There is another reason that makes Hon Yama Hebizuka very special. Usually most of Japanese green tea is grown at very lower elevation. It is due to the climate of Japan. There is four seasons and in winter, the environment is very cold.
However, Hon Yama Hebizuka tea garden is located at unexpectedly high elevation. Its altitude is at about 800m. In central Japan, 800-1000m is almost the growing limit of tea tree.
The high mountain weather gives 2 significant benefits.
A: Huge temperature gap between day time and night time.
Higher up on the mountain, the sunshine is stronger. Likewise, we easily get sun-burned when we go to higher altitudes for trekking or sky diving. Tea receives a lot of sunshine in a day time and effectively carries out photosynthesis. Tea produces a lot of organic substances and stores them inside its leaf. At night, the tea leaves will consume the energy (organic substance) for metabolism. At high altitudes, the environment is very different and the temperature at night is very cold that tea can hardly proceed metabolism effectively. After all, most of the organic substances are accumulated inside tea leaves which makes the taste of tea becomes very thick.
B: Winter comes earlier and Spring comes later
In winter, the mineral absorbed by the tea trees from the ground will be accumulated inside the tree. It is because of the plant remains dormant during the very cold environment. This is the resting period of the plant. More mineral will be accumulated in the tree if the resting period is prolonged. The accumulated mineral will be distributed into the first up-coming tea leaves in spring. Mineral in tea is the primary element that contributes to the long lasting after taste. In a way, the longer the resting period of tea, the better the taste of tea. In addition, Hebizuka tea is plucked only once a year in spring. Moreover at high mountain like Hebizuka, winter comes earlier while spring comes later as compared to lower altitude areas. As such, the tea trees has even longer resting period. Tea contains an extraordinary amount of minerals. In Hebizuka mountain area, there are plenty of stones which are rich in iron content. Iron is one of the best minerals that contribute to the ideal taste of tea.
Hebizuka tea has a very strong floral flavor and lingering after taste thanks to a very unique process and special environmental/geographical advantage.
1. History and Culture of Hon Yama Hebizuka Sencha
Hon Yama is located deep inside Shizuoka city. The name of Hon Yama is used for the tea grown along the Abe River or Warashina River stream. Abe River is one of the steep and clear-water rivers in Japan. There are a number of slope along the river side. This place is covered by fog and the daytime is short that limits the growing speed of tea and makes flavor and taste of tea thicker.
The literature (東福寺志) stated that the first tea bush was seeded by a monk during Kamakura era (year 1244). According to the oldest record of Japanese tea written in 1211 by a monk named Ei Sai (栄西), Hon Yama tea was one of the oldest teas in Japan.
The tea produced along the Abe River was usually meant for the high-end market in Japan. In order to differentiate their quality from ordinary green tea, the name Hon Yama was given as a brand to represent its premium quality. The fame of Hon Yama tea reached the climax thanks to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who founded the Edo Era. According to the records, the Shogun Tokugawa constructed the tea store deep inside the mountain at the upstream of Abe River in order to maintain the quality of his tea.
Hebizuka is the name of the mountain located at the highest point of Hon Yama area. It is a very small area where only 10 families stay near the peak of Hebizuka. Out of 10 families, only a few families are involves in the tea business. In Hebizuka, the person who plant tea is also in charge of making tea. Each family has a small tea making facility that is attached with their own house. Our Hon Yama Hebizuka is made by Nakamura family.
2. Production Area - Hon Yama
Shizuoka is well known for fine Sencha and Deep Steamed Sencha. I often heard from my customers who commented that "they do not really like Sencha". To be honest, I wonder what type of sencha they are referring to. As a matter of fact, any tea produced in Japan could be named as Sencha. But if you want to experience the fine quality, you can not miss Sencha produced in Shizuoka..
Basically Shizuoka tea garden consists of 2 kinds as follow.
A: Mountain area along the Southern Alps
The tea garden is at a higher elevation. Each garden produces quality tea rather than the quantity.
B: Tea produced on the hill or slope
- This is relatively at a lower elevation as compared to the mountain area.
- The tea gardens are developed in a larger scale. The production of tea is meant for quantity, although they also maintain certain level of quality. The tea garden and the processing are well-taken care of. However the material is not as superior as mountain tea.
Hon Yama is classified as mountain tea. Each tea garden is kept in a small scale and managed by respective families. The majority of the tea gardens are located at the steep slope of the mountain. The name of Hon Yama Tea is applied for the garden that is situated along the Abe River stream. Abe River flows from Japan Southern Alps (3000m above sea level). It takes 50 over kilometer to reach Pacific Ocean.
Hebizuka tea is also one of the Hon Yama Tea. Hebizuka is the name of the peak that is located at the upper stream of Abe River. The altitude of Hebizuka is at around 750-800m. Due to the high latitude of Japan, the tea tree cannot survive over the winter if it is grows at an altitude more than 1000m above sea level. Considering that, the altitude of the Hebizuka tea garden is almost the growing limit of tea in Shizuoka.
In Hebizuka, due to the high altitude, spring comes a month later and winter comes a month earlier than ordinary tea gardens in Shizuoka. Eventually Hebizuka has additional 2 months of resting period in winter. The longer resting period helps tea to accumulate minerals. Therefore, the first up-coming tea leaves are very rich in mineral and gives a strong after taste and you can also enjoy the flavor that slowly meanders down the throat. On the other hand, the tea tree planted at lower elevation contains less mineral and therefore it lacks the depth of after taste and flavor, although it gives strong aroma. The quality of tea is in proportion to the intensity of after taste. The long resting period is an essential factor to produce the fine quality.
