Matsuri da! (79): Take tea and see!
Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 14, 2008
THERE’S SOMETHING BOTH SOOTHING AND ELEGANT about tea–unless your idea of tea is to throw it overboard into the Boston Harbor. The tea ceremony, for example, is one of the most refined of Japanese traditions. Even tea plantations have a certain quality that places them a cut above the ordinary agricultural enterprise. I visited a tea farmer south of Ibusuki in Kagoshima about 10 years ago, and walking through his fields was such a peaceful experience it almost felt as if I were in a formal garden. (Of course, the pine forest to the east and the view of the sea a 10-minute drive to the south contributed to the mood.)
The tea farmer told me that during the season—which is right now—he had to work pretty much round the clock for about six weeks, but during the rest of the year, maintaining his plantation didn’t require his constant attention. Still, when they’re out harvesting tea, farmers don’t dress like the women in the photo.
Two of those women are miko, or shrine maidens, from the Kumano Hongu Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Hongu-cho, Tanabe, Wakayama. Helping them were five women from a sort of women’s auxiliary group associated with the shrine. They are shown picking the new tea from a field just behind the shrine for the New Tea Festival held on the 9th. During the festival, samples of the crop are offered to the divinities and members of an organization for local tea producers offer prayers for better quality. The event is held every year just before the harvest begins.
Each tea-producing area in Japan has its special varieties, and in the part of Kyushu where I live, the tea grown in Yame is considered to be the finest. In Hongu-cho, the miko were picking otonashi tea, which is a local specialty. Otonashi tea has been grown in the area for more than a millenium. The story goes that people came from the capital in Kyoto to visit Kumano and planted some. Perhaps they were Japanese versions of Johnny Appleseed.
According to the producers’ organization, 40 households cultivate otonashi tea on about 7 hectares in two neighborhoods in the district. During the peak production years of the mid-60s to 70s, about 12 hectares were devoted to cultivation, but the aging of the population has resulted in fewer farmers, and that has resulted in less tea.
The harvest began a few days early this year on April 28 and is expected to continue to about May 10.
Wakayama has thoughtfully provided a short English page on otonashi tea, which you can see here. There’s a brief explanation of its characteristics and a photo of a hillside plantation. (You don’t have to listen to the RealAudio; it’s just a woman reading the English text you see on the page.) Here are two larger photos on a Japanese page.
I’d like to try some of that myself—green tea is my beverage of choice throughout the day—but it’s not so easy to have an otonashi tea party. Most of the crop is sold in Hongu-cho for use in the home or as gifts. Next time you’re in Wakayama, be sure to bring me back some!