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Japan’s history with tea goes back 1,200 years, when it is believed the monk Saicho brought back the first tea seeds from China at the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-906). Kyoto, Japan’s first major tea-producing region and the spiritual heart of Japanese tea ceremony, is still famed as one of the finest tea-growing areas in the country. Its southern Wazuka region, nestled next to Uji, accounts for approximately 50 percent of the prefecture’s tea production.

Wazuka is well known for its mountain tea fields, whose terraced slopes and fog make for the perfect conditions for growth. Someone who knows the town’s centuries-long history better than most is Megumi Hori, the fifth-generation owner of Kiroku Tea Garden: “Almost 100 years ago, my great-grandfather came to the mountains here in Wazuka and cleared the forest for our farm. Back then there were no cars or machinery. Early every morning he would walk to the mountain to clear it by hand. It took him five years,” Hori says.

After the death of her father five years ago, Hori took over the running of the farm with her mother and sister. “Men in the village asked to buy the farm from us. They didn’t think we’d be able to run it on our own,” she says. “But I knew we could. My mother was always doing men’s work. When my father was sick, she would be the one to tend the fields.”

Although she grew up on her family’s farm, Hori didn’t initially want to pursue a career as a farmer. She saw the instability, long working hours and an environment in which farmers were powerless over their own income due to distributor-set tea prices, which in turn was dependent on demand from restaurants.

“Production costs are always the same, but the price for our tea changes, despite the consistent high quality,” Hori says.

Once old enough, she left the farm to start a family and acquire a stable office job. “I learned many things. I became depressed, my creativity was stifled and I knew I had to return to the farm to help my mother,” Hori continues. “I wanted to experiment, shifting the old-fashioned image of Japanese tea to something more accessible.”

When she came back to Kiroku, Hori experimented with producing rarer varieties of tea as a way of reviving the dwindling tea industry. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, tea farms nationwide have declined from 53,687 in 2000 to only 19,603 in 2015. Her teas, 12 types in total, are varieties typically deemed too difficult to process, “inferior” to traditional styles or too unpopular with consumers for the average farmer to grow.

“I came up with many ideas but nothing sold initially,” she says. “I had to work hard to bring people round to appreciating these unusual types of tea.”

Ongoing pressure: According to Megumi Hori, the future of Japan’s tea industry is at risk. | RACHEL E.T.  DAVIES
Ongoing pressure: According to Megumi Hori, the future of Japan’s tea industry is at risk. | RACHEL E.T. DAVIES

Kiroku’s rare teas include tencha, the leaves used to make matcha before they are ground. Though infrequently sold whole, Hori decided to sell it as is, celebrating its earthy, bitter notes. Another variety is agaricha; the fine leaves left over from sencha green tea production. Usually disposed of for aesthetic reasons, Hori originally decided to sell them to reduce waste, yet quickly realized that these small leaves offered a unique, slightly more astringent option to traditional sencha; the hardy agaricha leaves are also much easier to prepare consistently. There’s also chabanacha; a delicate blend of sencha leaves blended with dried camellia tea flowers — laborious to pick, they are usually discarded — harvested from the Kiroku fields in November, adding light floral notes to the bittersweet sencha.

Even her matcha is different. Kiroku produces it in-house, a task rarely performed at other farms due to the meticulous and expensive refinement process — most farmers send their leaves straight to the distributor for grinding.

“Anything I want to try, I can. I process each of my fields individually, creating single-origin teas, doing what’s best for the leaves in each field. This is very rare.” Hori says, describing the novel ways Kiroku processes its more traditional types of tea. “We use our finest tencha leaves, which other farms usually reserve for matcha making, to make our own blends of hōjicha (roasted green tea).”

COVID-19 has deeply affected Japan’s small businesses, farms in particular. April saw a 99.9-percent drop of overseas visitor numbers to Japan compared to 2019, diminishing demand for the hospitality industry and their suppliers.

Orders for Kiroku’s tea hit an all-time low. To weather the COVID-19 storm and subsequent decline in distributor sales, Hori took it upon herself to improve the farm’s situation by marketing her tea via social media and a number of boutique branding events within Kyoto, moving to direct sales via the launch of a new website later this month.

“This is my story and I’m proud of it,” Hori says. “Regardless, I’m not sure how many more years I can continue farming. I’ve seen many farms fail because of the virus. Before, the future of the tea industry was uncertain, but now is the worst I’ve known. Every day is a struggle. Maybe people will never experience my tea in their lifetime, but I have hope for the future and that people will find Kiroku.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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