Friday, May 20, 2016

First Flash! Harvesting green tea leaves in Niiharu

Tea trees in Niiharu

Early May Sunday, Niiharu Lovers invited neighbors for the Annual Spring Fair. Traditionally, it is a festival for urbanites to experience Japanese tea-leave harvesting and log cultivation of shiitake mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms will be harvested from logs on which the spores are inoculated, like this:

Those round marks on the sawtooth oak logs
are inoculation for shiitake mushrooms.
These logs are called hoda-gui

Volunteers harvested about 10cm diameter logs in April, and sold a 30cm long log + mushroom spores for 200 yen (1.5 USD). We first made small holes vertically along a log, and let the visitors (mainly kids) to inoculate each hole with a 1cm peg-sized spore-pellet. A few taps by kindergarteners with a kid-sized mallet did a wonderful job. The visitors brought back the inoculated logs home, leave them under a shade, and water constantly in order not to let it dry. The vertically aligned spore-pellets eventually spread their lentinura edodes mycelium along the vessels in a log, and sprout mushrooms, 1-1.5 years later. Hmmmm … it takes time for having nice meals.

From Niiharu, early spring

Another main event was tea-leave harvesting. Niiharu Forest has several tea-tree farms (all of which are off-limits for visitors to see). A day before the Fair, the volunteers went into one of them and harvested first flashes. Next day, the visitors were invited to a smaller farm and experienced tea-picking by themselves. Both leaves were hand-processed communally during the Fair by the visitors and the volunteers so as to make “tea leaves” as we can find in supermarkets. Er, just listing the how-to is easy. To make tea leaves ready for hot water, we
  1. Pick the leaves,
  2. Steam them, and
  3. “Hand-massage” them in a huge pan heated by gentle charcoal until the leaves become dry.

That’s it. Only 3 steps. The devil is in the detail. Oh, yeah. The reason why we did in such a complicated leaf-picking is, making fresh tea leaves into a supermarket version requires time and effort. Let me explain.

We are picking leaves!

First, picking. Japanese tea trees, Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze, are max 80cm high and said to live for 100 years. Every spring they have new leaves. We pick the sprout and the next 1-2 leaves for making green tea. The best tea shall be made from the first 3 leaves of a new branch, the most senior volunteer told us. i.e. Don’t include older leaves and leggy branches that add another procedure to “clean” the harvested leaves before steaming. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. A day before the Fair, the volunteers went in to a larger farm with the eyes of amateurs, and realized deciding which leaves to be picked was very difficult. A fragrant tea farm of brilliant green fooled us to believe quite a lot of leaves would make a good cup of tea. So we became greedy and cut first 5 or 6 leaves and threw them in a plastic bag. The senior volunteers inspected our job, and said “No, no! We have to clean them. Leave only the first 3, and pick the lower 1-2 leaves from the stem.” “Er … but, they said Emperor Hirohito loved green tea of tea stems … wouldn’t it be OK to keep them?” “What!? He’s a war criminal! My brothers died because he made them his soldiers! Whatever he drunk, the best tea is from the first few leaves!” OK, OK, and so we “cleaned” … it was a meditation to purge our greediness ...

… We think they are the first 3 leaves … aren’t they?
Amateur-harvested tea-leaves …
are to be “cleaned.”
Cut at the end of first 3 leaves, then pick the other 2.
The stem is to be discarded.

