Letting tea plants grow in natural balance, to keep their original taste – Visiting Mankichi and Keita Watanabe

The rain is over. Early in the morning, the warm light of the rising sun is greeting us. Without breakfast we drive straight to the rapid ferry terminal of Kagoshima because today we will leave the main island of Kyushu and go further South to the idyllic island of Yakushima.

Mankichi Watanabe in his tea garden on Yakushima island

This year in February, Keita Watanabe visited us and some tea shops in Germany and Switzerland, to present his tea garden some of his special teas to the guests. For about one year, Keita has been supporting his father Mankichi Watanabe in his work in the tea garden and the Watanabe’s little tea manufactory. For this purpose, Keita returned from Tokyo to Yakushima with his wife and the two children.

Mariko and Keita Watanabe

Keita and his wife Mariko pick us up from the harbour in Yakushima, and drive us straight to the tea garden. On the way, Keita tells us that we are really lucky with the weather because yesterday and the two days before, it rained extraordinarily strong. For the tea plants, of course, the abundant rain was perfect, because in Yakushima the Shincha harvest is already over, so that the tea bushed can grow new sprouts again. Indeed, they already show the first tips of the new sprouts, which will be harvested with the second harvest.

Watanabe Kabuse Shincha

April 6 was the first day of harvest of the first harvest of 2019 for Mankichi and Keita Watanabe. In the Watanabes’ tea garden the Kuritawase is the earliest tea bush varietal, followed by Sae Midori and the Asatsuyu varietal. The leaves of these three tea bush varieties compose the Watanabe Kabuse Shincha, which is available in Europe since the end of April.

Keita-No-Koucha during fermentation

Before we walk through the tea garden parcels, we take a short look inside the little tea manufactory. Mankichi Watanabe is just in the middle of the process of producing a very special black tea [koucha]. Just now is the right moment to stop the fermentation [hakkou] and dry the tea. The entire room is filled by the fine, flowery scent of the Watanabe black tea. Of course, we are eager to try it. The tea is pleasantly fragrant and soft, so we decide to introduce this new sort to our assortment, as a addition to the Watanabe Kanaya Midori Koucha. However, Keita and Mankichi only produced two or three boxes of it, because it requires a lot of manual work, which can only be done on a small scale beside the green tea production.

Mankichi Watanabe in his tea garden on Yakushima island

During a walk through the tea garden parcels, which are all located a little bit above the little tea manufactory, Keita describes us which ideas he and his father pursue in their tea farming. In a “normal Japanese tea garden”, the amount of fertiliser used is up to 100kg nitrogen per 0,1ha. With this amount it is possible to create teas with a strikingly strong Umami. However, in organic tea gardens these amounts are not common.

Tea garden of Mankichi and Keita Watanabe on the island of Yakushima

For organic Japanese green teas with strong Umami, an amount of about 50kg per 0,1ha would be typical. However, Watanabes pursue a different strategy: They use only about 30 to 35kg of nitrogen per 0,1ha for fertilising. They do not want to “spoil” their tea plants with too much nitrogen. They plants should not lose their ability to extract the nutrients from the soil by themselves. The effort of the tea bushes consists in creating roots as dense as possible and well-anchored, so that they can also extract nutrients from deeper layers. Through this process, the leaves develop their very own taste, typical for each location.

Keita Watanabe explains what he and his father are especially giving attention to in their tea farming

Moreover, Keita Watanabe explains us, by purpose they let grow grass, clover and small plants at the edges of the tea garden because they are an important part of the habitat for insects. Only shortly before the harvest, grasses are removed from the garden by hand, and the edges are mown, so that no grass leaves can get into the finished teas.

Keita Watanabe infuses his black tea
We try the Watanabe black tea

After our walk, we sit down in the shade, enjoy the vegetarian food that the Watanabes prepared for us, and drink several of their great new teas. This year, in Europe there will be two new sorts of tea from the Watanabe tea garden on Yakushima. You can look forward to them.

The tea garden of Mankichi and Keita: A place to dream and rest