Japan Heritage (Engl.)

A country is rediscovering its historical roots and attempts to make them accessible to foreigners

Ishitera Tea Plantation (石寺の茶畑) (click to enlarge)

Eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier.
A German version of this posting you can find here.

To tell the reader of this website that Japan is looking back on a history of thousands of years and is simply blessed with an abundance of witnesses of old times would be like carrying coals to Newcastle. The more it should come as a surprise – at least if looked at it without further consideration – that it is Japan itself, which only recently has begun to rediscover its historical roots and to make itself aware of them. The reasons for this may be manifold, and the observer from the West may not always be in the position to comprehend them at first sight. A new partiotism, the painful loss of cultural monuments due to natural disasters and an inevitable competition with other nations in East Asia may be mentioned as examples.

With the foundation of the initiative “Japan Heritage” (日本遺産 / にほんいさん) in 2013 the Japnese Ministry of Culture is trying to beat several birds with one stone by rendering the country’s cultural heritage conscious and, at the same time, drawing commercial benefit from it.
“Japan Heritage” sees the emphasis of its activities and responsibilities in

  • the recognition of the narratives that link the regional cultural properties of Japan
  • the maintenance and use of these regional cultural properties in a cohesive manner
  • the strategic and effective promotion of the narratives pertaining to cultural properties within Japan and abroad.

And by doing so, “Japan Heritage” is not making a secret of it, that one of the main driving forces behind its activities is to attract and to channel foreign visitors. During the last five years the number of visitors from abroad has increased remarkably (the target number of 20 million visitors per year, which had originally been “planned” for 2020, was impressively exceeded already in 2016), giving those in charge the best hopes for further, almost limitless increase of numbers of guests from abroad (by 2030 the number of visitors is “planned” to be 40 million – and plannings for the further future see not only a linear growth of figures).

At this point we should not be speculating about the meaningfulness and sustainability of such “plans” – the impact on the tourism sector resulting from the increase in the number of visitors in recent years is already obvious. The scarcity and the associated increase in cost of accommodation, crowds of people in the centres of touristic interest, an unexpected, albeit now declining, boom in the sales figures of the large department stores could certainly be attributed to this.

Even though the concentration of foreign visitors interested in culture (who turn out to be the significantly smaller group of all tourists, if one takes a closer look into the statistics) leads to a significant upturn in tourism in the locations of particular attraction (Kyōto, Tōkyō, Nikkō etc.), this also results in an  increasing stereotyping of Japan and a rather narrowed view of the rich, diverse culture of the country.

By the selecting outstanding examples of what constitutes the Japanese cultural heritage, it is the declared goal of “Japan Heritage” to diversify the cultural and touristic choices on the one hand, and to prevent the concentration of touristic interest at a small number of locations of particular attraction.
While in 2015 all together 18 location, buildings or traditions were recognised as Japanese cultural heritage, by this year it is already 37 of those properties that fulfull the required criteria for “desginated stories”. As this designation already suggests, the recognition of cultural assets emphasises on the “stories”, the “narratives” told by those locations or traditions.

The criteria for the recognition as a Japanese cultural heritage can be summarised as follows:

  • Historically unique traditions or customss that have been passed on for generations.
  • A clear theme that supports the area’s appeal and that it represents at the core of the narrative. This can include cultural properties such as structures, archaeological sites, sightseeing spots, and local festivals.
  • Inclusion of a narrative, rather than simply a summary of regional history and a description of local cultural properties.

And by looking at these cirteria it is being distiguished between “local cultural properties” that are limited to a location and “collective cultural properties” that are being shared by a region or several locations.

This posting aims at describing and illustrating one of those cutural properties, based on the story that can be told about more than 800 years of Japanese history of tea cultivation and preparation. And at the same time it will document that “Japan Heritage” is less about single sights, but more about the narrative and its communication as a vivid experience of one of the “designated stories” mentioned above.

Invited by the Japanese Ministry of Culture, the two authors of this article had the opportunity to participate in a 2-days exploration- and test tour to the “Japan Heritage No. 9” that has been recognised in 2015 and was named “A Historical Walk through 800 Years of Japanese Tea”.

This “historical walk” brought us to the region in the south of Kyōto, where the tea plantations of Uji (宇治 / うじ) and Minami Yamashiro (南山城 / みなみやましろ) provide an impressive testimonial of an old tradition, just as the conglomeration of historical tea wholesalers in Kizugawa (木津川 / きづがわ) and the birth place of Sōen Nagatani (永谷宗円 / ながたにそうえん) in Ujitawara (宇治田原 / うじたわら) do.

