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Ujicha: Japan’s greatest tea

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For centuries green tea has been the drink of choice in Japan, but there is one region in Japan that has been particularly instrumental in the development of these green teas, and that is the Uji region in the Southern part of the Kyoto prefecture. Not only were the popular varieties Matcha, Sencha and Gyokuro invented in Uji, it also instilled a production method that continues to guarantee high quality green tea to this day.

The Kyoto Tea Cooperative established a few strict requirements to qualify as authentic “Ujicha”; firstly the tea must be produced by a manufacturer from the Kyoto prefecture. Secondly, only tea leaves harvested in the Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, or Mie prefectures are allowed to be used. Finally, throughout its history the Uji region has developed a number of particular and novel production methods when it comes to tea, these methods ultimately make Ujicha what it is.

So what is this Uji method exactly? Well, to tell this story we have to go back in history a little bit. Although tea seeds found their way all over Japan, the Uji region, because of its soil quality, climate and topography, is where the cultivation of tea in Japan really found its footing, and from the outset it was considered as high quality tea among nobles and priests. It was in Uji during the 16th century that a new method for shading was invented called Ōishita Saibai. This method of shading essentially restricted the amount of sunlight plants received, which created a deeper and smoother form of matcha, even further popularizing green tea. This development also coincided with the origins of the Japanese Buddhist tea Ceremony, so the need and use for high quality green tea was only growing.

The Uji method came about when in 1738 Soen Nagatani, a local tea farmer fed up with the strict shading rules, invented a method to create high quality tea that was more accessible for all. In doing so he invented what is now known as Sencha, which uses the Hand Knead Tea Production Technique, also known as the Uji method. The method consists of ten steps:

1.      Steaming
2.      Chakiri (dew cutting, drying leaves)
3.      Yokomakuri (rolling of the tea leaves)
4.      Tamatoki (breaking up chunks)
5.      Malaahe (cooling the leaves)
6.      Chasoroe (rubbing and rolling the leaves into a long shape)
7.      Denguri (shaping the leaves into a round shape)
8.      Itazuri (kneading of the tea leaves to bring out the color and scent)
9.      Drying
10.   Finishe (kneading once more into thin long shapes)

Although labor intensive, this method was quickly adopted all over Japan. The method was even recognized by the Kyoto board of education as a cultural asset in 2009. A mechanized version that has the Uji method at its core has also been developed as automation in the tea industry became more normalized and the tea market grew to new heights. Incidentally, the Uji method combined with the Ōishita Saibai technique is what ultimately created the highly touted Gyokuro in the 19th century.

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