Goushi Iijima sits in front of the irori ( a traditional ash fireplace), his back ramrod straight yet somehow deeply relaxed. With measured, fluid movements, he pours cold-infused green tea into delicate clear glass cups set on lacquerware saucers.
We balance the saucers in our hands and pick up the colored glass handles to take the first sip: grassy, tannic, yet sweetly well balanced. The cold green tea has had a lengthy steep and is a fresh bump of morning caffeine. As we greedily gulp it down, Iijima is readying the next round.
This time: kōcha. Known around the world as black tea, the Japanese word is more accurate regarding the actual color (“deep red tea”). The cold “black” tea is floral with almost no tannic aftertaste. The Murakami area of Niigata Prefecture gets low sun exposure throughout the year, so the tea develops more sweetness than tannins, resulting in a noticeably mild tea with floral notes.
Iijima’s family has been growing and selling tea for more than 140 years, since the first year of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when current production methods were developed. The family grew tea plants and also ran a small tea shop: Fujimien. Iijima’s uncle, the fourth-generation head of the family business, began phasing out the tea fields and drastically slashed the total area of family fields. Goushi Iijima, in his mid-30s, is sixth generation. Although technically his father is still at the helm, under young Iijima’s stewardship the fields have increased sixfold (no mean feat considering it takes from five to seven years for tea plants to mature). Recently, Iijima discovered that his family used to produce fermented tea (kōcha) during the Meiji Era, and thus resolved to revive the practice at Fujimien. And he had the perspicacity to bring their Meiji-Era label out from retirement to slap on their 21st-century tea canisters.
The first time I visited Fujimien, there was snow on the ground. The 30-odd members of our group squeezed into the two raised tatami-matted rooms where Iijima receives guests. I was struck by his economy of movement as he first poured hot water into a black iron teapot and then into an array of small ceramic cups set before him. Each time he poured the water into another receptacle the water temperature decreased several degrees. He scooped several heaping measures of loose dark red tea leaves into the (now warm) iron teapot and poured the water from the cups, now cooled to the precise temperature, over the tea. Half mesmerized by Iijima’s conscious motions and half desperate for a cup, we waited patiently for the tea to steep. Every movement and every thought that Iijima shares shows us his deep respect for the process of growing and brewing tea.
Finally, warm cup in hand, I took a small sip and aerated it through my mouth, as if tasting wine. Not a fan of most black teas, I was seduced by the flowery, fragrant pale brown liquid that just barely kissed my senses. Beautiful.
The mountain town of Murakami is the northernmost tea-producing area in Japan. Although blanketed in snow throughout the winter, Murakami perches above the Sea of Japan and has a microclimate well suited for tea (high rainfall, low snowfall, and short sun exposure). Murakami has been producing tea since the 1600s and was at one time a vital tea-growing region. Today Murakami-cha is but a blip on the radar of Japanese tea. Tea cultivation all over Japan declined after World War I, owing to the dire financial straights of the country. Urbanization and World War II eroded the total area of tea fields even further. Compared to the 650 hectares in Murakami’s heyday, the area’s tea fields have dwindled down to a paltry 40 hectares (of which 3 hectares are cultivated by Iijima’s family).
Iijima laments the waning culture of brewing tea at home. The solution? He has begun teaching children the pleasures of brewing and drinking tea in the hope that the children will, in turn, teach their parents.
This year I fell back in love with green tea (ryokucha; colloquially “o-cha“) and was seduced by kōcha. Still wedded to my morning coffee, I occasionally brew up a cup of tea in the afternoon as a pick-me-up when feeling sluggish, though my brewing style, involving a glass measuring cup and a strainer, borders on slapdash.
My New Year’s resolution is to buy a strainer for my kyūsu (small iron teapot) and brew a thoughtful cup of o-cha or kōcha in the afternoon and damn the dribbles that inevitably pool up on the table when serving from a kyūsu. For the dribbles are part of the experience, as is the idea of tanoshimi ni — looking forward to the changing nature of the tea as it goes from pleasantly flavorful to almost like hot water. Drinking tea at home or the office from a kyūsu has almost become an anomaly in the space of the last couple decades. Let’s not let that centuries-old beautifully simple custom die in our lifetime.
Fujimien Murakami-cha is available through their website at www.fujimien.jp or at their shop at 4-19 Nagaimachi, Murakami-shi, Niigata-ken, 958-0844; tel: 0254-52-2716 (all info in Japanese only). Nancy Singleton Hachisu is the author of “Japanese Farm Food” (translated into French as, “Japon, la cuisine à la ferme”) and is frequently featured on Fuji TV, Shinhodo 2001. A Stanford graduate, she is married to Japanese organic farmer in rural Saitama.