Tea Stand Gen
By sustainably farming a sencha green tea with a naturally unique flavor and serving it up at Tea Stand Gen, Genki Takahashi is reaffirming the important cultural role of green tea in Japan as a bond with nature and between people in addition to providing a soothing and healthy cup of tea.
Tea Stand Gen is located down one of the narrow lanes in the labyrinth that lies between the city of Onomichi’s port on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea and its high street further up the hill. Once filled with raucous sailor’s dormitories, bars, ramen shops, and houses of ill-repute, the network of paths and passages is now home to an eclectic mix of craft shops, galleries, and creative new restaurants and is a key part of the charm that makes Onomichi one of the most vibrant country destinations in the region.
Eponymously named after its owner and master tea brewer Genki Takahashi, Tea Stand Gen is a small rustic shop in the style of a farmhouse kitchen and the do-it-yourself budget of a young entrepreneur. One can order a cup of green tea by standing outside and receiving it through a large open window. Or you can go inside and enjoy your tea while sitting on a stool at the shop’s single long counter, at the other end of which Genki brews green tea called sencha for his customers.
Sencha is green tea prepared by steeping whole tea leaves in hot water. It is the casual, daily way of preparing green tea versus the formal ceremony of making green tea by infusing hot water with powdered tea leaves, known as matcha. Still, there is as a great deal of care in preparing sencha. Genki heats the tea cups by filling them with boiling water and then uses this water—once it has cooled down to 80 degrees Celsius after about a minute—to steep the tea leaves in a tea pot for another minute. The tea is then served and the sequence repeated several more times until the initial sweet, rich taste of the tea leaves dissipates and the visit comes to an end as enjoying tea made this way is as much about camaraderie and conversation as it is about refreshment.
The green tea that Genki brews is a local heirloom variety that is farmed by him naturally, without chemical or organic pesticides and fertilizers, on a tea farm about an hour away in the mountain highlands of Hiroshima prefecture. Genki also processes the tea himself to ensure its unique flavor and the sustainability of every step of what he calls his “farm-to-cup” tea. Called Hiroshima zairai sencha, “zairai” meaning “taste of the locale” or “wild” tea, his tea has a bold, sweet and rich flavor that spreads in the mouth and has not a trace of bitterness or astringency even after the second or third steeping. Genki also roasts his tea to create a Hiroshima zairai version of houjicha, a caffeine-free tea that pairs well with all kinds of foods—Western and Asian as well as Japanese—because of its smoky aroma and taste. A third type of zairai tea Genki makes is a lightly fermented black tea called Hiroshima zairai wakoucha. It combines elements of black tea and green tea flavor and has a slightly fruity sweetness and is not acrid even after being steeped several times.
Other teas on offer include Onomichi Hamacha, or beach tea, which is a refreshing, coarse leaf tea that Genki cures on racks along the shore of Mukaijima Island just opposite Onomichi in order to catch the taste of the sea and a bit of salt, and Hanacha, or flower tea, which includes the dried flowers of the tea plant in addition to the coarse leaves to create an aromatic, delicately floral tea. These variations are designed to create new tastes of place and, very importantly, to broaden the appeal and versatility of sencha, all a part of Genki’s mission to revive the practice of hand-brewing and drinking high quality, all-natural sencha.
A Taste of the Domain of Nature
In Japan, green tea plays a hugely important cultural, social, and dietary role because it is considered the essence of all the goodness that nature has to offer. It is harvested in late May when its leaves are a bright green, its aroma is the fresh, verdant smell of springtime, and its taste is satisfyingly sweet and rich with umami. Green tea also offers the full range of vitamins from A to E, as well as anti-toxins and other nutrients. Unlike most of the teas of the world, and somewhat contrary to what one would expect of an essential food in Japan, green tea is not fermented when it is processed. Instead, it is steamed as a way of blanching it to preserve its flavor and health benefits. The leaves are then dried and rolled into slender needles for sencha or ground into a fine powder for matcha.
