuts and sorts, still done manually for higher end tencha). Today, all matcha ovens are Horii type.

It was also at this time that the way to sell tencha/matcha changes. The tencha was sold to consumers as such, they reduced it to powder themselves. But with the arrival of electricity in Uji, matcha get started to be sold already ground.

If the world of finance has his “shock” as the oil shocks of the 70s, the world of matcha known as an event that changed the industry in Kyôto, the ” Häagen-Dazs shock “.
For a long time, wholesalers and retailers providing tencha only by direct purchase from producers, always the same in general. It was only in 1974 that the tea market opened in Kyôto. This remains the only market where is released tencha. At that time, all tencha from Kyôto prefecture wre made from the first harvest and hand-harvested. The mechanical harvest tencha from 1st and 2nd harvests, for confectionary or other, were purchased from producers of Nishio in Aichi.
But from the mid-90s, we begin to see in Kyôto prefecture an increasing quantity of tencha made from mechanical harvesting, 1st, 2nd and fall harvest. There already was this kind of stuff in Ryôtan area, but it was a new thing to see some produced in  Tawara, Wazuka and Minami-Yamashiro.
In 1996, before the new harvest, an intermediate bought to many wholesalers the rest of their mechanical harvesting tencha. Then came the opening of the new season. Usually, at the differences from leaf type teas whose prices are highest at the beginning of te season, for tencha, rather it is the middle of the season that prices begin to rise. But this year, early tecnha was exceptionally high priced. A wholesaler placed very significant price on all tencha, winning almost everything. This wholesaler had received a huge order from Haagen Daz, for making matcha flavor ice cream. This event was called Haagen Daz shock, and from then, a very large number of producers to abandon the Sencha production for mechanical harvest tencha. This type of low-end tencha’s price are more expensive on the market than some average quality Sencha that require more effort to manufacturing. Thus, in a region once renown for the Sencha like Dôsenbô in Minami-Yamashiro, it remain sadly only very few sencha producers.

In 1969, 373 t of tencha were produced in Japan, in 2009, 1740 t. This is a very significant increase, but if you look at the details you’ll note that the production of true manual picked tencha has hardly changed, the increase is due to mechanical harvest tencha.

A disturbing phenomenon that is estimated that today, an average of 4,000 t of matcha is produce per year in Japan. But in 2009, only 1740 tons of tencha (including nearly 800 in Kyoto) were produced. This is strange. Matcha is supposed to be made from powdered tencha, so should we not have no more than 1740 tons of matcha ? Moreover, in these 1740 tons, only 750 tons are ground with matcha millstones, and only 128 tons are from tencha made from manually picked first harvested.
In sum, there is a very large amount of powdered tea called “matcha” but which are not really, however, is not made from tencha. One can count, always with the 2009 figures, 300 tons of “matcha-like” powdered tea made from what is called “akiten” 秋碾, ie fall harvest tea manufactured like tencha, but which is not shaded grown. Impossible to talk about matcha then. After, we find 1400 tons of what we called “moga”. These late harvest teas, summer or fall, steamed and lightly rolled (so, the manufacturing’s not those of tencha) and dried before being ground using not millstones, but industrial grinders. Again we are very far from matcha. Moga is mainly produced in Shizuoka and Mie. Finally, there is 1000 t in various other powdered teas.
The factors that make the tencha / matcha is the shading method (honzu, under two or one level of synthetic fiber, direct coverage), the method of harvesting (the first and only manual harvesting, 1st mechanical harvesting, 2nd mechanical harvesting), the powdering method (stone mill or grinder). It is questionable, but the standard established by the Central Association of the Japanese Tea Industry (which is not a law but a criterion for professional of tea) is shaded culture, leaves that are not rolled (ie tencha method), using millstones. The shading method, picking method, harvest period, that stay unspecified may be questionable points.
But even leaving aside these delicate and subtle questions, akiten, moga, and tencha ground using grinders, should be excluded from the term “matcha”. And in fact, in reality, the tea professionals do not view them as “matcha”, and sold under the name of “culinary matcha” 料理用抹茶 or 加工用抹茶 “industrial matcha”. But when these products come in milk drinks manufacturers, pastries and even the so-called specialty shops abroad, these products lose their adjectives, and become “matcha”. We understand the problem that would arise if all “matcha” flavor milk drinks and pastries  should be renamed simply “green tea”. The effect would be even worse for those who sell their “Uji Matcha pastrie”, the souvenir industry in Uji and Kyôto would take a shot!
I got a little out of the history of tea in Kyôto, yet it is an important issue for the future. So the media are talking of “matcha boom or trend”, but we understand that it would be more correct to speak of boom green tea powder flavored products. And with the wide spreading of powder or low rank matcha sold under the name of “matcha” or even worse “Matcha from Uji”, there is a significant risk to the brand image of the region, and by extension the Japanese tea in general. Finally on this issue, a very easy to understand figures is that manually picked matcha is only 3% of teas sold as “matcha”.

