I woke up early for my last morning in Tokyo. This moment was bittersweet. Bitter because I would be leaving behind the city I had instantly fallen in love with, and not coming back until next year at the soonest. Sweet because I was mere hours away from visiting the beautiful tea fields of Shizuoka and beginning the next chapter in my journey.
I took full advantage of the amenities of the Ryokan I was staying at. They had a small, yet beautiful Japanese garden in the back, a nice tatami style breakfast table and a cute little breakfast area. The cherry on top was the surprisingly good sencha they carried here. Although you might be thinking that I would be drinking some of the best teas of my life here, I had already been drinking some of the finest Japanese green tea prior to the trip, so it was actually quite difficult to find tea that met my standards, even here. I picked up a slightly higher quality Sencha on my first day in Tokyo. It wasn’t much but it was a nice little pack to travel with and would last all the way until I got home. This tea was far better than the one I had bought. It had no stems and very little bitterness or astringency. This was a nice way to kick off the day, which would revolve entirely around tea.
I left the hotel by 6:30 because I needed to catch a bullet train before 7:30. Luckily, I still had the jet lag working to my advantage, and I had already polished off my first cup of tea by 5:30.
Important travel tip: Possibly the most important travel tip of this whole article series is if you are planning on doing some serious traveling while in Japan, you should definitely get the JR Pass. It gives you unlimited access to the countries main rail networks. Although the price tag may seem expensive, first of all it is well worth it for the experiences you will get, and second of all you will save hundreds of dollars in the long run. Once you have the pass, you have access to unlimited trains for 7, 14 or 21 days depending on which pass you buy. The Shinkansen can be quite pricey if you don’t use a JR Pass. A 1 and a half hour train from Tokyo to Shizuoka can be close to 70 dollars. I know this because I had to pay it. Although I would be receiving close to $1,000 in free transportation that week, I made one critical mistake. I waited until the last minute to exchange my JR voucher for a JR pass. The train left at 7:26 and the office to exchange the pass didn't open until 7:30. Can you believe that? If the train left 5 minutes later I would’ve gotten on for free. Unfortunately for me, the trains in Japan are never late. The Japanese are so punctual, they make the Swiss look like a bunch of slackers!
I was so impressed with the Shinkansen train. This is a huge point of pride for Japan, and it is very clear they take their trains very seriously. The trains can reach speeds of 200 mph and they do it without making much more sound than a Toyota Prius. The inside is so clean, it is pretty much on-par with the first class cabin of a commercial airline. There is so much legroom you can very easily walk out of your row even if you have a window seat and the person next to you is sleeping. The staff bows every time they enter a new car and they pick up trash at most stops. There is a smoking area (similar to what you might see at a European nightclub) that is completely enclosed with ventilation and they have private bathrooms that are far cleaner than you might expect. It is hard not to love Japan when just about everything you see is so perfectly designed.
After arriving in Shizuoka, we had one of the tea farmers pick us up at the airport. I can’t tell you how well we were treated by these people. They were some of the kindest people I had ever met. From my experience in Japan, I learned that when you are doing business with someone, you treat them as you would a close friend. I tried to take this back with me and apply it whenever possible to my professional life. They picked us up at the airport, allowed us to tour their tea fields, see their factory and really get to know the surrounding area. We went to dinner with them and had many laughs, we shared amazing tea with them and learned a ton about matcha.
These are some farmers I am really looking forward to doing business with in the future. They are so kind and knowledgeable. Matcha production is really an art, and they have found the perfect way to create amazing products. I managed to take back a few matcha tins to last me through the winter. I learned a lot about different Japanese tea cultivars. Diiferent types of tea plants produce different types of leaves. Some are very thin like the Samidori cultivar, and these make beautiful matchas because they are light and sweet and easy to grind up into a powder. The Yabukita cultivar however is much different. It is the most widely grown cultivar in Japan and is perfect for sencha production, but the tough leaf is not ideal to grind up into matcha.
Because we were there in November, we did not get to witness the harvesting of the tea field, which happens in the spring. Instead, when we got there we were surprised to find that the tea fields were in full bloom. The farmers do not like these white and gold flowers because it makes it harder to harvest the tea crop but to us it was a beautiful sight to see.
After touring the tea fields, they took us to their factory, which was located on the other side of town. We drive all across Shizuoka, through mountains and over rivers, seeing some of the best natural scenery I had every experienced. The trees here were just starting to change color and the water was so clear. When you are traveling through Japan, it is harder than you might think to get out of the cities but when you do you will get to experience beautiful arrays of color and nature.
On the way over, we stopped by a small food stand and we met some of the coolest people ever! They were a couple that made traditional Japanese food and were selling it on the side of the road. They made a rice dough similar to mocha but a little bit different and then coated it in a sweet ginger miso and then went over it with a blowtorch to caramelize it. It came out fantastic! When the guy working there found out it was my first time in Japan, he made a special gift for me. I had never in my life been treated this kindly by a total stranger. Making me food just because I was a guest in his country. The funniest part was he made a “mask” for himself so we could photograph him without compromising his identity.
The sun was beginning to set, and we realized that we would soon have to head back to the station. I would be heading to Kyoto that night where I would be spending about half of my trip. My colleague and I ended up getting dinner in Shizuoka because my train didn’t leave for about an hour. Although Shizuoka is considered a tiny city, it still feels big and I took a minute or two to take it all in. After a delicious meal, I headed back to Kyoto, ready to do it all again the next morning. It was a hectic schedule, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I knew I had chosen the right career. Getting to travel Japan and experiencing the best teas the world had to offer.
I went out that night to get some gifts for the tea farmers we would be meeting tomorrow. In Japan, everyone you are doing business with gets a gift. I really like this and I want to apply it to my practices back home.