Next, before steaming, the leaves are to be dried overnight. The freshly picked leaves can be processed immediately as well, but they can only be “Ban-cha” whose color is more of brown, rather than pale emerald green for green tea. Ban-cha does not have much of a slightly bitter taste of good green tea, and hence easy for kids to drink. Tea-picking by kids on the Festival day is for educational purpose. So, that’s that. But if we want to enjoy the taste of the first flash of the year, the freshly picked leaves must be dried before steaming. The rationale resides at the top 3 leaves, i.e. the growth point of a branch. In order to grow, the tree concentrates all the nutritional elements, e.g. various vitamins, theasaponin, catechin, theanin, … dissolved in water at the growth point. To make a flavorsome green tea, we need to preserve these nutrients as much as possible. They will be gone if we wait too long before processing the picked leaves. In addition, too much heat during steaming will destroy the elements. So our mission is to make the fresh tea leaves adequately dried before quick steaming. Ideally, picked leaves are to be collected in bamboo baskets at the field to start drying immediately. Lovers do not have enough number of baskets so that we gathered the harvest in large plastic bags, hastily spread the picked leaves over tightly-weaved stray mats, misted them with H2O, and left them overnight under a shed. Why spraying before drying? The sprayed mist causes the fluctuation of osmotic pressure in the cells of the first flashes that pushes within-cell moisture efficiently out overnight. Consequently, a swift steaming becomes effective.  By the way, Ban-cha are normally made of 2nd-3rd harvesting of tea leaves of a year and used massively for bottled tea-products. (At the end of day, we mixed the “Ban-cha” of visitors with the volunteer picked leaves when we shared the fruit of our labor J.)

Misting the leaves before drying
When winds are strong,
we cover the leaves with a straw-mat.

Third, we have to prepare the optimal tools for “massaging leaves” at least a day before. The overnight-dried and then steamed leaves are to be rubbed (a kind of, more below) over a huge rectangular pan, called hoi-ro 焙炉, set on charcoal heat. To keep the nutrients, the temperature on the pan should not be sizzling hot or dead cold, i.e. at about 40-50°C. We used pans made of wooden frame with a thin galvanized iron sheet at the bottom. Before using them, inside of the pans must be covered by a sheet of thick Japanese paper, wa-shi 和紙, that could maintain the heat just-right during the massages. The volunteer seniors mixed wheat flour and water in a small milk pan and cooked them in a low heat until the mixture became goo. Then, they spread it inside of the hoi-ro to glue the Japanese paper. Ideally, a sheet of paper is to be pasted snuggly, but not too tight, to cover the bottom and 4 sides of hoi-ro with the corners neatly tucked in, without any wrinkle. It is left overnight under the shed to air-dry. Wa-shi is made of pure organic materials that could flexibly and perfectly fit itself within hoi-ro when dried. Easier said than done, case 2. First, a hoi-ro is large. Spreading a paper over about 2m*1m of hoi-ro, tucking the corners immaculately, and pasting flatly (but not too-tight) without making wrinkles certainly required the skill and teamwork. Besides, Japanese paper is not cheap. “Oh, no, don’t crush it there!” “Geeee … wrinkles. You know, wrinkles do not convey the heat uniformly, which causes problems during tea-rubbing …” “Let’s hold each corner, and drop the paper at once all together … 1, 2, 3 … Woooooops!!!!”

First, wa-shi is cut to the size of hoi-ro,
and well-creased at 4 corners.
Strict inspection of corners
… a bad example to paste wa-shi over hoi-ro
… wrinkles, wrinkles …
It’s the thought that counts …
Prepared hoi-ro is left under the shed overnight.
We prepared 3 of them.

Fourth, preparation of massages. In the morning of the Fair, the volunteers built a fire with logs. Half of them were to be charcoals under hoi-ro, and the rest was to boil water to steam tea-leaves. The right amount of overnight-dried leaves were put in a 70cm*70cm rectangular sei-ro 蒸籠 which is a steamer made of wooden frame with a bamboo mesh at the bottom. Sei-ro was then covered by a wooden lid, and put on the one-holed wood panel covering a huge iron pan filled with boiling water over the fire. “Wait 40 seconds. This is important!” “Open the lid and quickly stir the leaves to let the heating uniform inside.”  “1 minute and 40 seconds later after setting the sei-ro over the boiling water, the steaming is complete. Exactly 1 minute and 40 seconds, you know.” The steamed leaves must be moved to a heated hoi-ro without delay. We did this back and forth between the steaming stove and 3 hoi-ros … for so many times. I did not count … The scent around sei-ro was superb. Continuously steaming tea leaves was a kind of aroma therapy, honestly. I loved it!