Drinking green tea alone or with others is a form of communion with nature and the shared belief of living in harmony with nature. Traditionally a cup of sencha is offered as a welcome to guests at a restaurant, to clients at an office, and to visitors to one’s home. Somewhere near the entrance of every household in Japan there customarily was a wooden box in which there were the implements for making a visitor several cups of sencha—a small kyusu teapot, a chazutsu tea canister with a sami tea spoon, a yuzamashi pot for pouring hot water, and five yunomi tea cups and chataku saucers.
But the daily art of hand-brewed, high-quality sencha is becoming a lost tradition, undermined in the last thirty years by the introduction of pre-made sencha in plastic bottles in 1990. Initially restricted to one-liter bottles to limit waste and littering, the restrictions were lifted in 1996 and 500-milliliter and smaller bottles were introduced. Easy for anyone to buy, serve, and drink, plastic-bottled sencha overtook hand-brewed in 1999. In addition to the loss of the simple grace of brewing and drinking sencha and the detrimental impact on the environment of plastic waste, sencha has been losing its soul—the flavor of nature in all its varieties and vicissitudes. The popularity of plastic-bottle sencha accelerated an existing trend toward large farms mass-producing green tea from plants propagated by cuttings of the same high-yielding hybrid, the Yabukita varietal. Yabukita tea plants now account for over 75% of Japan’s tea fields. The tea plants, in turn, are protected by pesticides and fed with fertilizers to produce consistently flavored, umami-packed types of sencha. Sencha bottled by beverage companies ranks among the poorest quality because they rely on mass-produced, lower quality tea leaves—damaged leaves and leaves not picked young and fresh at the start of the growing season but later during second and third harvests.
Thirty-one years old and having grown up in a big city like Hiroshima, to Genki the tradition of enjoying small-farmed and hand-brewed sencha must have seemed like ancient history when in his early twenties he embarked on a career in green tea. He first worked for two years at a tea farm in Kagoshima prefecture, a region that is the second-largest, mass producer of green tea after Shizuoka prefecture. He next worked for two years at Ippodo, the venerable tea house in Kyoto that has been in business for over three centuries and is famous for the quality of its blended green teas. During this time Genki learned about the inadequacies of low-quality, mass-produced sencha. He also became aware of the flaws of high-quality sencha, including the pervasive industry practice to blend teas from different farms to create a consistent “branded” flavor rather than promote distinct tastes from individual farms, the stressing of tea plants by shading them with trellises to produce a richer grade of sencha called gyokuro, and the well-intended but still damaging effects of organic pesticides and fertilizers on the environment.
After receiving his tea master’s license, Genki joined a small but growing number of people across Japan who are dedicated to producing and sharing high-quality, hand-brewed sencha. These include other small tea farmers and tea stands and cafes. But there may be only a few who are as committed as he is to producing an all-natural, completely sustainable sencha with a unique taste of place.
Genki’s tea farm (called a chabatake in Japanese) is located outside the town of Sera, which lies roughly midway along the length of the pastoral highlands of Hiroshima prefecture, and is the main market town for the many small family farms operating in the region. At four-hundred meters above sea level in Japan’s sub-tropical zone, the highlands provide excellent growing conditions for all types of foods, including rice, wheat, barley, and marudaizu soy beans. In recent years, a growing number of local residents have returned to the region after having lived in Japan’s big cities to revive abandoned farms and start new food businesses, such as Mirasaka Fromage, a mountain grazing dairy farm making delicious artisanal cheeses. The valley’s warm sunny days, cool nights, ample rainfall and morning mists, and mineral-rich soil and good drainage are especially good for growing tea.
Genki’s is a small tea farm, about half a hectare in size, and it sits on the crown of a hill surrounded by forests and rice fields. The tea field was planted sixty years ago by seed rather than by cuttings. It takes ten years for a tea plant started by seed to mature versus five years for one propagated by a cutting, during which time the seeded tea plant puts down roots one meter deep, making it naturally strong and healthy. In addition, seeded tea plants always have their own unique flavor no matter what type of varietal they originated from because their growth is heavily influenced by the soil and climate of their location. Such tea plants are called zairai, which means “unique taste of the locale” or “wild.” Only 3% of the green tea grown in Japan is zairai; the other 97% are clones of various types of hybrids—mostly Yabukita.
