Since the opening of the Thés du Japon store in Tokyo’s Yanaka district last August, it seemed obvious and important to me to do more for the promotion of teas in the Kanto region. Also, I begin in this month of October by the most famous, or the least unknown one could say, the teas of Sayama.
Sayama-cha 狭山茶 refers to the teas produced in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo. Production is concentrated mainly in the cities of Iruma, Tokorozawa, Sayama, but about 10 municipalities produce tea. The tea produced in the western mountainous part of the prefecture is the most often called Chichibu tea. The Musashino plateau is the main production area, known for the quality of its land and excellent drainage (making it unsuitable for rice cultivation, which explains why tea was produced very early in the history). Last year, with 698 tons of aracha, Saitama was the 12th tea producing prefecture in Japan. A particularity of the region is to get producers refining and selling themselves their own production, there are few wholesalers. The climate tends to give fairly thick leaves, so much steaming is often necessary. Thus, today almost exclusively there are fukamushi or intermediate steaming. The department also has a research center that has given birth to many cultivars, the oldest being Sayama-midori, the most recent Oku-haruka, the most famous and widespread being Sayama-kaori.
The history of tea in Sayama is very old and dates back to Heian era. Disciple of Saicho, the monk Ennin founded the monastery Muryôju-ji in 830 in the present city of Kawagoe. He planted tea for medical purposes, inaugurating what was then called Kawagoe Tea. It is also noted that Myôe, founder of Kôzan-ji in Toganoo in 1206, also transmitted tea seeds to Yamashiro (Kyôto), Yamato (Nara), Ise (Mie), Suruga (Shizuoka) and Kawagoe in Musashino Country (Saitama). In a document of 1320, the monk Kokan wrote among the famous tea producing regions Musashi-Kawagoe tea. Kawagoe is already a famous tea production area. Nevertheless, at the end of the 14th century, after the wars of the Nanboku era opposing north to south, the tea of this region of Musashino disappears, leaving tea trees serving as hedges (keihan-cha) and used for the popular bancha.
During the Edo period, in this zone not adapted to the rice growing the farmers tried to develop the sale of the bancha, but that does not go well on the important market which is Edo (future Tokyo), where from the end of the 18th century the steamed sencha begins to be popular. At the beginning of the 19th century ones tried the production of kama-iri cha, but actually mainly go to study the steamed method of Uji, and around 1820, after ten years of experimentation, the sencha of this Musashino region starts to be sold to Edo. Then we start talking about Sayama-cha rather than Musashi-Kawagoe-cha. With the opening of Japan and the port of Yokohama in 1859, Sayama tea is exported to the United States. In 1875, the Sayama Tea Company was founded in present-day Iruma, with the aim of exporting tea directly from the region without passing through foreign merchants based in Yokohama, a first in Japan. But the commercial difficulties ended this enterprise in 1883. In 1885, due to improper handling of the machines invented by Takabayashi Kenzô, which gave tea of very poor quality (smell of oil, etc.) the prefecture of Saitama prohibits the use of machines for tea. However, Takabashi developed in 1898 the coarse rolling machine (sojûki, a concept still used today) in Kikugawa, allowing Shizuoka’s tea production to grow rapidly. Sayama’s tea is then lagging behind and we have to wait until 1912 to see the mechanization begin. It was after the Second World War that the landscape changed from hedge tea shrub to plantations. Among the fifteen first cultivars recorded in 1953 is a cultivar selected at Saitama from tea trees grown from Uji seeds, Sayama-midori. Many cultivars then emerged, Sayama-kaori being the best known, but also Oku-musashi, Musahi-kaori, Hokumei, or more recently Yume-wakaba or Oku-haruka. Good resistance to cold is a sine qua non for tea varieties in this region with harsh winters.
This overview of the history of this Japanese tea growing region, small but where there are many young producers, allows to glimpse the reasons for the current characteristics of Sayama. A long history and tea culture, a desire for independence, a taste for innovation with successes and failures naturally.
Sometimes one speak about a final drying method “sayama-bi-hire”, thinking wrongly to a very strong roasting, but it is actually a method of drying on the hoiro, work plan of the manual rolling, which was famous at the time of export to give the teas thus dried a very great capacity of conservation. This method is of course today impossible to implement on large quantities of tea.
I propose to you this month on Thés du Japon four new sencha of Sayama, four different cultivars, from the ancient Sayama-midori to the very young hope Oku-haruka, four tastes representative of this region with personality and its very own terroir.