May is the season of shin-cha or “new tea”, when tender spring leaves are harvested to make tea. And somewhere up in the hills in the southeast of Kyoto prefecture lies the tiny village of Wazuka surrounded by emerald green tea fields. Since tea is one of the quintessential experiences of Japan, the Kyoto Prefectural International Center sponsored a tea-picking tour for foreigners last Saturday. It was a great chance for a whole bus load of us to get away from the city for a day and enjoy the rolling countryside. Most of my fellow tea-pickers were foreign students studying at one of the many universities in Kyoto. From Taiwan and Lithuania, Thailand and Ireland, the Ukraine, Italy and a long list of more places than I can now remember, the two hour ride itself was an experience in internationalism.
For a few of our group, there was the chance to don the traditional fieldworker’s garb made from wonderful indigo-dyed ikat cottons with layers of aprons and scarves and fingerless gloves in bright turquoise. With fewer outfits available than the number of people who wanted to wear them, we played several rounds jyunken (similar to the game of “rock-paper-scissors” played in the US) to whittle that number down. Sadly, I was knocked out in the first round, but one of my friends Kiyomi Yatsuhashi (shown above) was lucky enough to be among the chosen. Only the top two or three leaves of new growth are picked and dropped into the wicker basket at her side.
Even without the delights of the costume, there was a relaxing beauty of being in the tea field. Looking up the hillside, rows of tea bushes criss-cross the slope and electric fans gently whizz away any low-lying fog. Some of the bushes are shielded from sunlight with a loosely stitched mesh of vinyl ribbons. The covered bushes produce a lighter sweeter and more delicate tea, while tea from the exposed bushes is stronger and more astringent.
Sadly our rain-shortened venture into the fields produced only meager tea pickings, but these were battered and fried, then served as tea-leaf tempura with our lunch.
And a little P.S. on 5/17: One of the others on our trip just sent me this photo of the eight lucky people who won the chance to dress up in traditional tea-pickers clothing:
On the far right are my friends, Kiyomi Yatsuhashi and Moya Bligh. Third from the right is Aliona Yefimova from Lithuania, who gave me this picture.