A MEDICINAL CUPPA

Sip your way to a green, healthy state of mind

by Stephanie Gartelman

URESHINO, Saga Pref.– Green tea is back.

Despite coffee’s near-dominance over green tea in Japan’s offices and homes for the last 40 years, the fragrant beverage that once defined Japan is riding on a new wave of health awareness. Leaf tea sales are rising. More drinks, foods and even beauty products made with green tea are available now than ever before. Even organic green tea has found a market in Japan.

The health benefits of green tea have been the focus of numerous studies in recent years. Made by steaming and rolling leaves in their unfermented green state, green tea retains more vitamins (particularly B2, B6 and C) than tea processed from fermented or partially fermented leaves, such as black or oolong tea. The high content of nontoxic catechins (a type of tannin) in green tea has antioxidant qualities linked to longevity, which reportedly reduce blood pressure and prevent cancer, heart and liver diseases.

The much-publicized health benefits have been matched by increased exports of green tea from China and Taiwan, pinching Japanese growers and driving down costs. Between lower costs and reputed health benefits, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) is predicting that demand for green tea will continue to grow in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Historically, Kyoto and present-day Shizuoka are Japan’s tea-growing areas. Kyushu’s northern ports have been important tea trading points since the 12th century, however, and some of Japan’s oldest cultivation and processing methods exist here as a result. Kyushu’s tea trade is growing as cultivation areas shrink in more urbanized Honshu. In 2000, Kyushu growers saw a 1.3 percent harvest increase, while the national harvest shrank 1 percent.

Ureshino in Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture boasts one of Japan’s oldest histories of tea cultivation — and the nation’s oldest tea tree, a gnarled 400-year-old specimen. Also a well known hot-spring resort town, Ureshino produces 20 percent of Japan’s top grade gyokuro tea. Ureshino is also one of the nation’s few towns to seriously promote environmentally friendly tea cultivation. Ureshino’s drive to become a healthier place, to quote its PR slogans, goes more than skin deep.

During the 1970s and ’80s, it was nocturnal pleasures somewhat steamier than hot springs and tea that drew busloads of businessmen there. When such tourism dropped off sharply in the ’90s, the town’s administrators began re-examining Ureshino’s more wholesome attractions.

They realized that to sustain assets including virgin forests, natural springs and over 1,000 tea plantations, Ureshino’s environmental well-being was crucial. Identifying the town’s water supply and tea industry as two key areas for improvement, Ureshino established the Saga Tea Experimental Station in 1994 to cultivate tea without using agricultural chemicals.

From 1998, local tea growers were taught the new methods developed by the experimental farm, and within two years the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizer was reduced from 80 kg to 50 kg per hectare among all growers — a step matched by few tea-growing areas in Japan. The town won an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry Award for these efforts at a conference on sustainable agriculture in 2000.

The effect such cultivation has on the tea remains disputed. It’s said that many consumers probably couldn’t pick the difference in quality, despite the price being higher due to the hand-weeding and other labor-intensive processes involved. Tea wholesalers, who have long viewed alternative-method growers as hapless eccentrics, say the product is inferior in terms of appearance and aroma.

Organic growers maintain the taste is the same — and the fragrance finer. For Shigeru Ohta, who took a break from picking recently to explain the challenges of non-chemical farming, the environment cannot be ignored in any discussion of aroma or taste.

“The environmental damages of the 20th century have probably changed tea more than anything in the last 400 years,” says the outspoken fourth-generation tea grower and town assemblyman. Having suffered the ill effects of agricultural chemicals before abandoning them in 1978, Ohta farms naturally for his own health.

Nevertheless, the going has been tough for Ohta and others. Harvests can initially drop up to 30 percent as trees adjust to changes such as microorganism-enhanced soil.

“I think I’ve made a loss for the entire 15 years that I’ve farmed without chemicals,” laughs a rueful Masafumi Shirakawa, a neighboring farmer.

But convinced that he has cultivated a more fragrant tea, Shirakawa has remained committed to the practices. Trees today are exposed to new factors such as acid rain and polluted water, says Shirakawa, and growers can’t revert to the farming methods of the past. New cultivation methods must be developed, and Shirakawa is experimenting with growing patterns that could make the trees stronger. Environmentally friendly tea cultivation is also one of the biggest tasks being tackled by the staff at the Experimental Station.

Marketing has been another problem. Until recently, nothing prevented terms such as “organic” and “natural” from being used freely on packaging. Starting April 1 this year, however, a new law implemented by the government-approved Japan Agricultural Standards Association, made the misuse of such terms illegal. The JAS law will no doubt require improvements in the future, such as better monitoring and lower participation costs. But it has already improved the image of alternatively farmed products.

“Now,” says Shirakawa, “Tea wholesalers are asking to buy my tea where previously I had to beg them to take it.” More growers, such as Kazunori Tanaka, who unsuccessfully tried growing chemical-free tea 10 years ago, are preparing their plantations for JAS certification.

Certification rules include using no chemicals for at least three years, and maintaining a set distance from chemical-using farms. Tanaka is looking forward to the new challenges.

“Tea,” he says, “was originally drunk as a form of medicine. Why should harmful chemicals be sprayed on something that’s supposed to be good for you?”