My new Ryokan was a lot more spacious than the one in Tokyo. It still wasn’t quite big enough to be considered a “normal” sized room in the U.S, but compared to what I was used to it was pretty big.
The room had a bed mat that you could roll out to sleep on, which took up about half of the room. In Tokyo, the bed roll took up 2/3 of the room, so it was a pretty big improvement. There was a Tatami style table and a little cushion you could sit on to eat your breakfast or dinner. There was also a ledge on one wall of the room where I put my stuff down. I would be staying at this place for the next 5 nights so it was nice to really be able to spread my stuff out and have it be safely in one place for the better part of a week. I was used to having to pack up and leave every 1-2 days so this was almost like a home away from home. The place I was staying had a beautiful bathroom, shower room and breakfast area. There was also even a place to hangout and play pool, but I never had enough time for that.
I woke up at 4:30 to shower and make a few cups of strong Sencha. This had become my morning ritual, and I would need all the caffeine I could get in order to make that 7:00 Shinkansen. I would be heading to Shizuoka for my second day visiting tea fields. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for me, and with one day already under my belt, I knew I wanted to keep doing these types of trips.
I grabbed a few Onigiri from the local 7-Eleven that would be my breakfast. Onigiri is an ingenious product, and I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say it’s perhaps one of the countries greatest inventions. It's a triangular rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed or “nori” and the film is designed in such a way that it keeps the rice and seaweed separate until you open it. Once you open it, the two are combined within seconds. This means you get a nice crunchy outer layer and a soft rice inner layer. My favorites were the Seaweed or kelp filled Onigiri. $1 is not a bad price to pay for what was essentially a giant vegan sushi! The best part is the film is made from plants and the printing on the package is made from rice ink so it is more eco-friendly. This made me not feel as guilty about eating close to 10 of these some days. On some days, I would walk over 15 miles and I wouldn’t have time to stop and eat so these were the perfect solution.
When we arrived in Shizuoka, one of the farmers met us at the train station to show us around the factory. He drove us through town and we were once again blown away by the beautiful Shizuoka scenery. We arrived at the main factory, and I was given the opportunity to tour the facility and learn so much about green tea production. As we came to each station, he explained to us the importance of the machine. Even after studying tea for 3 years, I was still amazed to see how much work really goes into the production of green tea. The fun fact I learned from that trip was that many Japanese factories employ an automated color sorting machine, that makes sure the color of the tea leaves are all the same shade of beautiful green. The machine looks for imperfections like yellow or brown leaves and stems and picks them out to ensure the final product is uniform. I didn’t even know this technology existed! The first part of the factory we toured was the part used to make the “crude” tea product. This is the standard dried tea leaves that can be sold to other tea factories and used to make hundreds of different final products.
The next step in the tea production process would be the refining of the crude tea to make different products like Genmaicha for example. This was the really cool part. Originally we were told we were not allowed in there, but after a quick call to the head honcho, we were granted the necessary security clearance and allowed in! There was one catch however. We would have to wear white suits, masks and enter and air shower before entering. This was fine with me because I had never done anything like this before! Everything we did from here on out was a new experience for me. I saw the actually tea being made and packaged. I got to wear something that looked like a hazmat suit and bow to employees as we walked through the factory. Of all the surreal experiences I had in Japan, this was perhaps the most noteworthy. He highlight of the visit may have been when they pulled some tea bags right off of the production line for us to try. It doesn’t get much fresher than that!
After touring the factory and the “clean room” we went into the tea tasting room. This room is used more for quality control purposes rather than for entertaining clients. They test todays tea, the tea from yesterday and the tea that they sell currently. This allows them to ensure everything is uniform limits the chances of a so-called “bad batch” of tea going out to the public. This really gives me a new level of appreciation for the tea that I drink!
After the factory, we headed for the gift shop. This was a really cool shop where you could buy all of the company’s products for a great price. I was sure to stock up on Genmaicha because its my Dad’s favorite tea and it is also the tea that they were producing that day. Upstairs, there is a Matcha café and lounge. If I didn't have to go visit tea farms that afternoon, I would probably want to hang out there the entire day. Not only was it entirely dedicated to matcha, but it was an entirely vegan café! They had numerous different plant milks for lattes and a few pastries and desserts to try. Imagine finding a cool café like this in the middle of the rural part of Shizuoka!
After purchasing a few bricks of Genmaicha, we hopped back in the van and drove to the tea fields. It was so cool to see these iconic fields perched on top of the rolling hills of Shizuoka. They said these types of terraced tea farms were on the decline, because the average age of the Japanese tea farmer is approaching the 60s. It is sad to hear that such an iconic industry, one so close to my heart, is on the decline. This motivated me to try as hard as I could to bring Japanese green tea back into the mainstream. It’s very motivating for me to be working on a project that will help keep these amazing farmers in business, and I hope to share that project with all of you in the very near future.
We grabbed lunch in town and shortly afterwards we headed home. It was so fun to visit the tea fields on these two amazing days, but part of me was glad to be done with the “business” component of my trip. Now all that was left to do was to do all the touristy things around Japan. I was really looking forward to it!