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Japanese Tea Terroirs

As is the case everywhere, the quality of the terroir is a determining factor in the flavor and character of a tea. Because the sea is never more than 75 miles (120 km) away from the Japanese islands, the sea air imparts iodized notes to the leaves and a marine aroma suggesting seaweed and fresh grass. But, as we will see later, processing methods also contribute to the teas' distinctive flavor.

In Japan, tea plantations are found from the Akita Prefecture in the north to the Okinawa Prefecture in the south. However the southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, as well as the southern part of the main island of Honshu, are the major tea-growing areas. The climate is cooler there than in the rest of the archipelago, 50 to 65°F (10 to 18°C), and annual precipitation can be up to 60 inches (1,500 mm). The notion of a terroir usually applies less to Japanese teas, except for the grands crus. It is quite common to mix harvests from different gardens located in the same region, and sometimes even harvests from different prefectures, before processing them together. The map opposite provides an overview of Japans main tea-growing areas.

SHIZUOKA PREFECTURE

Located on the Pacific coast, Shizuoka Prefecture is a highly regarded tea-growing region. Covering an area slightly larger than 49,400 acres (20,000 ha), it accounts for almost half the archipelagos production, some 44,100 tons (40,000 t) of tea per year. The region’s proximity to the ocean creates harsher weather conditions, a lower mean temperature and variable weather patterns, making Shiuzuoka ideal for growing quality tea. Tea trees raised in tough conditions often have more complex flavor profiles.

This prefecture has a long history in the production of tea, and most of the harvests from other parts of the country are brought here for final processing. Several hundred tea producers are based here, ensuring a very high output and extensive distribution.

KYOTO PREFECTURE

Located in the middle of the island of Honshu, Kyoto Prefecture is characterized by a damp, subtropical climate with mild winters and humid summers. Since the city of Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, tea was intensively cultivated in the area. Today the gardens surrounding Kyoto are devoted to the production of high-quality tea and supply roughly 3 percent of Japans total output One of the most prestigious tea-growing areas of the archipelago is Uji, located southeast of Kyoto. The first plants brought back by Eisai at the end of the 12th century were transplanted to this region. As the gardens are concentrated in the inland hills, they are naturally protected from the bad weather of the coastal region. Considered an original growing area and renowned for the rich quality of the teas it produces, the Uji region is famous for its Matcha and Gyokuro teas.

KAGOSHIMA PREFECTURE (ISLAND OF KYUSHU)

The island of Kyushu is in the very far south of the country. The climate is subtropical, so the gardens of this region produce all kinds of teas: Sencha, Bancha, Kabusecha and Gyokuro, as well as an exclusive variety, Kamairicha, which is a green tea that is dehydrated in vats.

As Kagoshima Prefecture is the main growing region, the teas produced there represent about 20 percent of the countrys total output. The other major growing regions on this island are Saga, Miyazaki and Fukuoka.

NARA AND MIE PREFECTURES

The less famous teas of Nara Prefecture are grown on the Yamato plateau, at an altitude between 650 and 1,650 feet (200 to 500 m). They include Sencha, Bancha and Kabusecha varieties. The gardens of Mie Prefecture are at a lower altitude and produce mainly Kabusecha and Sencha varieties.