And the story begins – naturally – with the first kinds of tea that found their way to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). The area of Minami Yamashiro (in the south of Kyōto) became a centre for the cultivation and the distribution of green tea. Furthermore, various kinds of green tea were developed here, e.g. “matcha” (抹茶), as used in the traditional tea ceremony, or “sencha” (煎茶), as we know it from the more common way green tea is being prepared at home, and, of course, “gyokuro” (玉露), that is regarded as one of the finest green teas in the world.

For more than 800 years this region has been devoting itself to the development of new kinds and qualities of tea. But it has also seen it as an obligation to preserve traditions (e.g. the famous Japanese tea ceremony). As a “Japan Heritage” the region in the south of Japan’s old capital provides access to the various levels of development in the cultivation, processing and distribution of tea – really breathtaking landscapes formed by tea plantations are part of this cultural heritage, as well as places and procedures for the production of tea, and popular festivals that have been held surrounding the topic of “tea”.

Ōbaku-san Manpuku-ji (黄檗山萬福寺)

Ōbaku-san Manpuku-ji (黄檗山萬福寺)

The first station on our tour of the history of Japanese tea was the Ōbaku-san Manpuku-ji (黄檗山萬福寺 / おうばくさんまんぷくじ). This is not just the main temple of the Ōbaku sect of Japanese Zen-Buddhism and one of the very few in the country that still preserve an architectural style of the Ming era, but also one of the sacred places of the “way of the sencha” (煎茶道 / せんちゃどう).

The founder of the temple, Ryūki Ingen (隠元隆琦 / いんげんりゅうき) (1592-1673), introduced the tea ceremony with sencha (which may seem to have a rather “Chinese” look and feel) to Japan, but it was not before the monk Baisaō (売茶翁 / ばいさおう) (1675-1763) when it really gained popularity, when Baisaō also was involved in a florishing trade of tea in Kyōto.

By the way: There is a memorial stone on the opposite side of the street of the main gate to the temple that reminds us on a story from the early days of Japanese tea cultivation, that is said to date back to thee monk Myōe (明恵 / みょうえ) (1173-1232): In those days the farmers were rather unexperienced in the cultivation of tea and couldn’t really cope with the challenge caused by the right distance that should be left between the single tea plants. Myōe’s instruction at the time is was to plant the seeds at the intervals his horses’ hoof prints had left behind in the tea fields.

But also for those whose blood is not stirred by green tea, the Manpuku-ji should be of interest – and be it only for its sheer size and its unusual architecture.
Also a recommendation: Try the vegetarian Zen-Buddhist food, the “shōjin ryōri” (精進料理 / しょうじんりょうり) that is being served here – everyone who believes that food without meat must inevitably be bland will be tought a lesson.

Of all the locations subsumed under this “Japan Heritage” the Manpuku-ji may very well be the one that can be reached easiest, as it is just a few steps away from two railway stations, JR Ōbaku (JR黄檗) and Keihan Ōbaku (京阪黄檗), that can be reached from Kyōto station in less than half an hour.

Tea plantations of Okunoyama (奥の山)

While we were introduced to the rather esoteric world of tea at the Ōbaku-san Manpuku-ji, the next stop on our round trip promised an immersion and practical “experience” of centuries-old tea traditions at the tea plantations of Okunoyama (奥 の 山 / おくのやま ) in Uji. This is one of the oldest, continuously cultivated tea plantations in Japan, which can look back on a 650-year old history.

Today, the plantation is called “Horii Shichimeien” 堀井七茗園 / ほりいしちめいえん) and is already managed in the sixth generation by Chotaru Horii. It is the only one of the originally seven famous tea gardens, which were under the patronage of Ashikaga shōgun Yoshimitsu (1358-1408).

Even though the teas from Uji were already famous all over the country during the time of the Ashikaga shōgunes, tireless efforts have brought the business even further forward – even after the profound impact caused by the Meiji Restoration (1868). Under the third patriarch of the Horii clan, processes were developed in the 20’s of the last century, which made a particularly gentle, mechanical processing of the tea leaves (点茶 / てんちゃ) into a exceptionally fine “matcha” possible. These procedures have been copied all over the country – they are now practically “standard” in the processing of high-quality “tencha” to “matcha”.

