Monday, May 23, 2022

Sayama Japanese Green Tea

Hand-Picked Sayama Tea 手摘み狭山茶

by Johannes Schonherr

Hand Picked Sayama Tea 手摘み狭山茶.
Shincha advertising at a Sayama Tea store in Tokorozawa, Saitama

In the Sayama tea area northwest of Tokyo, the harvest of the Shincha (新茶), the first tea leaves of the year, takes place in late April / early May. Among tea lovers, this is a highly anticipated harvest since those first leaves are especially tasty and aromatic.

Sayama Shincha is a Sencha tea, which means it is a tea sold in the form of processed, steamed leaves - unlike Matcha which is sold as a powder. About three-quarters of all Japanese green teas are Sencha teas.

Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field, Tokorozawa

Japanese Teas

The premium quality is picked by hand by a group of experienced harvest helpers who can decide within fractions of a second which leaves to take, steadily filling their baskets with the highest quality leaves.

Sayama is one of Japan's northern-most tea areas. Winters can be freezing. Tea plants need to be of varieties that can withstand such conditions. Yabukita, a plant originally from Shizuoka that proved to be able to adapt to the more northern climate, turned out to be the first choice for the hand-picked Sayama Shincha.

To withstand the cold of winter, the Sayama tea plants grow thicker leaves resulting in a profound flavor and a rich taste.

An old local minyo folk song, often sung during the harvest in old times, takes the comparisons to the other traditional Japanese tea growing areas lightly: the tea from Uji (near Kyoto), it says, is all about the scent, the tea from Shizuoka is all about the color but Sayama Tea is all about the taste.

Kyoto-Uji is certainly Japan's most famous tea area while Shizuoka produces the bulk of Japanese Green Tea. Sayama, producing tea since the times of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1300s is up among them as one of the top three traditional Japanese tea production areas.

Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field ready for hand picking, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en Sayama Tea field ready for hand picking, Tokorozawa

The Harvest

To get a real feel of the tea, there is nothing better than actually joining the harvest. Take a Seibu Shinjuku Line train to Tokorozawa or Iruma City, walk around the tea fields in April and inquire at the adjoining farms if they need a harvest helper. In most cases, the answer will most likely be a happy "yes."

Yamaka-en tea harvest by hand, Tokorozawa.
Yamaka-en tea harvest by hand, Tokorozawa

Yamaka Kasuya Tea Farm

At the Yamaka Kasuya family farm in Kita Iwaoka, Tokorozawa that is definitely the case. Their teas are known under the name Yamaka-en (Yamaka Garden).

Give them your phone number and you will receive a call back once the actual harvest days have been decided.

Arrive at the tea field in the morning. You might be a little surprised at the shape of the plants you are directed to. Those are not the neatly trimmed rows of tea plants you see so often in advertising. Those neatly trimmed rows are for machine harvesting. The hand-picking tea also grows in neat rows but the branches stretch out in a much more natural manner.

Wrapped-up shades hang over the tea field. Those have shielded the plants from intense sunlight during the growing period in spring, preventing the ultra-violet rays from damaging the taste of the nascent young leaves.

You receive a basket and are told which leaves to take - only the set of the freshest three leaves right on top. The classical set of tea leaves is often seen in print.

You work the bushes, clipping leaf set after leave set with your fingers. A typical group of harvesters consists of about 20 to 30 people. Many of them are elderly folks being part of other tea-growing families living nearby.

Unfortunately, they don't sing any minyo folk songs during work anymore. But there is constant chatter. The days of the harvest bring many folks together who don't see each other for the rest of the year. There is constant talk about whose children married whom, who had children, who died, and so on. For those folks, a tea harvest is a social event.

A perfect set of tea leaves.
A perfect set of tea leaves

Tea Tradition

Frequently, the town hall sends young employees to the harvest as well, to let them experience the importance of the tea tradition in their town.

Since the plants are about 160 cm high, it's all rather easy work. You don't have to be afraid of back pains. If you like to squat on the ground for a while and take the leaves from there, it's perfectly okay.

At the end of the working day, usually at 4 pm, you receive an envelope with your salary of the day in cash.

Don't expect to finance your next trip around the world that way. Rather invest the cash in some really good tea by going to the farm shop to buy some top-notch tea about a week later.

By then, the son of the house, running a small tea processing plant right on the premises, will have turned the tea leaves you harvested into high quality Shincha for sale only at the tiny family tea shop on the family premises.

Hand picked tea leaves in a basket.
Hand picked tea leaves in a basket

Gomeicha

The tea available there is the one you picked by hand. It says Gomeicha (御銘茶) on the outer wrapping though nobody ever uses that word in a conversation. Gomeicha simply means "our best tea", "our flagship" or "signature tea" or something along those lines, indicating that it is the absolute top quality tea produced at the farm.

As with most Japanese green teas, prepare this tea with water heated up to about 70°C (158°F) for optimal taste. For a second brew, use the same temperature, for the third, however, use boiling water.

