Japanese Gardens and Plants
The Japanese use a unique method of tea cultivation, which is demonstrated by the beauty of Japanese tea gardens. The tea trees are planted side by side and pruned to form cylindrical hedges of varying heights and with a slightly rounded surface. In order to achieve this hedge formation, the tea trees are planted in twos, back to back and about 1 foot (30 cm) apart, with each group of two separated by a distance of about 2 feet (60 cm).
The gardens are situated on gradually inclined terraces in the foothills of gently sloping mountains. Gardens located on the plains are usually used to produce more industrial teas. To make using machines easier, these gardens are laid out on flat ground without shade trees. Growers spread rice straw between the rows to prevent the soil from eroding or drying out.
In Japan, it takes an average of four to five years before the first buds from new tea trees are ready to be picked, three years if the trees are on the plains. The year before the first picking, the trees are pruned in such a way that the new branches will form the desired rounded profile. This shape provides a maximum picking surface so that a greater number of buds can be harvested. Every five to six years the trees are subjected to more rigorous pruning (daigari) after the first spring picking, which strengthens the plant and stimulates growth. After this pruning, the tea trees become dormant and are not harvested from again for one year. The productive life of a Japanese tea tree varies according to its yield, but it is rarely longer than about 30 years.
A widespread technique used in Japan is to install fans to circulate the air above the tea gardens. Strategically placed at a height of about 13 feet (4 m), these fans disperse any layers of fog and retain the heat that accumulates in the soil during the day. They also prevent the formation of dew, which can damage new shoots, as in the heat of the sun a drop of dew can act like a magnifying glass and burn the leaves, In addition, when the temperature drops below 32°F (0°C), the dew freezes and can spoil the quality of the leaves. The fans are usually programmed to start up automatically when the temperature reaches 40°F (5°C).
Today there are 55 cultivars registered in Japan, of which about 40 are used exclusively for the production of green teas. Despite this variety, most of the Japanese production comes from one hybrid, the Yabukita cultivar. Gokou, Beni Fouki and Samidori cultivars are also used.
Yabukita is a hybrid of the sinensis variety that was developed by Hikosaburo Sugiyama in 1954, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Renowned for its resistance to the weather conditions on the islands and its intensity of flavor, which is more suited to Japanese taste, this hybrid quickly spread throughout the archipelago. Almost 70 percent of Japanese tea gardens are composed entirely of Yabukita plants. In Shizuoka prefecture that percentage rises to 90 percent.
In spite of the particular advantages of the Yabukita cultivar; there are certain disadvantages to uniform cultivation. As all the plants carry the same genetic baggage, they have the same qualities but also the same defects, which makes them more vulnerable to diseases and pests. Consequently, growers must take particular care of them.
The widespread use of the Yabukita variety has the advantage of making grouping in batches easier, but it can also give rise to a certain loss of flavor.
Grown on small lots around Uji, in the Kyoto Prefecture, the Gokou cultivar is used primarily for the production of Gyokuro and Matcha tea. It was created by the Center for Tea Experimentation in Kyoto and is renowned for its aromatic qualities.
Originally, the Beni Fouki cultivar was used in Japan for the production of black tea. Today, it is also grown in southern Japan and processed into green tea, which is dehydrated in vats. Some claim it is high in catechins, and this tea is currently enjoying a surge in popularity. Research is under way to prove its medicinal value, particularly in the fight against certain allergies.
The Samidori cultivan fruit of the research of Masa-jiro Koyama, is mainly used in groupings to create Gyokuro and Matcha teas. Its bright-green leaves produce a richly scented liquid with a hint of bitterness.
Japanese tea harvests are seasonal and continue from mid-May to September. The first harvests, called shincha (literally "new tea"), are eagerly awaited and often the most expensive. High-quality shincha picking is done by hand and only the smallest shoots are chosen. Depending on the altitude, four or five harvests will take place each year It is necessary to wait 45 to 50 days between harvests to allow the new shoots to grow back.
Tea trees are sometimes covered by special canopies to reduce the plants' exposure to the sun, which triggers a change in the chemical composition of the leaves. Unable to carry out the process of photosynthesis effectively, the trees are forced to compensate by producing more chlorophyll and amino acids. To do this, they must draw more nutrients from the soil. This type of cultivation produces tender, very dark-green leaves that contain more chlorophyll and fewer tannins.
Traditionally, straw was strewn over bamboo structures erected over the tea plants to reduce sunlight. Although straw is still used today, the structures are usually metal and covered with mesh netting made of synthetic fibers. Straw can cut out up to 95 percent of the light, whereas mesh netting blocks about 80 percent of the sun's rays.
Following traditional methods, the shaded plants are not pruned, which maximizes the number of buds along the whole length of the stem. Hence, in spite of the high cost of labor, covered tea plants are picked by hand. The picking takes place later in the spring because the leaves, deprived of light, take longer to reach maturity. The pickers must separate the stems one by one to select the new shoots. Covered gardens are used to produce Gyokuro, Kabusecha, Tencha and Matcha teas, and the duration of covering depends on the type of tea desired.
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