“I want to go to the tea farm!” There is less than one bus an hour and the nearest train station is 10 kilometers away. The secret behind the rush of foreign visitors to this tea production area on an isolated strip of land. [Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms / Hirokazu Matsumoto]

With the end of the coronavirus pandemic and the weakening of the yen, the number of inbound tourists – foreign visitors to Japan, exceeded 20 million in 2023, and is expected to exceed 33 million in 2024 – the highest number in history (according to the JTB Travel Trends Outlook).

Most inbound tourists only travel by public transport, so in most cases they visit only major cities and tourist attractions. Although there are many inbound tourists who are interested in tea, including matcha, it is still rare for them to visit tea producing areas, which are mostly located in mountainous regions of Japan.

Despite this, there is one tea-producing region that has been successful in attracting inbound tourists. It is the town of Wazuka in Kyoto Prefecture. The town has 800 years of history as a production center of Uji tea, and more recently, it has become famous for its own Wazuka tea. Here in Wazuka, there are several facilities for tea-loving inbound tourists, such as Wazukacha Cafe and d:matcha, which attract inbound tourists with various hair colors throughout the year.

The Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms (Obubu from here on) introduced here, is one such facility that has been actively welcoming inbound tourists since 2010.

There is no train station in Wazuka. The nearest train station is more than 10 kilometers away, and there is less than one bus service per hour. We asked Hirokazu Matsumoto, joint representative of Obubu, about the secret to attracting inbound tourists to such an isolated area.

Hirokazu Matsumoto

Hirokazu Matsumoto was born in 1975 in Yamato Koriyama City, Nara Prefecture. He graduated from the Faculty of Business Administration at Osaka Sangyo University. While still in school, he worked part-time during the busy farming season in Wazuka Town, Kyoto Prefecture, the main producer of Uji tea, and later became a new tea farmer. Together with local tea farmers and friends, Matsumoto founded an agricultural production and tea sales company, and became a director.  In 2001, he became the youngest person to pass the very first Japanese tea instructor exam. In 2004, Matsumoto launched the Obubu brand with the aforementioned company, but due to the management style differences, he left both companies. Then, after working in sales of housing and insurance, he rejoined Obubu in 2016, where he was entrusted with management focused on tourism, and is now the  joint representative of the company.

All guided in English! A four-hour tea tour to enjoy learning about Japanese tea.

Q: Please tell us about the Tea Tour offered by Obubu?

Matsumoto: At Obubu, we are carrying out a variety of activities with the mission to bring Japanese tea to the world. Currently, we manage 4ha of tea fields and produce over 100 kinds of tea, which we mainly sell online.

Matsumoto-san giving an explanation to the tea tour participants.

The Tea Tour is a four-hour tour primarily for inbound international travelers who love tea. Tea tour participants can visit a tea farm and factory, taste nine types of tea including sencha, gyokuro, matcha, hojicha, genmaicha, and Japanese black tea, and enjoy rice porridge with tea – bubuzuke for lunch. Through the experience at the tea making site in a tea producing area participants are able to learn all about Japanese tea.

Obubu interns guiding a tea tour.

The tours are held in English and delivered by Obubu’s Japanese and foreign staff as well as interns from abroad.

In 2023, when the country’s isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic ended, more than 2,000 inbound travelers participated in the tea tours. Of these, around 70% were independent travelers, and around 30% made reservations through travel agencies. In 2024, we expect to welcome around 3,000 people.

Wazuka Town, Kyoto Prefecture, where Obubu is located, has a population of approximately 3,700 people. There is no train station in the town, and buses from the station, which is 10 kilometers away, run only once an hour.

It is a village deep in the mountains, with nearby towns of Iga and Koga, famous for ninjas, and Yagyu, famous for swordsmen. The main industry of Wazuka Town is tea. There are 600ha of tea fieldss, and nearly half of the tea in Kyoto Prefecture is produced in Wazuka.

Because it is this kind of place, we have designed our tea tours to provide high quality products at appropriate prices, aimed at perceptive individuals, rather than facilitating large busloads of tourists.

Q: Why do you work with international interns as tour guides?

Matsumoto: This is because we believe that the quality of learning changes depending on the guide’s explanation. Rather than trying our best to explain in English, which as producers we are not good at, customers will learn more deeply if we have international interns who are fluent in English.

An intern showing around the tea factory and giving explanation.

The intention is also to keep things fresh. During the 4-hour tea tour, the flow and information are carefully designed to maintain the tour quality at all times. Since the same content is repeated every day, it can become boring if the same person is in charge all the time. On the other hand, international interns, who can only stay for three months, are always able to convey the charm of Wazuka and tea making with a fresh mind and sparkle in their eyes.

Q: Is there anything you keep in mind when running a tour?

Matsumoto: Our goal is for people to experience tea as something fun. It is nice to have a solemn tea ceremony experience in Kyoto, but at Obubu, we want you to enjoy learning while drinking tea. We also want people to make tea a part of their everyday lives even when they return to their home countries after the trip. We operate tours with this in mind.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

Matsumoto: It is part of the fun. I like tea to begin with. I like making tea, brewing it, drinking it myself and having other people drink it too.

Of all the things I do, I find making tea particularly interesting. To be honest, I do not know what kind of product I will be able to produce every year. We harvest tea, make tea, and then it is ready to drink. And when you finally drink it, you may think it tastes good, or you may think it tastes bad, or other people may have different reactions when they try  it…That part of it is also very interesting.

Everyone at Obubu.

