Where Tea Master Tea Comes From (Part II): Shizuoka

Where Tea Master Tea Comes From (Part II): Shizuoka

Greetings from Japan,
My name is Alex. I visit tea regions here in Japan on behalf of Daigoro San and Kanako
San to give customers at Tea Master Matcha Café & Green Tea Shop in Downtown Los
Angeles a better sense of where the shop’s tea comes from. You can read more about
our connection in my report on Yame Shincha from earlier this year right here: CLICK HERE!
This is the second installment and my very first time visiting the famous tea gardens of
Shizuoka Prefecture and I had the privilege of checking out the teas at Osada En.
But first, why is Shizuoka so important to Japanese tea?

Running along the southern coast of Japan’s main Honshu island separating Mt. Fuji
from the Pacific Ocean, Shizuoka is an elongated prefecture where, roughly speaking,
there are mountains in the north that give way to fertile agricultural flatlands and
riverbeds that pour into the sea in the south. Ranked 10th among Japan’s prefectures by
population and 13th in terms of landmass, Shizuoka is a mid-sized part of the country
where several important motorcycle and musical instrument companies got their start.
The prefecture is probably best known, however, for its tea.
Shizuoka has the most tea production acreage and until last year, it had been the
largest producer by volume in the country (usurped by Kagoshima on Japan’s southern
Kyushu island). Shizuoka has mostly been synonymous with sencha, the standard
steamed green tea that is the daily tea of choice in most homes in Japan. Shizuoka
sencha is so ubiquitous in Japan that most people associate the typically astringent teas
for which the prefecture is famous as being the taste of sencha itself, even though
sencha was born in Uji (near Kyoto) in the 1730s.
But the story of tea growing in Shizuoka is far newer than in regions like Kyoto in the
west or Kyushu in the south. In fact, the history of tea in Shizuoka coincides less with
the country’s historical tea traditions than with its modern industrialization. Perhaps it’s
helpful to think of the birth of what we now know as Shizuoka tea as starting with the
Meiji Restoration in 1868, the event in Japanese history that helped further open Japan
to the world after a period of isolation.

Let’s assemble a condensed version of the story of Shizuoka tea — aided by Robert
Hellyer’s excellent 2021 book Green With Milk & Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s
Tea Cups. When the last shogun—Tokugawa Yoshinobu—left Edo (Tokyo), many of his
samurai retainers followed him to the Tokugawa family’s historical home in what is
present day Shizuoka City. Here, as the samurai class itself began to deteriorate, these
former capital dwellers exchanged their “swords for hoes” and became farmers (albeit
often begrudgingly). The Tokugawa pulled what economic levers they could to ease the
transition, land distributed to some 250 samurai families in Makinohara, in the west of
Shizuoka. There, many of these families began tea farms, enduring the several dire
years before the plants could take root and be harvested. Not long afterward, the Meiji
Government’s modernization efforts made another class of workers obsolete when they
decided to push forward a bridge project that spanned across the Oi River near
Makinohara. Some 1,300 porters who had helped goods across the river for generations
were suddenly like the samurai families: left with only land grants from the local
government to ease the transition to farm life. So it was, Shizuoka Tea began to be
grown in the backs of samurai and porters and soon it would find its way not just around
Japan but around the world.
A number of early foreign businessman had played a role in helping tea be exported
overseas from Nagasaki since the late Edo period, but the Meiji Era saw those export
hubs switch to ports in Kobe and Yokohama. The teas coming to Yokohama? They were
mostly from Shizuoka, arriving over a mountain pass or on small ships from harbors.
There, the teas would be finished and shipped overseas, eventually birthing an industry
of boxing, marketing, and branding as “Japan Tea,” an alternative to the teas coming
from China, India and elsewhere.
So, in summary, we can view Shizuoka Tea as the region where Japanese tea, as we
first experienced it outside of Japan, really began. Its importance Japan’s tea industry
continues to this day even as the industry continues to change.

If you ever get to visit Shizuoka on a trip to Japan, you can learn all about this
fascinating history and more at the Tea Museum, Shizuoka. Located on a hill
overlooking the Oi River—only a dozen kilometers from Makinohara, where so much of
Japan’s modern tea history began—this museum was opened in 2018 to educate
visitors and lay claim to Shizuoka as Japan’s “tea capital”—a designation to debate
another time.
What isn’t in doubt is that this impressive institution offers so much to the serious and
newbie tea lover that it is a must-visit for anyone passing through the prefecture by train
or car. The permanent exhibition traces tea history around the world and in Japan, with opportunities to try teas and to visit a traditional tea house overlooking a stunning
garden on the museum grounds. I visited at the end of my trip—reflecting on all the tea
experiences I’d had in Shizuoka—but it would probably be even better as a starting
point for your own Shizuoka tea journey.
Mine began at my home in Kamakura at the end of June, where my partner and I
hopped into a car and drove down the coast heading for Osadaseicha-En—or simply,
Osada Tea—an award-winning producer of fine Shizuoka teas and a longtime supplier
to Tea Master in Downtown Los Angeles. By the end of my trip during my visit to the
museum, what I would realize was that in so many ways Japanese tea was able to
reinvent itself when it took root in Shizuoka—moving from the tea rooms of Uji to kitchen
counters across Japan and eventually around the world—and that spirit of reinvention
and innovation is still very much alive in Shizuoka, as I would discover myself at Osada-