The Yamaka-en Gomeicha received an award for best Green Tea from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery in 2016, 2018, and 2021.

Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea outer wrapping.
Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea outer wrapping

Purchase Japanese Tea

Purchase a range of Japanese tea from GoodsFromJapan.

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Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea package.
Yamaka-en Gomeicha tea package

© GoodsFromJapan.com

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Koinobori & Children's Day Japan

Koinobori & Children's Day 鯉のぼり

Jake Davies

Towards the end of April, large groups of koinobori carp streamers start appearing in readiness for Children's Day on May 5th.
Towards the end of April, large groups of koinobori carp streamers start appearing in readiness for Children's Day on May 5th

May 5th in Japan is Kodomo no Hi, Children's Day when the Japanese celebrate their children, and the most visible sign of the approach of Children's Day is the appearance from mid-April onward of the colorful windsocks known as Carp Streamers or Koinobori.

Suspended across a river is one of the more dramatic locations to see koinobori.
Suspended across a river is one of the more dramatic locations to see koinobori

Children's Day in Japan

Children's Day is the last of four National Holidays that fall at the end of April and early May that collectively are known as Golden Week, and with many companies giving their employees 7 to 10 days off, Golden Week has become the second biggest holiday and vacation time in Japan after the New Year holidays.

Children's Day, the last of the Golden Week National Holiday days was not established until 1948. Prior to that it was known as Tango no sekku, commonly called Boy's Day, and it was in that form that the association with koinobori began.

Colorful koinobori carp streamers celebrate Children's Day.
Colorful koinobori carp streamers celebrate Children's Day

Chinese Influence

Ancient Japan adopted the calendrical and numerological system from China, In this system specific dates were laden with symbolic meaning, and the 5th day of the 5th month was a seasonal court festival, along with the 1st day of the 1st month, Oshogatsu, New Year, 3rd day of the 3rd month, Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, 7th day of the 7th month, Tanabata, and the 9th day of the 9th month, Kiku Matsuri.

These festivals originated in rites of protection against evil, and among the common people these days took on their own meanings, with notably Hina Matsuri being celebrated as Girl's Day, and Tango no sekku as Boy's Day, and it was in this form that May 5th became associated with koinobori.

On May 5th families would celebrate their male children, putting up displays of Kintaro dolls, based on a legendary Heian Period samurai, Sakata no Kintoki, as well as Kabuto, samurai helmets and sometimes whole miniature suits of samurai armor. In the Edo Period banners bearing the image of carp were added to the displays.

Japanese koi kept in the canals of Tsuwano Castle town where they were used for an emergency food source.
Japanese koi kept in the canals of Tsuwano Castle town where they were used as an emergency food source

Carp

The carp is native to the waterways of Japan and was a prized source of food. In the former castle town of Tsuwano in Shimane, the drainage canals of the town were stocked with carp for use as an emergency food in case of siege, and today visitors can still see them.

Most people however, will think of the ornamental,  multi-colored, koi that are a relatively recent development but which are now a common feature not just of traditional Japanese gardens but garden ponds throughout the world.

Symbolism

In Japan the koi has come to represent strength, courage, endurance, perseverance, and health, and these attributes gave been derived from a well known, ancient Chinese tale of a golden carp that swam upstream of the Yellow River, eventually swimming up a waterfall and being reincarnated as a dragon.

The qualities attributed to the koi were those most valued by the samurai and wished for for their sons.

One theory how the koi became associated with Boy's Day was that when the Shogun had a son, the news was announced by raising carp flags.

Koinobori flying at a mountain park.
Koinobori flying at a mountain park

Displaying koinobori

The traditional way of displaying the koinobori was at the top of a tall bamboo pole. At the top would be the largest, black-coloured koinobori representing the father of the family fukinagashi (吹き流し).

Followed by a red koinobori for the eldest son of the family, followed by decreasingly sized ones in blue, green, purple, and orange, for any younger sons.

When Boy's Day switched to Children's Day the symbolism changed somewhat with the second, red, Koinobori coming to represent the mother, and often pink being used instead of red.

The other colors came to represent both sons and daughters. In fact, more and more these traditional meanings have been discarded and some families simply fly koi representing just the children of the family who are still at home.

The traditional method of displaying koinobori, now found mostly only in the countryside, is atop a tall bamboo pole.
The traditional method of displaying koinobori, now found mostly only in the countryside, is atop a tall bamboo pole

Nowadays the most common way to see koinobori is not in the single displays put up by families, but in large public and civic situations.

A very popular site is strung across a river, where when the wind blows it most looks like carp swimming against the current. Other popular spots include parks, strung between buildings, and increasingly at shopping malls and retail parks.

Dozens of large koinobori across the Gonokawa River in Shimane.
Dozens of large koinobori across the Gonokawa River in Shimane

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Purchase a selection of koinobori carp streamers from GoodsFromJapan

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