Building fire
The stove to steam tea-leaves
The charcoals were then fed with logs constantly.
Under the one-holed wood there is a barrel-sized iron pan
that keeps boiling water.
The steam comes out the hole,
and the wood panel also retains moisture during the process.
The amount of steam is just right.
It is a traditional tool well-designed.
Set the steamer over the wooden panel.
Of course, we Japanese use a digital timer,
whatever the tradition.
The amount of leaves is just right in a sei-ro.
No more, no less.
Wait, in total of 1 minute and 40 seconds.
The steamed leaves are hastily transferred to hoi-ro.

And fifth, massaging. The professionals massage tea leaves into delicate green needles like this. … it is too high mountain to climb for us. Besides, the Spring Fair is to let the kids experience the process of making dried tea leaves, so, let’s lower our bar … “No! The succession of tradition becomes possible only when we aim for the top. Thus, today, first, we have to knead freshly steamed leaves. Hold one leaf, or a sprout between your two hands and slowly scrub it … yes, a bit of force is recommended … well-done kids! “ (30 minutes later) “Now, the leaves become resistant to the kneading, so we rub them by handful … no, no, not too tightly. Your way of rubbing made the tea leaves into powder. That’s not right. Relax … Yes. That’s right.” (1-2 hours later) “OK, the leaves become loosely dried … let me see (stirring the pile of rubbed tea leaves) … but not enough for storage. If you keep them with this moisture, refrigerator or not, they will be molded. They must be dried further. Scoop the tea leaves with two hands and gently massage them by turning over the bottom to the top … yes, well done.” “We make small rows of semi-dried leaves … In this way, the leaves are exposed more to the external air circulation that could quicken the drying process.” “Don’t stir too much! Now leaves are much more dried, and thoughtless mixing make the leaves crumble!” “Hmmmm … the charcoal beneath here is almost extinguished maybe. Hey, please bring more charcoal here!” “Woops, this creased part of wa-shi is smoking! (er, as expected) we must move the leaves from here!!!”

At the beginning, take the steamed sprout like this, and
Nead it!
Like this.
Kids can do it!
Could you see the difference?
Now we are entering the rubbing phase.
Beginning of massaging
Creating ridges of tea leaves

And so on. Roughly 30 kids and 60 adult visitors collaborated with the volunteers to massage tea leaves over heated hoi-ro. We finally arrived green tea leaves dry enough similar to supermarket variety after about 4 hours of toil. Well, they certainly did not look like commercial product. But majority of teas in shops are quickly machine-processed. Ours was really hand-processed organic tea. They smell great. At the end of the day, about 120 people brought home the massaged leaves for numerous cups of green tea. Hurrrah!

The left plate is from leaves picked by kids
and processed without drying.
The right is from quasi-dried leaves.
They do not look much different,
but the tea on the right smells apparently stronger.
It must be due to the power of osmosis …
I also made black tea from left-over dried leaves of Niiharu.
The method showed here is definitely easier
than for traditional green tea leaves.
Looks like Fortmason Tea, wow.

Do you know the best way to enjoy green tea is brewing with good quality soft ICED water? We can just throw standard amount of green tea leaves in a pot of cold water with ice, and leave it for 5 minutes. Green tea brewed in this way does not release tannin and caffeine both of which are the source of slightly bitter taste of tea. Even babies of less than 1 year old can enjoy iced-water brewed tea. J

If you find a problem in the Niiharu Forest, please make a contact with

Office for the Park Greeneries in the North 北部公園緑地事務所
Yokohama Municipal Government Creative Environment Policy Bureau 横浜市環境創造局
Phone: 045-311-2016 (I guess in Japanese only)
FAX: 045-316-8420 (I hope there is somebody who can read English …)

Niiharu Administrative Office / Satoyama Exchange Center 新治管理事務所・里山交流センター
Phone: 045-931-4947
Fax: 045-937-0898

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