We arrived at Osada En just after lunch on a Friday afternoon in late June 2023.
Natsumi Osada San was kind enough to meet us and offered to take us up to the
company’s organic tea factory located in the higher altitude tea farms in Haruno, a part
of Tenryu ward in what is technically in Hamamatsu City, the largest city in
Shizuoka—but it would be a mistake to think of Haruno as a city. It’s a lush and remote
mountainous area approximately 400 meters above sea level.
On the 30-minute drive from Mori no Machi town, where Osada-En’s headquarters are
located, we saw how recent heavy rains had caused rips in the winding road that made
the sections of the cement fully broken off, exposing the ground beneath like teeth
through a chocolate bar. On the drive, Osada San talked about the 60 hectares of
organic tea fields in and around Haruno, rattling off some of the more than 10 different
cultivars that are grown there including Yabukita, Fujimidori, Goko, and Tsuyuhikari. We
also discussed how different cultivars have different lifespans for producing yields—ten
years for koshun and Tsuyuhikari and three or four times that for Yabukita, for example.
It brought a tea paradox to mind. Even though all tea comes from the same plant, every
cultivar, mountain, leaf, farmer, and producer, will have a different approach to bringing
a tea to life just as every server and guest will have a different approach to enjoying it.
That’s why tea has no bottom and why I can’t stop myself from traveling further down
the tea-strewn rabbit hole.

When we arrive at the organic tea factory we are greeted by Suzuki Takahashi, a farmer
and tea producer who is something of an organic farming pioneer in this part of Japan’s
tea industry. Suzuki San studied organic farming in school and his father gave him a small lot of the family’s nearby farm to experiment with. He first found success with kiwi
fruit—which still grow between the tea fields in Haruno—and later was able to dial in
organic tea farming methods which he still works to perfect today. Haruno is close to
spring water sources and a big motivation for Suzuki San to pursue organic farming was
to avoid potentially adding chemicals from pesticides or nitrogen fertilizers into the river.
Decades later, his commitment remains—he was the only farmer in sight still working
even in the heat of the afternoon sun.
We arrived at the very tail end of the shincha season—which started way back in early
May. By now second flush teas were being turned into kamairicha—a Chinese-style pan
fried green tea that looks and tastes much different than the Japan’s usual steamed
green teas. Kamairicha is much more well known in Kyushu but farmers like Suzuki San
and producers like Osada San seem to thrive off experimentation, even when it comes
out of need to problem-solve. It’s a battle for organic producers to make something out
of the second flush because the warmer weather brings insects and disease to the
plants much faster than their conventionally farmed counterparts.
Touring the organic tea factory—especially when contrasted with touring Osada-En’s
modern conventional facility later in the day—felt like walking through tea history. The
machines felt museum-like, well-worn and used in the best sense of that word. The
factory dates from Heisei 7, which is 1995 in the Western calendar, meaning it’s been
around for almost three decades. In addition to green teas like kamairicha, sencha and
matcha, the organic factory produces black tea and oolong tea. Just last year they built
a shelf to help make producing shade grown teas like matcha easier. Organic farming
remains an uphill battle in Japan—with intense bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles to
clear just to get the designation—and that’s just additional work added to the steep
challenge of crafting excellent teas. Around 20 perfect of Osada-En’s tea is organic and
most of that is exported (the majority to the USA). Many Japanese consumers believe
that Made in Japan products are safe enough on their own without needing the added
‘organic’ designation or process—and it is a process indeed.

When we returned to Osada En headquarters in Mori no Machi, we had a chance to
tour the facilities. Osada-En’s organic sencha—like the organic koshun sencha which
Tea Master offers to guests in Los Angeles— goes through a 59-step process. I know
this because each of the machines at the modern factory are numbered. Osada San
explained about how intensive—maybe even over the top—cleaning process that his
team goes through every time they switch from an organic to a conventional tea
production at the modern factory. This is necessary to meet the food inspection
standards and keep the organic certification. This can be a huge amount of extra work
for Osada San and his team when they receive a big order for one kind of tea even
while they are busy producing another (which happened while we were visiting). Like
shincha season all over Japan, the springtime is really an all-hands-on-deck period
since most of the year’s production will be made in just a couple of months’ time.