The variations in taste, aroma and color of green tea are achieved by special fertilization methods developed over the centuries. One of the most effective methods (that has been employed and refined since the 16th century) is the partial and complete shading of the young tea leafs.

Unfortunately, the tea ceremony we were offered at the main shop of “Horii Shichimeien” was only an “abbreviated” one, due to the very limited time available on this tour, but also because the more contemplative aspect of a tea ceremony is hardly to be attained with a larger group of visitors.

All the more interesting was the insight we were allowed to gain by a visit to the manufacturing hall of the “Horii Shichimeien”, where the dried tencha of different qualities was pulverized into the finest matcha by means of 60 mechanical millstones – a very special experience. The intense fragrance created during this process alone opened an entirely new and sensual world. And whoever wanted to, could prove his or her muscular power by manually grinding matcha.

Birthplace of Sōen Nagatani (永谷宗円)

Another pioneer on the way of making Japanese green tea popular, Sōen Nagatani (永谷宗円, 1681-1778), is being worshipped at his birthplace in Yuyadani (湯屋谷 / ゆやだに), Ujitawara-chō (宇治田原町 / うじたわらちょう ).
The original Edo-time building, where Nagatani was born, does not exist any more, but the replica, rebuilt in the 60s of the last century (the mighty, thatched roof was last restored in April 2007) still provides a very vivid insight into the simplicity of life at that time.

Nagatani is, so to speak, the father of the Japanese “sencha”, because he was the one who invented the process of preparing the tea leaves in exactly the way as it is done today. Until his days, green tea in Japan was actually known in two forms only: as matcha, which was particularly pricy due to its elaborate manufacturing process, restricted to a few dealers, that it was reserved for the Shōgun and the nobility, or as a brown “bancha “(番茶) or” hōjicha “(焙じ茶), roasted green tea, with which the common people had to content themselves.

It is probably no exaggeration to call Nagatani a revolutionary, because he wanted all Japanese to benefit from truly green tea. However, it was only at the tender age of 58 that he succeeded in refining the method, in which the fresh, steamed tea leaves were dried while permanently being kneaded and rolled on a heatable table (a mesh covered with strong Japanese paper – “washi” (和紙 / わし). Only this process has given Japanese green tea the appearance and the flavor, for which it is world-famous today. And since Nagatani shared his knowledge of this method of processing with the tea farmers, he helped the entire region to an unprecedented boom.
In Nagatani Sōen’s birthplace utensils for the processing of tea can be seen, both in their simple historical form, which helped Nagatani to succeed at the time, as well as in the form of our modern age – which, in fact, just represent an astonishing slight modification of those 250 years old tools.

Furthermore, at Nagatani’s birthplace we were also given the opportunity to sample some particularly delicious local green tea (sencha) in this secluded part of a rustic forest.

The tea wholesaler of Kamikoma (上狛)

But what’s the use of all this delicioius tea, if it doesn’t find its way to the consumers?
About 7 kilometres from Nagatani’s birthplace, the district of the tea wholesalers is located in Kamikoma (上狛 / かみこま). After Uji and the area surrounding Minami Yamashiro had become established growing areas for tea, tea was enjoyed by a crowing number of people – it became one of Japan’s most favourite drinks. Hence, it became necessary to make sure the delicate teas were brought to the consumers as swiftly as possible.

Kamikoma was the perfect location of the establishment of a distribution network, as it is perfectly located at the river Kizugawa (木津川 / きづがわ) that is flowing into the river Yodogawa ((淀川 / よどがわ) which is then connecting Kamikoma with the open waters of the bay of Ōsaka. The ideal trans-shipment centre for further distribution throughout the county.

After Japan had given up its isolation in the second half of the 19th century, also the foreignes who began to travel the country learned to know and to appreciate green tea. Consequently, the tea wholesalers saw the opportunity to make some extra money with exporting their goods to Europe and the USA. However, at those early days of overseas trade, this proved to be quite a challenge as to ensure the quality standards required for Japanese green tea. Once the ships reached equatorial waters the tea started fermenting, lost its typical colour and – naturally – also its delicate taste. Very soon the wholesalers had to recognise that shipping tea overseas wasn’t as profitable as they thought it would – export to those distant regions of the world was stopped and only revived in the fairly recent past.

Kamikoma had its best times from about 1855 to 1930 when it counted up to 120 wholesalers; but also in our days there are still about 40 left. The grand houses of tea of those old days can still be seen and bear witness for the affluence of this region.

