Nestled on the edge of Saga prefecture on the southern Island of Kyushu (Japan), the city of Ureshino has become somewhat of a hotspot for tea tourism in recent years. That is, in part, due to the region holding the title of “birthplace of Japanese tea”, and also because it is home to a special green tea production that’s been winning awards left and right over the last decades.
ORIGINS OF JAPANESE TEA
Tea was first introduced in Japan in 1191 when a monk named Eisai brought some leaves (and later seeds) from his trip to the Buddhist monasteries of China. With these in hand, Eisai made his way to Mount Sefuri (present day Yoshinogari – Saga prefecture) where the tea culture made its first roots in Japanese soil. Later, of course, it spread.
SPECIALTY GREEN TEAS
While the legend gives Ureshino some degree of folkloric credibility, Ureshino-cha (“Ureshino tea”) isn’t valued so much for the significance of its origins rather than for the quality of its production. As a geographical location, Ureshino offers prime conditions for growing tea. The modest hills surrounding the city which host most of Ureshino tea gardens are blessed with cold nights, providing necessary contrast to the warm southern climate of Kyushu Island. Thick fog covers the slopes of the tea gardens at dawn, stressing the plants just enough to produce high quality leaves. The whole Ureshino region (which, under registered and controlled labels, extends to some parts of the neighboring Nagasaki prefecture) is known mostly for its two main specialties: tamaryokucha and kamairicha.
Tamaryokucha resembles sencha in many aspects including taste and production methods. But while sencha leaves have a needle-like appearance due to their final rolling process, tamaryokucha undergoes its final drying without any rolling and its leaves end up shaped like commas. The term tamaryokucha means “coiled green tea” and is sometimes used interchangeably with guricha, or “curly tea”. The difference in the transformation sequence gives tamaryokucha less sharpness and clarity than sencha, but a richer and rounder profile overall.
Standing out as the only Japanese green tea that doesn’t use steam as a source of heat to prevent oxidation, kamairicha instead uses big iron pans to fire the leaves “à la Chinoise”, giving them a very mellow taste with low astringency.
Depending on how hot the pans are and how long the leaves are fired for, kamairicha can present a wide spectrum of aromatic profiles, ranging from “green vegetables” to “roasted nuts”.
MEET THE PRODUCERS
Founded in 1947 by 34 years old Masaro Tokunaga, the Tokunaga Seicha company started out as a simple tea manufacture and retail adventure. Masaro and his wife Yoshiko would work late nights producing their teas and carrying them around to neighboring markets on their bicycles to try and sell them. Today, third-generation director Kazuhisa Tokunaga and his wife Vera are on a mission to spread Ureshino tea culture not only everywhere in Japan, but also to the rest of the world. Before taking over the family business, Kazuhisa spent time studying in Ireland and realized that many countries had their traditions also steeped in tea and, although these greatly differed from Japan’s tea traditions, they nonetheless presented opportunities for their teas to shine on the international stage. Tokunaga Seicha’s precision and mastery regarding tamaryokucha and kamairicha tea production eventually led them to many awards both at domestic and overseas contests. Their kamairicha especially is a source of pride for the company as it is still made in an antique drum roaster with no thermometer to monitor temperature. In this way, everything is left to the artisans who must monitor the process carefully, relying solely on their senses and experience to gage temperature and lead transformation.