Another point to seriously rethink for professional of tea in Uji, is the question of shading. Of course, with this culture of tencha / matcha and gyokuro in Kyôto, shading has an important role. But the problem is that we find almost no real Sencha, not at all or very little shaded. You just have to go just before the harvest period in Wazuka to figure out, hills almost all covered of these black tarps. Indeed, the trend in Japan is a pronounced umami, but more than this, that a tea soup is dark green. So even sencha are shaded. Without being as sahded as the kabuse-cha (in Uji the standard is more than 14 days) much Sencha are shaded 5 to 10 days, sometimes with good results, but often much worse, giving pleasant teas during shincha season but that do not mature well. This is a trend that goes against the original tea culture in Kyôto where we used to prefer the new spring teas have matured until fall, and preferring to make blends of tea from the year with teas from the previous year (hine-cha). It is a unique culture in the world of Japanese tea.
And as we find more and more fukamushi in Kyôto, or as mentioned above there is more and more mechanical harvest tencha, we feel like a loss of individuality in this historical growing region.

We have seen that Kyôto and its region was always the historical center of tea in Japan, but we also understand that this is not just history, and this production area continues to be on the move, heading towards a future that is still difficult to see, as is the tea in Japan as a whole.

Aside from gyokuro, kabuse-cha and matcha, I try to present on Thés du Japon, sencha from Uji that are unshaded, faithful representative of their terroir.
Among the new items of September I offers a Yabukita cultivar from Uji-Tawara, from the area called Oku-yamada specifically, bordering the neighboring commune with Wazuka.

This first Sencha makes me lie (a little) because it was shaded, but only 4 days, letting it as a clear real Sencha character, with a slight emphasis on umami. This tea by Mr. Koyama is very delicate and light. It has very nice and typical vegetal aromas, with a slight astringency and elegant umami. Clarity and fluidity seem to be its major characteristics.

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A parallel tasting of the Yabukita from Harayama area in Wazuka, which is completely unshaded this year is interesting. Harayama is also close to the border with Uji-Tawara and Oku-yamada, but on the Wazuka side. This area is at the foot of Mt. Jubu-zan.

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The entire area around the mountains forming the boundary between Uji-Tawara and Wazuka (Harayama and Yubune) and further east to the border with Asamiya (department Shiga), has long been renowned for Sencha.

This Sencha Mr. Tsuji plays with more strength, with a greater impact on the palate, more astringency, but also a sweetness, with buttery flavors. It is a robust Sencha which nevertheless is also very smooth in the throat.

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Those following is not a “Uji tea” but a Asamiya tea (Shiga prefecture), however, between a local and a common tradition with the Sencha from Uji-Tawara and Wazuka.

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This is one of my great joys of the year, a Kôshun cultivar, very rare outside of Shizuoka, and moreover excellent. The aromas both fruity and floral of this cultivar are there. This tea seems to have matured very well during the summer, the scent of the leaves is intoxicating. In the mouth it is clearly a Kôshun but not too strong, very well balanced, with almost no astringency. The after-taste is super aromatic, the length is at the top. The same quality across the border separating Shiga prefecture from Kyôto prefecture, and the price would have been much higher.

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Further south, in Minami-Yamashiro, near the border with Tsukigase in Nara Prefecture, Dôsenbô is also an area renowned for its Sencha. At an altitude of 450-500m, it is one of the highest points of the department where tea is produce. Who said altitude also said tea arriving late on the market and sadly very low prices. Thus, this very special area produces very few Sencha comparatively to the past, and produce now more and more of mechanical harvest tencha, often on direct shading.

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Fruity and robust, with great power on the palate, elegant astringency and umami after-taste umami, this Oku-midori cultivar Sencha by Mr. Yuki is a tea of high value.

For this article I am mainly leaned on the work of Mr. KUWABARA Hideki 桑原秀樹, All About Matcha 「お抹茶のすべて」 a sum of his most important work, but self-edit and out of stock Research about Matcha 「抹茶の研究」, which are currently the only books written about matcha (not the tea ceremony). Mr. Kuwabara is one of the most important figure of the tea in Japan, with a very modern, passionate speech, and a rare knowledge of his field.
I also rely on the work of Mr. Iida Tatsuhiko 飯田辰彦, The Homeland of Japanese Tea 『日本茶の「 源 郷 」』that includes lots of very interesting historical elements.

Categories: Coverage, History, Reviews, Tea producing area

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4 replies

  1. Fantastic write up. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.

  2. Great! enjoyed reading it and buying from you!

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