The people of Japan will likely need little introduction to the green tea cultivated, packaged and brewed in Shizuoka. Prefecture and drink have become a default pairing in the minds of a nation, and not without good reason. Plantations and people combine here to handle production for nearly half of Japan’s green tea.
It’s an impressive boast considering the humble beginings when, during the 13th century, Buddhist high priest Shoichi Kokushi on his return from China, pushed tea plant seeds into the earth of the Abe River basin, in the Ashikubo region of Shizuoka. In doing so, Kokushi quite literally planted the seeds of a product, tradition, and culture that would help spearhead Japan’s post-WWII economic recovery, and become an integral part of life in the country.
While a cup of green tea might be synonymous with ceremonial calm, the culture in Shizuoka that brought it to this point really found its feet at a time of conflict and unease. During Japan’s Sengoku Period (1467 - 1603), a time of internal wars, green tea became highly prized among the armed generals of the Shizuoka clans. In particular, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616), founder and original shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate (the last of Japan’s feudal military governments), revealed a fondness for the tea grown in the Abe River basin. Ieyasu eventually retired to Sunpu Castle, in current Shizuoka City, where he would have the tea delivered to his quarters. Still today, every Autumn, green tea is carried in a ceremonial procession (the Ocha Tsubo Dōchū) from the upstream village of Ikawa to the temple of Kunōzan Tōshō-gū in Shizuoka City, where Ieyasu was initially laid to rest.
All seems to be calm in Shizuoka now. Despite a massive market share, and a colorful history leading to cutting-edge research, the farming of green tea here remains very much a family affair, where the skills and understanding of what it takes to cultivate tea have been passed down over the centuries. Amidst the varied topography of Shizuoka, changing climates and precarious mountain slopes, there can be no pretenders. It takes this depth of understanding to bring out the best in the tea.
Visitors to the region probably haven’t got centuries to spare, but there are organizations today trying to give people a better understanding of what goes into the production of Shizuoka tea, together with the culture and the people that bring it to the consumer.
The Chamber of Tea Association of Shizuoka Prefecture is one such group. They are working with Shizuoka farmers to improve production standards and to better convey the culture surrounding them and their tea. While it might seem absurd that there should be any ’awareness’ gaps in something that accounts for nearly 50 percent of the market, such a wide presence can be taken for granted. Overseas visitors to Japan in particular, may have little idea that the bottle of green tea they are drinking from could well have ‘Shizuoka’ somewhere on the label. Local or not, The Chamber of Tea Association of Shizuoka Pref. is helping people to access the culture and setting of Shizuoka green tea. Ultimately, by lending their support to workshops, tours, and local businesses they hope to take the consumer beyond blind consumption to a level of understanding that can enhance their ‘green tea’ experience.
However deep this can go, little understanding is required to appreciate the landscape of Shizuoka, in which all of this takes place, and where it all started centuries ago.
For a guide to the culture of Shizuoka green tea visit www.city-cost.com