We originally became tea farmers as new farmers in the late 1990s. We did not have tea farmer ancestors. We had no ties of any kind. We could do what we wanted to do. It was like a game.

That is why we want to tell people about tea, which we think is very interesting, in a sincere way! That is why we are doing these tours.

Q: Do you find it difficult to work with tea?

Matsumoto: Not really. I do not care about my position as a tea master or tea artisan. Of course, we respect our surroundings very much. But we are allowed to do what we want to do, and we want to convey the charm of tea, especially the joy of it.

Onsen, temples, shrines, ryokan, and tea producing areas. I want to add tea  producing areas to the list of Japan travel destinations.

Q: From the beginning did you create the tea tour with inbound demand in mind?

Matsumoto: No, no. We were new farmers, so from the perspective of local tea farmers, we were a group of outsiders. We were a bunch of outsiders, young people, and idiots. It was tough in many ways. We had a lot of experiences that are hard to describe.

At the beginning, we did not have a solid brand, experience, sales channels, or credibility. And since we could not outsmart other tea shops, we had to find a new way.

So we started selling online. That was in 2004. In order to show our commitment to tea farming, we decided to use Aracha (unblended tea) and send it directly from the tea farm. It is what we call single origin now. We still sell Aracha and continue doing unconventional things.

For about 5 years we focused exclusively on online sales, opening stores on e-commerce platforms such as Rakuten as well as under our own domain name. However, after about five years, we finally realized that what we wanted to do was not to just sell tea, so we started the tea farm owner system – a service that allows customers to become an owner of a part of a tea farm for about 50 yen a day and receive selected tea four times a year.

It was 2009. It was so well received that 100 people became tea farm owners in the first four days of the program. We thought that was it!

By now we have been operating the tea farm owner program for more than 15 years and have been featured on popular TV program Gaia no Yowake (Dawn of Gaia).

Tea that is delivered to the tea farms owners.

Then in 2004, we started going on tours to promote Japanese tea abroad. At first, the town’s chamber of commerce and industry got a grant from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry called the Japan Brand and we went to Europe.

That is why we created the English version of our online shop in 2008. The site was made by us, so the English was terrible. It was like the “made in China” products from long ago. It was terrible. We were surprised that there were people from abroad who wanted to buy our products despite such terrible English.

Then a friend of mine told me about a foreigner who wanted to visit a tea farm, and we decided to do a tea tour. At the beginning, I honestly thought that no one would want to pay money to see a tea farm. In 2010, the first year, about 20 people came. Since then, the number has increased little by little, and we have established a system to accept them, and here we are today. But what we do is brew tea, show people tea fields and factories… Basically nothing has changed.

Q: What do you expect from the tea farm tours in the future?

Matsumoto: Tourism and branding have a very strong relationship. First of all, people who come to Japan for sightseeing love Japan. Among those who love Japan, those who travel to tea-producing areas are especially fond of Japan.

If we can convey the charm of the region and the tea to these people, when they return home after their trip, they will tell others that the tea was delicious and that they should visit Wazuka. In other words, they become powerful brand ambassadors. This is the relationship between tourism and branding.

Therefore, conducting local tours in itself becomes branding, and if you can conduct local tours, your brand becomes stronger. Our Tea Tours are designed with this strong relationship in mind. In other words, It is like a tour at a housing exhibition. You may go there casually, but by the time you leave, you will want to own your own home. I forgot to mention that once upon a time, I was a salesman for a house building company (laughs).

It is only natural that tea tours will make people become fans of Obubu, but I think it will also make them fall in love with Wazuka, Kyoto, and by extension, Japan. So I think that tourism is also connected to national security.

Most of the participants on the tours are from abroad.

So In addition to temples,= shrines, onsen, ryokan, and Japanese food our ambition is to add tea producing areas to the list of Japan travel destinations.

Creating a Wonderland of Tea with Japanese culture and tea experiences

Q: What do you think the future of the tea industry will be like?

Matsumoto: In Wazuka Town, Kyoto, where Obubu is located, the number of tea producers is decreasing rapidly. It will be difficult to retain the number of tea farmers in the future, so the future of the tea industry will be determined by whether or not the number of new farmers increases. However, even if new farmers start farming, it may be tough for them to focus primarily on production. In this regard, I believe there is still room for growth if tourism, tea farm ownership programs, and international internships are combined.

Hand-picking event. Matsumoto-san is the one raising his hands.

And those who want to make tea should make more and more. You can rent tea fields from retired tea farmers, take over their machines, and use their factories.

Perhaps what we need to do is create a system that successfully connects people who want to quit tea with people who want to start, and are motivated about making tea. If we can do that, I think the tea industry will become more interesting than we can imagine.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to do in the future regarding tea tours?

Matsumoto: In the future, we will also focus on attracting customers.

Matsumoto-san working at a tea factory.

Specifically, we intend to improve Wazuka’s weak point: poor accessibility.

Our current plan is to operate a microbus every day to take visitors directly from Kyoto Station. This will allow us to accommodate nearly 10,000 people, and we hope that this will increase the number of tea farm owners.

Collaborative mochi pounding tournament held with local people.

Along with this, we will work together with local people to offer experiences that cannot be found anywhere else. For example, people will be able to learn how to make tea by hand directly from Japan’s No.1 tea hand-rolling master, or experience making mochi – rice cakes with a sweets shop that has been in business for three generations.

By combining Japanese cultural experiences with tea, we would like to create Tea Wonderland where people can enjoy learning about and experiencing tea.

*All photos by Obubu