Kamikoma (上狛) Senkyō-ji (泉橋寺)

Don’t miss the chance to step a few steps further to the southern part of Kamikoma to have a look at the Sekibutsu (石仏 / せきぶつ) the gigantic Jizō statue (4.58 metres tall) at the Senkyō-ji (泉橋寺 / せんきょうじ). It is the oldest large-scale statue of a Jizō (errected in 1308 and restored at the end of the 17th/beginning of the 18th century). Originally, the statue was housed in one of the temple’s buildings, however, of this building only the foundation stones have remained.

Wazuka (和束) and the Kaijūsen temple (海住山寺)

The cultivation of tea in the area of Wazuka (和束 / わずか), one of the most productive areas in the region of Uji / Minami Yamshiro, dates back to a the legendary monk Jishin (磁心 / じしん) of the Kaijūsen temple (海住山寺 / かいじゅうせんじ), who is said to have received tea seeds from the hands of the monk Myōe (明恵 / みょうえ) with which he laid the foundation of the first tea gardens around the mountain. This also helped the farmers in this region to establish a more sustainable livelyhood, as the steep slopes of the surrounding hills that allowed only for a few hours of sunshine every day (hence were not really suited for traditional farming), offered ideal conditions for the cultivation of tea.

From the temple’s grounds one has a marvellous view of the area, but the real eye-catcher is the five-storied pagoda – the only one preserved since the Kamakura era (1185–1333) – ranking as a national treasure of Japan.

The tea plantations of Shirasu and Ishitera (白栖・石寺の茶畑)

On both sides of the Wazuka River, tea plantations nestle against the gentle hills as far as the eye can see. Due to the season of our visit (March), the tea shrubs had not yet foliated with the fresh green of spring. However, already at that early time of the year, with just a bit of imagination we could imagine how fresh and green the long rows of hand-cut, but mostly machine-pruned tea shrubs would look a few weeks later.

Should you wonder what all the fans high above the tea fields are good for: They are supposed to protect the plants from harm that could come from frost, by keeping the air in motion.

By the way: On the vast majority of tea plantations, still biocides are used to maintain control over harmful insects – but the number of farmers who try to avoid biocides as far as possible is increasing steadily. The demand for organic green tea, especially from Europe and the USA, appears to provide quite an incentive, as the consumption of green tea in Japan itself is stagnating or even slightly declining, since the drinking habits of the population (which is also diminishing) change.

Tea tasting at the Takumi no yakata (匠の館)

Takumi no yakata (匠の館)

The end of our tour provided an event that may very well be regarded as one of the highlights of it all: A tea tasting of “sencha” at the “Takumi no yakata” (たくみのやかた / たくみのやかた) in Uji. This tea tasting gave us the opportunity to sample the various grades and volumes of taste green tea offers, depending on how often and how long the fresh leaves are being brewed and, of course depending on the temperature of the water used for it.  And if the three first brews hadn’t provided enough platal sensations, the last one was probably the biggest surprise for everyone: To the steeped and softened tea leaves a little “ponzu” (soy sauce with citrus fruits’ juice) was added – and they were eaten, surprising us with a taste that somehow resembled refined spinach. In any case, the flavour can only be described as deliciously aromatic.

For futher information on such a sencha tasting, please also have a look at the following posting that describes the different brews and results in greater detail:

Ashigara (足柄)
– Kanagawa does it again: A day of culture and nature at the foot of Mt. Fuji


This two-days-tour could only provide a first glimpse into the world of tea of Uji. We did have to spend a lot of time on the tour busses, as some of the single location of this “Japan Heritage” are a fairly long distance apart and can – within reasonable time – only be reached by car. There were quite a number of places of interest en route that would have provided some further insight into the topic, but they had to be skipped due to time constraints and the sheer size of the group.
Nevertheless, approaching this region of tea production via the “story” it tells, was highly interesting and entertaining at the same time.
Should those in charge of facilitating the various locations in this area succeed in providing a proper network of public transport, proper signs and explanations given also for those who do not understand or speak Japanese, this “Region of Tea Culture” is definitely worth a trip of two to three days.

Authors: Thomas Gittel & Maike Roeder

With the following link you can download the rather informative 36 pages brochure A Walk through the 800-year History of Japanese Tea. Yamashiro, Kyoto.

(A German version of this article was previously released in the print- and online editions of the OAG Notizen of June 2017: http://oag.jp/books/oag-notizen-juni-2017/)


One Response to Japan Heritage (Engl.)

  1. […] englische Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier. An English version of this posting you can find […]

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