Set in the southern part of Kyoto prefecture, and nestled next to Uji, Wazuka is famed as one of the finest tea producing areas in the entirety of Japan. Not only is the area ideal for growing tea, but for simply soaking in the scenery; rows of vivid green tea bushes undulate against blue skies and sweet sakura trees. So beautiful it is, it was registered as the first official Scenic Property of Kyoto Prefecture.
Often classified as a part of neighbouring Uji, Wazuka is a distinct area producing its own delectable tea leaves. An area with an esteemed history, to this day it accounts for approximately half of the tea production in the whole of Kyoto prefecture with leaves from here celebrated as some of the finest tea in the country, demanding a premium across the globe.
A company breathing new life into the eons-old tea industry in Wazuka is the Kiroku Tea Garden, a boutique tea farm whose products are not only deliciously accessible, but beautifully packaged in a modern minimalist design. Unusually, Kiroku is entirely owned by women. After the death of her father, Megumi Hori, her sister (5th generation) and mother (4th generation), took over the running of the 85 year old farm to continue her father’s legacy and keep producing their exquisite tea by hand.
I met Megumi (Ui for short) and her mother at an event at the wonderful Maana guesthouse in Kyoto, where she was serving and selling her tea, oozing charm and explaining to me that with Kiroku she wants to create teas that are good for both body and mind. Clearly she is doing something right, exuding warmth and fun, laughing and smiling, preparing hot matcha and mixing her cold brew with local KI NO BI gin for an unexpected and extremely interesting tea-based cocktail. We sink a few and she teaches me how to properly prepare matcha, all the while discussing her products and processes, remaining the life and soul of the party. I ask about her packaging, the inspiration behind which comes from the calming nature of sitting and watching the geometric loveliness of a tea field. It works perfectly, firmly bringing the brand into the modern world whilst still being overtly Japanese in style.
She invites me to visit her farm in Wazuka so, along with a few creative female friends from the city (including Hana, the owner of Maana and Tina, the owner of Pieces of Japan, a soon-to-be-launched home decor store bringing Japanese crafts to the world) we arrange a date and head out to help with the harvest in late May. One hour and a whole world away from Kyoto city, lush green scenes glowed under a late-spring sun, the landscape punctuated by little wooden homes, their presence perfectly sympathetic to the surrounding scenery.
The farm is a collection of 26 tea fields, all of which taking full advantage of the stunning natural landscape, whether nestled on the top of a mountain or clinging to an almost 50 degree hillside, the route to find the fields is as breathtaking as the scenery itself, (though maybe a for slightly different reasons…) A heart-stopping drive along dirt tracks that jut from the mountainside with nothing but a sea of cedars to detract from the drop is the only way up. We jump in the back of Ui-san’s flat-based truck and embark upon the rollercoaster ride to one of their highest fields, arriving at the summit slightly disheveled, white-knuckled and in stunned silence, we soon forget the journey as we look out over the farm.
Late May means harvest time for Japanese tea farms so during our trip, the Kiroku Tea family put their trust in us to try our hand at harvesting their almost one-hundred year old tea bushes. Though I was assured to be doing a good job, I have to admit my skills were perhaps not up to par, and so soon retired to let the professionals take control once again for fear of somehow spoiling the precious crop. Everything is done by hand by the ladies and the care and love they have for their tea is as inspirational as the mountainside setting of their fields. Unfortunately, as with many other businesses in the current corona climate, sales have significantly waivered for Kiroku Tea Garden, yet their spirits have not. Ui-san and her family still lovingly tend to their 26 fields and continue to produce some of the most delicious tea I’ve had in Japan.
After harvest we headed back to the house where we tasted last year’s Kiroku teas. My favourites? The houjicha (roasted green tea, very low in caffeine), tencha (the tea leaves that are ground to make matcha, usually not sold or consumed in Japan as they’re thought to be a ‘worker’s drink’ but imbue an excellent earthy and rich flavour) and sencha (grassy and delicate, dark green leaves), all available to buy at Rakuten. We bid adieu with a promise to revisit the farm in the coming months. And in the meantime, when I need to restock, I’ll be sure to visit their stand at Toji and Kitano Tenmangu temple markets in Kyoto on the 21st and 25th (respectively) of each month. I urge you to do the same when in the city.