The tea farm was abandoned twenty years ago as pre-made, plastic-bottled green tea overtook hand-brewed. Many small family tea farms across Japan have been abandoned in the last few decades because of the decline in demand for their high-quality tea. Genki’s tea farm looked, as he says, “like the wilds of Yunnan province in southwestern China where green tea originated and was nearly dead.” Over several years he restored it through back-breaking work that required trimming back the overgrown tea plants to create tight rows, removing the bamboo and weeds growing among the tea plants, and hoeing and renewing the land between the rows.
Since then Genki has been farming the field together with a team of five other people by hand and as nature intends. He does not use pesticides; instead, he relies on the good insects, like lady bugs, spiders, and praying mantis, to eat the bad insects. He also allows weeds and grasses to grow between the tea plants as an alternative food for the insects. Genki also does not use fertilizers. The more flavorful tea leaves that fertilizers create encourage the bad bugs to eat more, which requires the use of more pesticides. (That is one of the several reasons why Genki does not make the flavor-enhanced gyokuro type of sencha; it attracts more insects.) As Genki says, “Pesticides kill the good insects as well as the bad ones, and once pesticides are used, the bad bugs will always outnumber the good bugs, requiring even more pesticides.” He does not believe that organic pesticides like the copper-based ones used by organic tea farmers, nor the organic fertilizers like cow and pig manure, are an answer because they too would ultimately leach into the environment and have a negative impact on the surrounding farms. Genki views his hilltop tea field as the apex of an ecological pyramid and what he does there can undermine the other layers of the pyramid and cause it to collapse.
What is particularly noticeable about Genki’s tea field is that it is unmarred by the unsightly ranks of tall metal poles one sees in most tea fields, on top of which are small electric fans used to blow warm air down to the tea plants during early spring nights to prevent frost damage on the prized first young shoots of the tea called shincha, or first flush tea. Visiting Genki one day early in May after there had been a frost the night before, we found that he stoically accepted the damage to some of the lower leaves of his tea plant and continued on with his weeding in preparation for the harvest in the weeks to come.
Story & Photos: Tom Schiller
Tea Stand Gen
1-14-10 Tsuchido, Onomichi, Hiroshima 722-0035
Tel: +81 (0848) 88 9188
Tea Stand Gen is only open from 11:00 to 18:00 on Saturdays and Sundays because Genki is busy during the week at his tea farm and tea factory. However, Genki is the sponsor of a tea cafe in Hiroshima City called Engawa, which is open every day except Thursdays from 11:00 to 17:00. At both locations you can buy as well as drink his tea. You can also order his tea from the online shop on the factory’s website. It becomes available in June, after the harvest, and sells out quickly.
1-32-59 2F, Dejima, Minami-ku, Hiroshima, 734-0013
Tel: +81 (082) 258 1114
There are two train lines that will get you to Onomichi. One is the Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train line, which arrives at Shin-Onomichi station, which is slightly north of the city. From there to downtown Onomichi it is a 10-minute cab ride or 15-minute ride on a local commuter train. The other train is the Sanyo Line, a local train that runs along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea and arrives in the middle of the city at Onomichi Station. This train is much slower but conveniently connects to the many interesting country towns in the area. From Onomichi Station it is about a 10-minute walk to Tea Stand Gen.
Tea Factory Gen
When traveling in the Japanese countryside, one often sees a long, low, rambling shed along the side of the road that is especially charming because of its row of large windows. More than likely this is an abandoned tea factory (chakoba), once used to process locally-grown tea leaves. Last year Genki bought one of these abandoned tea factories, located about ten minutes from his tea farm by car, and this year he will process his tea there. Previously, he processed the tea at other, rented facilities.