Despite of high quality of Hon Yama Hebizuka Sencha, the price of this tea in the market is comparatively low. In Japan, the earlier the new season tea is introduced, the higher the price. It is due to the culture of the Japanese who always appreciate the fresh crops. The first batch of Japanese green tea is produced in the middle of April. This is the time when everyone is aware of the new tea season. Basically the most of the tea gardens in Japan finish their harvesting by the first week of May. However, in Hebizuka area, due to the higher elevation, the spring comes one month later. The plucking of first flush is only started in the middle of May. This is exactly a month later than the first spring tea in the market.
After all, tea market in Japan does not appreciate the late harvest tea and eventually gives lower price even if tea is extremely high quality. The farmer, Mr. Nakamura is very much aware of this fact. He does not sell his tea to Shizuoka central tea auction, but directly sell to respective tea company who understands the quality and appreciates his tea. Considering that Hon Yama Hebizuka is only produced by Mr. Nakamura, it is a very limited tea. Only a few companies have the privilege of dealing with his tea.
In fact, there is another factor that makes Hebizuka tea very special. The name of Hebizuka in Japanese is “The Grave of Snake”. When you have a chance to visit the Hebizuka area, you will spontaneously associate the name with its geographical condition. Hebizuka area has many rocks and its appearance resembles those seen in Yi Xing (China), Sado Island and Iga Mountain in Japan. They are all purple, yellow or red in color. If those rocks are found in Yi Xing, people no doubt think these are purple sand: Zisha. The colors of rocks indicate that the soil in Hebizuka is very rich in “Iron” content. Iron is the most essential mineral that contribute to the after taste of tea.
In addition, the mineral-rich soil is very poor in nutrition and fast to drain water. Under such restricted environment, tea grows slowly. As a result, the flavor and taste is highly concentrated inside tea leaf that gives a very rich flavor and strong after taste.
3. Cultivar and Plucking
Hon Yama Hebizuka Gyokuro is produced from Yabukita cultivar. Plucking is carried out only once a year in the middle of May. Thanks to the limited number of plucking, the mineral content in tea leaf is much higher than ordinary tea. Tea leaf is hand-plucked. Each twig consists of one bud and two leaves.
Hon Yama Hebizuka Gyokuro undergoes the withering process so as to enhance its floral character. In order to maximize the effect of withering, the tea leaves needs a higher percentage of poly phenol. The withering process is the internal ripening process that converts poly phenol into various kinds of flavor. Young tea leaf contains very rich in amino acid which is converted into poly phenol during photo synthesis. Therefore tea leaf is not harvested until it grows to slightly bigger size than ordinary standard.
Plucking starts after the sunrise in order to avoid the morning dew. The present of morning dew on the tea leave will cause partial over-heating during the steaming process. This will destroy the tissues of tea leaves and affects the quality. Therefore the good tea must be produced from tea leaves plucked during a sunny day.
(1) Receiving the tea leaves
Mr. Nakamura owns a very limited number of tea gardens. Basically the tea leaves are not mixed. Hon Yama Hebizuka is processed from the single origin from the identical tea garden. In Mr. Nakamura's family, 100% of his tea is hand-plucked. No machine plucking is being carried out.
After plucking, the tea is gently placed inside a small bamboo basket. A hole is made in the middle of piled tea leaves to provide effective ventilation. Withering process is carried out under the shade with good ventilation for 24 hours. During the withering process, internal enzyme is triggered to start the ripening. It is the same mechanism as hanging unripe pineapple for further ripening. Another example is that hey usually gives a sweet aroma, while grass gives a very greenish aroma right after being cut. These involve the same mechanism.
The enzyme is triggered by dehydration and mediate moderate ripening process. Ripening is kind of oxidation or enzymatic hydrolysis that produces various kind of volatile substance. In tea leaves, those volatile substances give a floral aroma and flavor.
The quality of Sencha is also affected by the steaming process. In order to bring out the identical character of Hon Yama tea, the steaming process is conducted at a very short time, about 30 seconds. Tea leaves are steamed at a very high temperature but in a short time so that it become very dry and will not regain the moisture by condensation. This is one of the key points to produce good quality teas.
Tea leaves have to be cooled down quickly after steaming. Immediate decrease of the wet heat is very important to avoid secondary heating of tea leaves. At the same time, the tea leaves will evaporate the moisture.
(4) Pre -rolling
Tea leaves are agitated with hot air for further drying. At the same time, the mixing will soften the leaves.
This is the only process conducted without heat. The machine moves in a circular motion with pressure that spread the moisture of tea leaves evenly. The tea leaves generate heat due to the friction. Therefore, it is necessary to loosen the tea leaves and release the heat at regular intervals.
(6) Intermediate Rolling
A rotary dryer is used to roll the tea leaves gently and twist the tea leaves into a finer shape. It is also part of the drying process to further reduce the moisture of tea leaves.
(7) Final Rolling
It is a reciprocal movement of back and forth; combine with a circular motion to twist the tea leaves into a fine needle shape. High quality Sencha is dark green in color, shinny and solid.
After the final rolling, the tea leaves still contain moisture. Drying will reduce moisture to about 5%. These leaves are called Aracha (crude tea). Aracha does not undergo the firing process. Compared with the finished tea product, the flavor of fresh leaves and bitter taste is very strong.
The purpose of firing is as below:
i. To reduce the moisture of tea leaves so that it lasts longer.
ii. Heating will enhance the flavor of tea.
Every tea wholesaler in Japan purchases Aracha as raw material and they will blend a few kinds of tea. Subsequently, they will conduct firing following their individual process. This is how they create their original brand.
As for Hojo’s Hon Yama Sencha and Hon Yama Hebizuka Sencha, we emphasize on the single origin. In order to maintain its natural floral bouquet and refreshing flavor, we conduct very short firing process so that most of substances are not oxidized.