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KYOTO PREFECTURE, HONSHU: MR. OKUDA’S ORGANIC TEA GARDEN

   

Mr. Okuda’s organic tea garden is located in the region of Uji on Honshu, one of the four main islands of Japan, near the city Kyoto in the prefecture with the same name.


   

Mr. Okuda in front of his organic tea garden in Uji (April 2012)

"While drinking Mr. Okuda’s organic Uji Matcha and Gyokuro, the taste lets you think of the original taste of the old sorts of matcha and gyokuro, which the noblemen in Kyoto drank hundreds of years ago, when Kyoto was Japan's capital and only the tea cultivated in Uji counted as the one and only tea (Hon-Cha)."

   

The story of Mr. Okuda’s organic Uji Matcha and organic Uji Gyokuro tea garden

When Aijiro, a friend of Mr. Okuda, started as a young man his work in a tea garden and witnessed the increasing use of chemicals and flavorings for the tea cultivation and processing. He saw these “modern” methods replacing the original cultivation and traditional technical skills, and had the dream to hold a tea garden by himself without using any additives or flavorings in the cultivation and processing. He wanted to make "pure" tea again. He founded a tea garden on a small hilltop surrounded by various trees.

His first cultivation efforts were quite troublesome because of numerous pest infestations. Aijiro used the leaves of the tea bushes of his first tea garden the make Houjicha [roasted green tea].

Step by step he improved the cultivation conditions over the years, leasing new fields, which were lying on high areas, and developed his skills in cultivating and processing. While still being specialized in the production of Houjicha, the processing of Matcha and Gyokuro became more and more important to him. One reason for this could probably be the influence of his hometown Uji, where the cultivation of these two sorts of tea played an important role, since they became famous in the nearby former capital city Kyoto.

Nowadays Aijiro’s son continues the processing of organic Matcha and Gyokuro and teaches his own son the skills of the organic Matcha- and Gyokuro-production. Since Aijiro’s family focused on the complicated and elaborate production of Matcha, an amicable team developed together with Aijiro’s friend Mr. Okuda.

In the team Mr. Okuda takes care of the ecological cultivation of the tea bushes for Uji-Matcha and Gyokuro, while Aijiro’s family concentrates on the processing. For working in their own tea gardens, Aijiro’s son and his grandson got less and less time, because the processing of the teas – especially the grounding of the leaves with stone mills – is a very time-taking process and needs all their attention. A perfect cooperation developed out of the friendship between Aijiro’s family and Mr. Okuda, who is specialized in cultivating tea bushes for Matcha and gyokuro for many years, and we owe them our organic Uji teas.

Mr. Okuda’s sorts of tea: organic Uji Matcha, organic Uji Premium Matcha and organic Uji Gyokuro

   


The leaves of this kindly sweet and balanced sorts of tea come from the Yabukita-bushes. Only the fine first harvest leaves are going to be used for Mr. Okuda’s Matcha.

Right after the harvest the leaf veins are taken out in a complex process. Afterwards the resulting Tencha [tea without veins] is grounded by using traditional stone mills very slowly and gentle in order to get a really fine and enjoyable Matcha.

   
 

The leaves of this kindly sweet and at the same time deep and expressive tea come from the Yabukita-bushes. Only the very finest spring harvest leaves are going to be used for this Matcha, which is exclusively produced for MARIMO by Mr. Okuda.

After the harvest the leaf veins are taken out in a complex process. Afterwards the resulting Tencha [tea without veins] is grounded by using traditional stone mills very slowly and gentle in order to get a top-class Matcha.

   
 

At the beginning of May Mr. Okuda pickes the tea leaves for his organic Uji Gyokuro. A couple of weeks before this tea harvest, he shadows the bushes with black nets. Thanks to this shading process, the plants produce less bitterness. Since Mr. Okuda follows his ecological cultivating philosophy and therefore uses organic fertilizers very rarely (of course it's only organic fertilizers), the tea gets on the one hand a round sweetness with balanced Umami and on the other hand an expressive depth. This makes Mr. Okuda’s Gyokuro taste absolutely original.

   

Cultivation and Processing

Since Mr. Okuda decided to not expose his tea bushes totally to the natural conditions, but to make use of a very reduced organic manuring – especially with rape pomace – his teas get a well-balanced flavor with a slight sweetness. Just a few tea gardens like the Sakura-no En are able to reach clearly sweet nuances in their teas, without using any fertilizers. But in the case of shaded teas like Matcha and Gyokuro it is rather difficult, if also organic fertilizers are not used. Therefore, organic manuring seems like the best option. On the others hand, other tea gardens, believing they would focus on a "traditional" production, manure their tea bushes with a lot of mineral fertilizers, which gives the tea an often extreme sweetness. The use of significant portions of chemical and synthetical pesticides, used to get rid of pest infestations in the gardens, could cause goosebumps for reflective tea drinkers.

Mr. Okuda questions if the above mentioned “traditional” production of many non-organic gyokuro and matcha tea gardens is really a traditional production method, because in the zenith of shaded tea production times, when aristocrats had fallen in love with shaded teas, such manuring was unthinkable. But if one likes the immoderately sweet flavor of a matcha of gyokuro, which is produced with the help of the chemical industry, or if he favors the taste of Mr. Okuda’s natural gyokuro and matcha, needs every single tea drinker to decide for himself.

The most important thing for matcha is – and this is where all three fractions share the same opinion – that it is grounded by a stone mill right after the leaf veins are taken out. Those two steps are in the hands of Aijiro’s son and grandson. In contrast to simple powder tea, which is grinded in a ceramic mill in far bigger amounts, stone mills can produce only about 30g of the fine poweder tea. This is the second reason, besides the shading of the tea bushes, why a good matcha is quite expensive.

     

 
     

     

Flavor

     

It is very important to Mr. Okuda that his teas are really traditionally produced, which means not to use any of the chemical and synthetical pesticides, fertilizers or colorants. This philosophy of Mr. Okuda helps him to make both sorts of strongly shaded tea, matcha and gyokuro, well-balanced in their flavor and to let them not have an artificially sweet taste. With experiencing the flavor of the organic Uji Matcha it is possible to get a hint of how the original sorts of Matcha tasted like, in times when Kyoto was still Japan's capital city and only the tea coming from Uji counted as the one and only tea (Honcha).

The use of a stone mill can be perceived very clearly with the tongue, since the tiny particles of the matcha powder are not just finer, and induce a far more comfortable feeling on the tongue, but the tea also tastes much softer as common powder tea. Nevertheless the removing of the leaf veins before the grounding with a stone mill plays an important role as well because it improves the flavor and the feeling on the lounge immensely.

     

History

     

Not far away from Kyoto, where from 794 to 1869 the imperial court of Japan resided, is a small town called Uji. It became well-known when the aristocrats started a new kind of game, where the person, who could tell which of the teas was the "original" (Hon-Cha) and which was the "not original" tea (Hi-Cha), gained the victory. Regarded as "original" were only Togano-teas, and a little bit later it was the ones coming from Uji. Since this time is Uji one of the reputable places for tea cultivation.

The drinking of powder tea, which became a common form of tea preparation in China during Song Dynasty (960-1279), developed to an art as in the Japanese tea ceremony (Chado), having its zenith in Japan, while it was almost forgotten in China. Because of the mildness of shaded teas, favored by the aristocrats, Uji became one of the most important places for the production of matcha and gyokuro, for whom the tea bushes are shaded round about three weeks before the harvest.

     

     

Tea ceremony in Uji (March 2006)