May is the month for picking the tea for which Japan is widely known. It is a common sight in the countryside to see groups of bicycles parked alongside tea fields shrouded in black.
The sound of conversations and rustling leaves give evidence that someone is inside those mysterious black places. However, just from the sounds that can be heard from outside and the finished products on the store shelves, one would never realize what a hands-on process tea-picking really is.
Tea fields in rural area
Japanese tea is made from the leaves of tea bushes, but these tea bushes are actually very versatile, yielding a variety of different teas from one plant. High, middle, and low class green tea, as well as black tea, which is more common in the West, can all be made from the same plant, depending on the way that the tea leaves are picked and processed.
High-class green tea, such as gyokurou (玉露）or shuppinn-cha (export tea), is made from the first and second small, tender leaves of the tea plants. The first week or two of May is the best time to pick for this type of tea because the leaves are still tender and new. Picking the first and second leaves off each new stem by hand is a long and tiring task, but it is required to make the best tea that is entered in national tea competitions and drunk by aristocrats and tea connoisseurs. Long-time gyokurou tea farmer Dejima Touji says, “My tea has won the national tea competition for gyokurou tea more than fifteen times, but this would not have happened without the people who hand-pick each stalk and shrub (from interview with author).” The highest grade of gyokurou tea is sold for an approximate 5000 yen (about $50) for 100 grams (3.5 ounces). Now that’s an expensive cup of tea!
The versatile tea plant
However, tea-picking is a job that lasts for more than a month, and tea growers do not stop harvesting (or picking) after just the highest grade of tea. Otherwise, they would forfeit the majority of their harvest. Tea-pickers must use alternate methods as the plants grow larger with warmer weather. Stay tuned for more interesting facts about tea!