We thanked Osada San for being willing to take a break in his busy schedule to show
us around Haruno and around the Osada En’s modern facilities but the highlight of our
visit—the part that really exemplifies the commitment Osada En has to carry the baton
of innovation for which Shizuoka Tea region has become famous—came last: Hakko-

When I think of Osada-En before and after my visit to Shizuoka, the first think that
comes to mind is Hakko-Cha. It is called Yamabuki Nadeshiko by Osada-En. Nadeshiko
is a word referring to divine feminine characteristics and incidentally is also the
nickname of Japan’s National Women’s Soccer Team who is performing well so far at
this year’s 2023 Women’s World Cup. This is a special tea—not just in Shizuoka or
Japan at large, but in the world. Hakko-Cha combines steps of the process used to
make pu ‘erh tea (China’s famous fermented tea from Yunnan Province) with the
Japanese techniques of sake making, all to make a potently delicious, earth-colored tea
which comes in loose leaf, bottled and powdered forms.
It all started well over a decade ago, when Osada San read about a Shizuoka sake
maker who had created a new approach to using koji fungus in his brews. Osada San
started experimenting with ways to use it with tea leaves to create an organic fermented
tea. Eventually, he found the right balance of tea—which relied heavily on Shizuoka-
grown benifuki leaves as well as others—to create an EGCG-heavy tea (without getting
into the scientific weeds, epigallocatechin-3-gallate is a catechin that has been proven
to function as an antioxidant with the potential of having impact on human diseases).
Starting with the raw material of organic green tea leaves, Hakko-Cha is made using a
sensitive microbial fermentation control process that came from years of research into
the life of Japanese sake yeasts. Hakko-Cha, which to be clear contains no alcohol, is
essentially made in a similar way to other fermented Japanese food products from miso
to soy sauce. The tea powder is grown and produced in Shizuoka prefecture and is
100% Organic. The taste is hearty, herbal, and full-bodied. When drank by itself, the tea
is reminiscent of flavors used in traditional medicines and the effect is similar.
It was a passion project for Osada San in the beginning—so much so that he made his
small Hakko-Cha factory in a building right next to his house—and it remains that way
even now. Overlooking the trays of Hakko-Cha during the fermentation process, Osada
San cares for the batches like a hospital nurse might a collection of newborn babies. He
monitors them. Tends to them. Always with a degree of care that crystalized his passion
for tea.
Each batch requires one week of fermentation. Where Japan’s other famous fermented
tea — goishicha from Kochi prefecture—is made partially by an absence of air, Osada
San’s Nadeshiko feeds off the air. Osada San needs to tend to them in the morning and
the evening otherwise the temperature might get too hot. The temperature inside the fermentation room is a steamy 48.5 degrees, making the rotating of the batches a
brutally hot task. Osada San only needs one other person to help him make the
batches, which they only do in summer to avoid having too drastic of a change in
temperature when leaving/entering the fermentation room. Osada San only produces
2000 kilograms of Hakko-Cha annually and is one of just two makers in Shizuoka
making the tea (and the only one doing it organically). This makes Osada-En’s Hakko
Cha one of the rarer teas sold at Tea Master.
Standing in the window looking into the fermentation room listening to Osada San
explain his process, I couldn’t help but think of Daigoro San and Kanako San back at
Tea Master in Los Angeles. They created the Hakko-Cha Latte—using the powdered
form of Hakko-Cha to make a drink that Angelenos love. I’ve compared it to a tea
version of hot-chocolate, very heart-warming in the winter, and offering a substantial
boost in the summer. In some—call it magical—way, it was as if the innovative spirit that
led Osada San to create his Hakko-Cha in the first place had been infused in the tea
and the owners of Tea Master tasted it a whole ocean way, leading to the famed Hakko-
Cha Latte that people like me have enjoyed for years.
As our time together wound down, I explained the Tea Master Hakko-Cha Latte to
Osada San and I saw a flicker of inspiration in his eyes. He became the liveliest he had
all day, as amazed by the serving side of this innovative tea as I was in the production
side. He told me plainly that foreign demand is shaping the Japanese tea industry, a
comment I’ve heard often over my fifteen years of tea exploration and even more in my
six months living in Japan. Earlier, Osada San mentioned how there used to be some
500 hectares of cultivated tea fields in the greater region where Osada En’s tea is
grown but that has now shrunk to just 200 hectares. He had also mentioned that
Shizuoka’s organic farmers only number 200 to Kagoshima’s 600.

What I realized as we left the Hakko-Cha factory and drove along the Ota River, was
that it is people like Osada San and his team at Osada En that is keeping Shizuoka
tea—and its innovate spirit—alive. As we drove, he mentioned that many years ago,
back when they first started to harvest tea in this area, they used to ship tea along the
river. I thought about how those early growers and producers—many of whom had to
reinvent themselves in order to survive—helped reinvent Japanese tea by introducing it
to drinkers around the world. It was impossible to miss how Osada En was still helping
do the same.
For our last stop, Osada San was kind enough to bring us to the Osada-En flagship
shop in town, where his wife Kaori Osada San treated us to tea samples and snacks. I
saw several of the teas that Tea Master has been selling for years—the organic koshun
sencha, the Hakko-Cha powder, and the fukamushi kirari—and ones I’d never tried like
their organic black tea. I thanked both of the Osada Sans for their time and commitment to the world of tea that I, and so many Tea Master guests, love. By the time I left the
shop, my shopping bag was heavy, my heart was full, and a bottle of Hakko-Cha was in
my cupholder as I drove into the Shizuoka sunset toward my next tea adventure.

- Written by Alex Dwyer (@adweezy), August 2023

Back to blog

Leave a comment