The town of Tosa is located on the island of Shikoku west of the city of Kôchi, but historically, the Tosa area corresponds to the current Kôchi prefecture as a whole. Also, “tea of Tosa” is often used to refer to the teas produced in this prefecture.
Moreover, it is important to explain what is called in Japan “yamacha”, literally “mountain tea”. When we talk about mountain plantations, on slopes in general, we use in Japanese “yama no ocha”. But “yamacha” means something different, and especially very rare. It is a garden or group of tea plants growing in the mountains, rather scattered, usually in the middle of the forest. The impression is very different from that of a plantation with shrubs growing tight in line. With these “yamacha”, we have of course “zairai”, ie native tea seeds grown plants (and not cuttings like cultivars). It is this type of tea tree, growing in an “almost” natural way, that is found in many area in Japan but mainly in Kyûshû, Shikoku, but also in Shizuoka or in the region of Nagoya, among others, which made thought wrongly that tea would have existed forever in Japan, even before the introduction of tea trees from China. In reality, the origin of this type of “yamacha” is human. It should be understood that in Japan, as in many parts of China or Southeast Asia, local people have been using slash-and-burn agriculture since ancient times. If this could be used for cereals, it was also used for tea (local consumption, bancha type probably). So, after this type of practice disappeared in the mountains and the forest has regained its rights, tea plants were able to continue to grow and even reproduce in not too dense forest. In the 20th century especially, the mountains were exploited for silviculture, so many forests were planted for timber production. Very often we were able to plant over old slam-and-burn land where there were tea trees. As this activity began to decline after the period of high growth, forest and tea trees began to coexist again. Also, from the small group of tea trees “zairai” and the seeds that they generate, these gardens, formerly planted by hand of man could extend in a natural way. Seeing a plantation like those in the photo below (here the tea plants are cut) we can understand that someone who does not know the history of mountain agriculture could be mistaken and think that there are tea trees originated from Japan .
This type of garden, which has endured in one way or another in the middle of forests, is very little exploited in Japan. We understand of course that their exploitation is poorly adapted to modern methods. These yamachas need a manual harvest, and are also unproductive. Yet they are also a testimony to past life habits, and an example of the tea plant in its most natural environment. It is this tea tree as a plant living under the trees, which has precisely interested Ms. Kunitomo, who works precisely in forestry in Kôchi (Shikoku). She began about ten years ago to exploit yamacha gardens discovered abandoned here and there of the mountains of Inochô north of Kôchi. On different gardens, she uses different methods of maintenance, but all are without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Two years ago, I had introduced tea made from yamacha cuttings, a unique experience in Japan. But today, I present one of these yamacha, the one that is exploited in the most natural way, uncut tea trees, no pesticides or even organic fertilizer, the herbs that are cut once a year are placed on the ground around the tea trees.
According to field research by a specialist, Matsushita Satoru, there are traces of past human exploitations, but these tea trees are undoubtedly partly from seeds that have fallen from here and there. If these tea trees were once exploited, this garden was abandoned for at least 60 years.
A peculiarity of the place is to be an essentially rocky soil with very little earthy topsoil.
Only one tip and top two leaves are picked, manually obviously.
This is a kama-iri cha, is the pan-firing to stop the oxidation is made manually in a wok, again it is a very rare thing in Japan. Drying / rolling is mechanical.
It’s a tea for which you can try many brewing parameters, but personally, I think that starting right away with hot enough water, 90 ° C, 30s, will be fine.
There is a particular perfume, mineral and at the same time sweet, syrupy like candied beans. In the mouth, the tea soup is also sweet, velvety, with aromas reminiscent of licorice and medicinal herbs and roots.
From the second infusion, I use almost boiling water. If the palate is still soft and velvety, then we put forward woody aromas, leather, something ashen. We notice then on the nose a peppery floral touch.
After four or five infusions, you may have a very slightly tannic touch, and fresher aromas, anise, mint, then appear discreetly.
This tea still remains in this ambivalence minerals / sweet cooked vegetables, which gives an impression of the vegetal sensations very different than those of many Japanese teas, while the general impression is dominated by woody aromas.
The sweetness giving a syrupy impression is also characteristic of this tea and its aftertaste which dominates, always very light however.
It is a very light and subtle tea, which also hides complexity and a particular strength. This lightness paradoxically accompanied by an impression of strength is probably not unrelated to the very rocky soil.
This tea may seem too expensive, but we must think of the exceptional nature of the garden of course, but also production methods in a country like Japan. This kama-iri cha also gives many very pleasant infusions. It can also be drink in the Chinese way in a glass, in which we add hot water as we drink it.
In addition, with the leaves of the same place, a kama-iri cha is also produced with wilting and slight oxidation. The result is a tea more “easy”, more charming, with wulong type perfume, but it seems to me that it also masks the real aromas of these leaves, which directly reflect their soil, their natural environment. So, for the moment, I have favored this kama-iri cha “yamacha”, which is both pure and personal.