While green tea has long been steamed in Japan, it was not until 1738 that the equally unique process of rolling the tea to create sencha was invented by a man named Nagatani Soen. Rolling the tea leaves was an important advancement because it breaks the cell walls of the tea leaves, which enables their flavor to release better during steeping. The entire process of steaming, drying, and rolling sencha is an art in itself and influences the final taste of the tea. The length of time steaming the tea leaves is an especially important factor.
Genki found all the equipment he needed at another abandoned tea factory across the mountains in the town of Izumo in Shimane prefecture and had it shipped to his tea factory. He was also able to find a local octogenarian who could get the equipment up and running again. There are five key pieces of machinery.
Tea Steaming Machine: This machine, the first in the process, steams the tea leaves for about 15 to 20 seconds and is done within 12 to 20 hours after the leaves are picked, before any deterioration in their quality can take place. Steaming the leaves is akin to blanching them and preserves their natural green color, aroma, taste, and nutritional components.
First Dryer & Rolling Machine: The drying and rolling process begins right after the steaming has finished and continues over four stages. The first machine in this part of the process air dries the coarse leaves to quickly cool them down after they have been steamed and also does an initial loose rolling.
Rolling Only Machine: The third machine is the only one that does not use heat. Instead, it gently tears and softens the fiber of the tea leaves. It also removes the stems. Genki also uses this machine to create black tea.
Second Dryer & Rolling Machine. Linked directly to a furnace, this machine dries and also presses the tea leaves in a small drum. It also begins twisting them into a finer shape. Genki’s drum dryer is lined with bamboo unlike new ones, which are lined with plastic.
Final Dryer & Rolling Machine: This machine is made up of a hot burner, rolling hands, and pans with many pleats. It eliminates most of the remaining moisture content of the leaves and rolls them into their characteristic thin needle shape. Concealed inside the tightly twisted shape is the tea’s fragrance and essence of its flavor. Genki is especially proud of this final, all-important rolling machine as it was made by the Date company and in its day was considered the “Cadillac” of sencha processing.
After the rolling and drying process is completed, the flower buds, stems, and larger coarser leaves that did not roll into a tight needlelike twist are sorted out. Genki uses the buds to make his hanacha, the stems to make kukicha, and the coarser leaves to make his houjicha, hamacha, and wakoucha. In this way he uses all parts of the harvest and does not waste anything.
There are several locations across Japan where you can drink and sometimes buy Genki’s Hiroshima zairai tea. Three of these are:
Fukuchiin Imakouya - Sera
Fukuchiin Imakouya is a community organization in an old thatched-roof farmhouse located near Tea Factory Gen. In addition to Genki’s teas it serves delicious meals made using ingredients from small local farms and holds a variety of events. It is a perfect place to stop if bicycling or driving through the mountain highlands of Hiroshima prefecture.
Pâtisserie Asako Iwayanagi - Tokyo
Located in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward in the west of the city, Pâtisserie Asako Iwayanagi is a stylish cake shop and cafe where you can enjoy Genki’s Hiroshima zairai teas along with a variety of decadent cakes, cookies, and other sweet confections.
Len Kyoto Kawaramachi - Kyoto
Conveniently located near the Kawaramachi subway station at Shijo and Kawaramachi streets, Len Kyoto Kawaramachi is a backpackers hostel with a cafe, bar, and dining room serving high quality foods at reasonable prices.
Cooking with Sencha
Traditionally one eats the sencha tea leaves after the final steeping with a touch of ponzu sauce or some kind of citrus juice and salt. This is a way to get the full benefit of all the vitamins in the leaves because vitamins A and D do not leach out from the leaves during steeping. There are many other ways of consuming the leftover tea leaves. They can be sauteed in oil, added to soups and stews, and even used in a quiche. When using sencha in cooking, it is always useful to balance their rich flavor and slight bitterness with some salt and acid. Genki’s Hiroshima zairai houjicha tea was a key ingredient in a Kumquat & Houjicha marmalade made by Cosakuu, an artisanal provisions store located in Onomichi, which won an Artisan Gold Award at the “World’s Original Marmalade Awards” held at Dalemain Mansion in England in 2017. The tea leaves will keep for about three days in a sealed container in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.