Green tea has been at the center of the Japanese diet and social life for centuries. Initially imported from China, green tea found fertile ground in the country, in part thanks to the sociopolitical developments that followed its arrival. Green tea became popular among the religious class who, in turn, introduced the warrior class to it. Given the power those two classes wielded in Japan, it is no wonder their favourite tea became a national treasure.
The small town of Wazuka has been a part of this story from the very beginning. After the end of the Heian period and the rise of the samurai, the area was selected for the cultivation of green tea eight centuries ago and has continued to give Japan the highest quality tea leaves ever since.
The importance of the tea crop to the locals becomes apparent the moment you enter Wazuka; it seems like every inch of cultivated land is covered by tea plants. If the plants weren't carefully pruned and arranged into symmetrical rows, one might be excused to think this was an invasive species taking over the area. But thanks to the care that goes into growing these highly priced plants, the landscape looks as picturesque as an 18th century painting.
It is worth noting that while Ujicha, the finest of Japanese tea varieties, takes its name from the area of Uji, more than half of the annual crop is produced in Wazuka.
Tours of the area are not as popular as one might imagine but that makes the experience all the more pleasant. The tea crop-covered hills may not be easy to tackle on foot but electric bicycles are available to rent near the bus stop. Along the way there are small omiyage stores selling tea and other local products. Some of them even offer free samples and given the delightful taste of Shincha (new tea) it's a good thing they don't impose limits on the consumption.
Depending on the season, you may come across entire fields where the plants are covered with a thin black cloth. That is done to protect the leaves from sunlight for a few days before harvesting, which causes the taste to become sweeter.
Once your tour is complete (or the battery on your bicycle dies) you can head back to town for one last treat. Wazukacha, a local cafe (and rent a bike) has a small tea house at the top of a hill nearby, overlooking the entire town. You will be given a key to the place (if no other customers are already there) and a small bag containing everything you will need to make tea. You can spend as much time as you want there, enjoying the view and learning how to make tea by following the instructions included in the tea set.
If you are looking to buy souvenirs for your Japanese friends, Shincha is the way to go. It's sweet flavour and light colour will be very welcome, especially for fans of green tea that can appreciate these fine qualities.
For those interested in a more immersing experience, the town offers the opportunity to a limited number of people to take part in the harvest. Contact NICE, the international NGO organizing the camp.
Access by bus or taxi from Kamo station (approximately 15 minutes)
NICE website: http://nice1.gr.jp/e/wc_japan_e/wcj_e.html