Today we’re fortunate to have guest blogger Joan Lambert Bailey writing for us! Joan currently lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty at a local organic farm. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Popcorn Homestead or join her on Twitter.
“Who will buy my tea?” asked Shizue, her normally animated face somber.
The room fell silent as her question ended. Owners of a small tea farm (chabatake) in Saitama, one of Tokyo’s neighboring prefectures and part of the rim of Japan’s breadbasket adversely affected by the March 11th earthquake and resulting nuclear fiasco, Shizue’s family faces a year of lost income. Their tea came in with levels of radiation below the maximum amount allowed by Japanese law, but tainted just enough with fallout from the Daiichi reactors that they believe people will hesitate to buy it.
“We’d hoped for a lower number,” said Shizue. Normally a boisterous, laughing woman her face was uncharacteristically serious. A calligraphy teacher she savors many of Japan’s traditions, especially that of the tea grown at her husband’s family farm. Her stories of foraging for sansai (mountain vegetables) on the mountain that bears the family name and that sits just behind the old farmhouse inspire envy. I’d followed her tales of previous harvests with great interest, and was devastated by her news.
The Sekiguchi chabatake, due west of the plant and more than 200km away, is just one of many small farms affected. The reactor, crippled by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, sits on the shore of the Pacific Ocean 170 miles north of Tokyo. While levels outside of the exclusion zones have returned to normal, some residual effects still remain for farmers and growers in the surrounding regions. Farmers voluntarily destroyed valuable spring crops when it first became clear the radiation had spread. Since then, growers and producers continue to test crops, soil, and water in an effort to know for themselves the safety of their products and land as well as ensure that they deliver a safe product.
The tea that finds its way to the shelves of supermarkets and tea shops around the country is in reality the leaf of a tree (Camellia sinensis). Kept about waist-high – the perfect height for hand-harvesting each spring – by picking and two annual trimmings the bushes tend to live upwards of forty years. The family’s current tea bushes are a little more than twenty years old, planted when Sekiguchi-san’s mother still lived in the house and when his father was still alive to help. Starting just after the dew dries until late afternoon the picked leaves tumble from a small basket strapped to the waist to a larger basket and finally to burlap bags that will be taken to a nearby drying facility. Roughly one week later, shincha or the new year’s tea, emerges nicely packaged and ready for brewing.
Some of the original settlers in this valley, the Sekiguchi’s arrived about 300 years ago when Tokyo was called Edo and Saitama was just becoming famous for its tea: Saiyacha. Signs of the self-sufficient homestead it once was linger still around the farmhouse. Miyoga (a soft, Japanese ginger) sprouts next to one of the outbuildings while red shiso (a flavorful leaf that tempers the tartness of umeboshi or pickled plums and gives them their distinctive color) pops up everywhere. An aging grove of ume or Japanese plum trees runs along the top of the riverbank and yuzu trees (a unique Japanese citrus with a flavor somewhere between lemon and lime) dot the edge of a field. A small stand of bamboo sways in the breeze at the bottom of the driveway and tamed sansai (mountain vegetables) fill in empty spots at the base of trees.
Sekiguchi’s father decided to plant tea when it became apparent that the government’s forestry industry idea, implemented just after the end of World War II as a boost to the country’s reviving economy, was felled by the new material on the scene: plastic. Mountainsides freshly planted with sugi or Japanese cedar now signified a failed investment rather than opportunity, and he would have to venture in to the nearest city to work in an office in order to support his family. Time for vegetable farming was suddenly scant. Tea was easy and a sure bet.
The chabatake remains a side income for this generation, as well. The eldest of four, responsibility for the fields and house falls to Sekiguchi-san even though he lives in Tokyo and is only able to venture out one day a weekend. Their daily lives are, literally and figuratively, far away from this little valley farm laced with deer trails and small piles of monkey scat.
This year they harvested 40 kg of fresh leaves, a little less than the annual average of 100 kg. Whether the harvest was low because there were fewer leaves or because of morale, I didn’t have the heart to ask. The Sekiguchi’s will give it away to family and friends, but won’t go through the effort to sell a product they believe customers will reject. Hopeful for next year, they, like the rest of Japan, simply carry on with business as usual while they wait to see what the future . As farmers, though, they know that’s simply par for the course. After finishing our tea, Sekiguchi-san and his son changed into work clothes and headed out to the fields. There was work to be done and no time to lose.