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Meet our Japanese tea producers: the Watanabe Family

By Kym Cooper. Posted | 2 comments
The Steepery Tea Co. - Yakushima Island

In a lush paradise, in the world acclaimed (UNESCO) micro-climate of Yakushima Island, we source some absolutely stunning organic Japanese teas from the loveliest tea makers, the Watanabe family. Yakushima Is. is well known for some of the earliest budding Spring tea cultivars in Japan and for those not so familiar this Island is located within the Kagoshima prefecture. We are patiently waiting on the arrival of the 2019 Kuritawase sencha to share with you in our online Brisbane tea retail store. 

The Steepery Tea Co - Watanabe family tea garden (long range)

We took the opportunity before the busy Spring harvest to ask the Watanabe family some questions. We hope after reading this you will have a connection to our makers and an appreciation of how much love and dedication goes into the production of these exceptional teas.

A big thank you to Misato Furumiya (a good friend, Japanese Green Tea Instructor, Japanese Tea Goodwill Ambassador and a practicing Urasenke student) who has so generously translated the Japanese responses. Thank you to the Watanabe family for answering our questions and providing the beautiful images that accompany our blog post today. 

The Steepery Tea Co - Watanabe family garden

This is a 10 minute read, please enjoy.

1. What are 3 interesting facts about the Watanabe family tea gardens that our Australian audience would be interested to hear?

The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe family tea garden (mulching) 

  1. the most time consuming job and where much effort is spent throughout the year is weeding our tea gardens
  2. we manage all processes from the tea plantation, manufacturing in our factory to merchandising and sales all by ourselves*
  3. the latitude of Yakushima Island is almost the same as Coffs Harbour in the Southern hemisphere.

* to provide further explanation it is important to understand that traditionally the Kagoshima tea market (and possibly the Japanese tea market more widely but I am unable to comment on this as I don't have the same insight). has created roles and functions that separate these activities. It is rarer to source tea from producers that undertake all of these activities. 

2. What are the different styles of tea the Watanabe family produce? And which one of these teas embodies your philosophy and approach to tea production?

We grow the following cultivars: Kuritawase, Saemidori, Asatsuyu, Yutakamidori, Yabukita, Meiryoku and Kanayamidori (these are in order of earliest picking).

We produce the following types and styles: sencha (both shaded and non-shaded), wakocha, hojicha, genmaicha and hojigenmaicha. 

We produce all of our teas from the first picking of our organic leaves with the exception of our wakocha. 

Honestly, it is too difficult to choose a single tea because each tea has its own characteristic. However, if we had to pick one, it would be Kuritawase.

When it comes to tea production, the most important element is the soil. So we would prefer to emphasise that our philosophy begins from the field. Yakushima Island itself has very unique environment.


The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe family tea garden (soil condition)

We believe that our tea field should be in symbiosis with nature and not just a place to cultivate tea. We can grow a good quality tea by naturally preventing pests or damage of diseases and adhering to the biorhythm of all the lives such as plants, insects, birds and even microorganisms in natural environment surrounding the tea field that contribute to a state of healthy condition.

There are no plantations of other producers adjoining ours as we are bordered by a cedar forest. Those living organisms create appropriate environment going back and forth between tea field and forests. We believe it's unnecessary to use pesticides or chemical fertilisers in this cycle of life.

Kuritawase Sencha is an early picking cultivar which is produced mostly in Tanegashima Island and Yakushima Island. We really take account of the amount of organic fertiliser, term and timing of shading and so on. As it is the earliest picking tea across our tea gardens, we can listen to the right timing in terms of picking. We refine Kuritawase with light firing as much as possible in order to preserve its native aroma.

The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe tea garden Spring budding

As for my curiosity, I am personally so interested in making first flush Wakocha. However, we are only able to sell a small amount as we produce much less compared to sencha. I grow tea leaves for Wakocha every picking period for trial basis to experiment in parching and fermentation.

3. You tend to use much better quality leaf material (first picking) to produce everyday teas such as genmaicha and hojicha that are normally produced using bancha. Why do you like producing these teas using young leaves?

The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe tea garden processing equipment
In my opinion, genmaicha made of bancha doesn't taste good. First picked tea has a lot of umami. Roasted fragrance of genmaicha and umami don't clash with each other so that they create well balanced taste when they come together.

In terms of Hojicha, the aroma is superb when using new tea. We take good advantage of new tea to bring out rich aroma taking time for roasting slowly and lightly. We have had our hojicha tested by the inspection agency to compare to sencha on its contained amounts of theanine and amino acid. We found that that most of the components remained after roasting. I can clearly say our Hojicha is very flavourful, aromatic and good at providing that relaxing effect.

We don't pick autumn-winter leaves (apart from Wakocha leaves). Those late leaves still have plenty of nutrition components to make good compost so we prune and put them in ridges which also work efficiently for prevention from growing weeds.

4. How much of the tea production process is art and how much is science?

This is a good but difficult question. Because to be honest we don't place much of an awareness of art or science for tea production. Even if the appearance of tea leaves are good, or we introduce the latest machine, they are not relevant to what you fancy when you actually taste it. The ideal would be to have you imagine the nature of Yakushima Island at your first sipping.

The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe tea garden Yakushima Island biosphere
As we are not a big production company, we don't give importance of making the tea which tastes exactly the same annually. We more focus on making distinctive tea made under the condition of each year.

As for the processing, we don't have such craftsmanship of hand rolling, however we have been producing teas based on accumulated experiences year by year. We can't really describe as art and science, it is more like intuition.

Tea production really hinges on the quality of raw material leaves. We put them through the machine to process however we always keep an eye on it and check moisture amount by hand at each stage of process which definitely requires the sense of perception.

The Steepery Tea Co. - Watanabe family tea gardens

My dad is in charge of the processing. He always reflects on himself and aims to make the best quality tea every year. I'm not sure if he has ever had a mere year that he has been completely satisfied with his work over 30 years.

We would rather say the tea production processing is nature-conscious arts. If the definition of science would be the knowledge or technique, then we would say 7 to art and 3 to science out of 10.

5. We personally love pairing tea & food and sharing this experience with our customers. Are you able to share a tea & food paring with one of your own teas that you think is delicious?

  • Genmaicha × Japanese sticky rice mochi seasoned with soy sauce and sugar (tastes like salted caramel)
  • Wakocha × Baumkuchen (Baked cake originally from German sweets)
  • Wakocha (add a little sugar) × Curry
  • Yutakamidori or Yabukita × Chocolate, Brown sugar sweets or Sushi
  • Hojicha goes well with everything!

The Steepery Tea Co - Watanabe tea garden sunlight 

We know that after reading this you will be really keen to sample these exceptional teas. You will find Kuritwase Sencha (not yet in stock for 2019), genmaicha and hojicha in our online Brisbane tea retail store and you can even enjoy having a cup at some of our local Brisbane food service wholesalers.   


2 comments

  • Kym Cooper says

    Thanks Ms. Cattea. We are so pleased you enjoyed reading this blog. We love sharing stories of our producers and I feel like this level of transparency is really important.

  • Cat says

    What an excellent read! Thank you for sharing :)

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