It takes a village

June 27, 2015

It takes a village

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in the case of the Kinezuka family, it takes one tea farmer with a vision to raise the village.

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High up in the mountains of the small Japanese village of Nakayama is an organic tea garden that has singlehandedly changed the ecosystem of the surrounding land. Organic farming is incredibly rare in Japan, but, thanks to Master Kinezuka and his family, the concept is alive and well in Nakayama.

Tea and tangerines

Master Kinezuka, his wife, their children and the family dog run the small tea garden during spring, summer and autumn. During winter when the tea plants are dormant, the focus shifts to the garden’s mikan trees, a Japanese citrus fruit similar to an orange or tangerine.

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Pesticide free agriculture

Master Kinezuka is often credited with pioneering pesticide-free agriculture in Japan and is one of the most respected sources of information in the country. For 40 years he has championed this style of farming and it has inspired others in the village to adopt the same stringent principles and commitments.

“A good farmer knows that to produce good crops, one must first develop good soil.
Thus, the taste of good organic tea is made half of tea leaves and half of the hearts of their farmers.” Master Kinezuka.

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Master Kinezuka believes there is an incredibly delicate relationship between people, agriculture and nature, but if it’s looked after and balanced carefully nature will do the hard work for him and actually takes care of itself. He was spurned into action after discovering that ground water in large tea producing regions was becoming more and more contaminated as chemical use increased.

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Master Kinezuka says soil development and creating the necessary macro environment can take the better part of a decade to cultivate but once healthy, predatory insects like spiders keep pests in check, the tea plants are strengthened against disease and the soil’s balance produces necessary nutrients to grow flavourful tea free from harmful chemicals.

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Initially he was seen as a trouble maker and the other villages shunned him and his ideas rending him effectively an outcast, after a decade or so they began to see evidence of the benefits.

Master Kinezuka is humble when talking about this ground-breaking approach saying there is not much new about his ideas but rather it is simply a return to the traditional agriculture of our forefathers who farmed their crops before modern science exposed us to pesticides and other chemicals.

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He says good soil is the key and that it’s developed over time by using organic fertiliser and compost. The Kinezuka’s garden soil is a hive of activity where you can see the chain of life operating as nature intended. There are tiny insects and the creatures that prey on them like ladybugs, spiders, frogs, snakes and birds. It’s not uncommon to see wild boars eating earthworms.

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The next generation

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While the extended Kinezuka family are all involved in the garden, Master Kinezuka’s daughter has become increasingly involved since returning to the village about 12 years ago from the US where she studied psychology and sociology.

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Her vision is to build on the work her father has already done but to use her qualifications and knowledge to connect people, both rural and urban, to organic tea farming and let them experience the land as nature intended. She believes nature can help break down barriers between people and that working and farming together can foster valuable relationships that may otherwise not occur.

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The tea

The Kinezuka’s produce a few different teas including houjicha and genmaicha.

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Genmaicha is a blend of Japanese green tea and roasted brown rice. While it’s not pure tea (because of the blended roasted rice), the Japanese, and indeed the wider tea community, consider it a staple green tea deserving of its place alongside the famous senchas, gyokuros, houjichas and matchas of this incredible tea growing country.

Genmaicha was originally considered the ‘tea of the people’. It’s generally accepted that genmaicha was invented hundreds of years ago when tea was gaining popularity in Japan, but was very expensive making it an unaffordable luxury for many working the land. To help make the expensive leaves last a little longer an inventive farmer added some toasted rice. This meant less tea leaves were needed for each pot and the tea supply was stretched out. Pleasingly, the flavour was pleasant and it quickly caught on and remained popular as tea prices settled.

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There are plenty of inferior genmaichas on the market. Growers often use low quality late harvest leaves and rely on strong roasted rice to mask the off flavours. Like tea, there are also various grades of roasted rice. The Kinezukas use superior tea leaves and 100% Japanese grown sweet mochi rice.

Houjicha is a roasted tea, unique because most other Japanese teas are steamed. Most Japanese houjicha is made with poorer quality, unsorted leaf material from the tail end of the harvesting season. The Kinezukas use premium leaf material instead.

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Dry houjicha leaves are brown in colour, despite it being a green tea. This is because of the roasting process. Once infused, the liquor has a very distinct reddish-brown appearance, again, very different from other Japanese greens.

The disparities continue on the palate. Hojicha has aromatic toasted nut flavours with a hint of caramel sweetness and barely any tannic bitterness. This is in stark contrast to the vegetal, mineral and seaweed flavours that characterise the majority of Japanese teas.

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Houjicha is lower in caffeine than most teas, both as a result of the high heat roasting and the fact that the leaves used are generally large and from lower down the tea bush – the top tips and young shoots of a plant  tend to have the highest concentration of caffeine. Houjicha is often used to aid digestion and quench thirst because of its low tannin levels and limited astringency. It is a great base for a cold brew tea. It also pairs well with food, beautifully complementing rich flavours.

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You can taste the Kinezuka’s organic houjicha and genmaicha in our tea library.

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