Organic and certified. A new world of pesticide-free, shelf-grown, hand-picked, stone-ground matcha opens up. [Akahori Seichajo / Masamitsu Akahori]

Since the 2000s, matcha has become popular worldwide. However, the most popular matcha is culinary matcha used as a flavor in food processing, as illustrated by matcha ice cream.

Due to the increasing demand for culinary matcha and the decrease in demand for sencha, matcha production has begun in various regions, and by 2021, Kagoshima overtook Kyoto to become Japan’s largest producer of tencha – the material leaves used to make matcha.

And, coinciding with the popularity of matcha, there has also been a global movement to shift to organic agricultural production. In 1999, the JAS organic certification system was introduced in Japan. In 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began promoting the Green Food System Strategy, and the trend toward organic food is expected to accelerate further.

However, although certification seems to be the obvious thing to do when it comes to organic farming, the reality is that more than 60% of farmers in Japan who are engaged in pesticide-free farming have not obtained organic certification. This is because the organic certification system involves various costs and is too burdensome for small-scale farmers.

Under these circumstances, here we would like to introduce the efforts of Akahori Masamitsu from Akahori Seichajo, a tea farm that has been producing matcha for five generations in Nishio City, Aichi Prefecture, a long-established matcha production area. Since 2017, Akahori-san has been using pesticide-free and organic farming methods. He produces and sells stone-ground matcha, which has been grown under  shelf structures, harvested by hand, and made in a traditional tencha furnace. We interviewed Akahori-san, who continues to take on the challenge of producing this matcha, which can be said to be the only one of its kind in Japan.

Masamitsu Akahori

After graduating from a local business high school, Masamitsu Akahori spent two years living and training at a famous, long-established wholesaler in Kyoto, and in 2000 started working at the family business – Akahori Seichajo. After acquiring know-how on tea production, from cultivation to processing, he became the fifth generation in the family in 2012. In 2017, Akahori switched to pesticide-free cultivation and is also working on organic farming. On Saturdays and Sundays, he offers his special matcha in his food truck.

Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, is a long-established matcha production area. What is Akahori Seichajo, which has been producing matcha here for five generations?

Q: Please tell us about Akahori Seichajo.

Akahori: Nishio City, Aichi Prefecture, where our company is located, has been a matcha production area for a long time.

It is said that tea plants were first planted in Nishio about 750 years ago. In the early Meiji period (1868-1912), the cultivation of tencha – material leaves for matcha, began in full swing. Akahori Seichajo has been cultivating tencha since then, and I am now a fifth-generation tea farmer.

We are now cultivating tea without the use of pesticides and are using organic fertilizers. We do everything from tea harvesting and processing to sales.

A food truck that is dispatched to events to serve tea.

I am the type of person who wants to do what I think is right, so I also do events with a food truck, run a small cafe with my family in a renovated office, and host local elementary and junior high school students for tea picking work experiences.

The tea farm is approximately 8ha in size. Most of it is under the elevated shading. Direct shading is only about 0.3 ha.

*Elevated shading and direct shading

Tencha, the material leaves for matcha, is cultivated in two ways: using traditional elevated shading, with shelf-style structures built in tea fields; and direct shading, in which tea plants are directly covered with a shading net. Ceremonial grade matcha is often cultivated with elevated shading. Culinary matcha, such as matcha used for chocolate, is often cultivated with direct shading.

Hand-picked, shelf-grown, pesticide-free, and only fertilized with organic fertilizers.

Q: Is there anyone else who produces matcha, which is hand-picked, shelf-grown, pesticide-free, and only fertilized with organic fertilizers?

Elevated shading.

Akahori: In Nishio, there are many people who do elevated shading, but I have never heard of anyone who practices hand-picking, elevated shading, pesticide-free farming, and fertilizing with organic fertilizers…

However, although we do not apply pesticides and use organic farming methods, not all of the tea we grow is organic, and we have not yet obtained organic certification.

We also do a lot of wholesale. But, even if the tea is made only with organic fertilizers and no pesticides, if it is not certified as organic, the value of it being organic may not be appreciated.

On the other hand, if the tea is made only with organic fertilizers and no pesticides, the production volume will be lower compared to conventional cultivation, and the profits will be lower.

Considering this, I myself would like to continue to grow tea using pesticide-free and organic farming methods, so I think it would be better to have organic certification. I would like to obtain the certification, but I am too busy to work on the certification process.

We did not choose pesticide-free teas because organic teas sell well.

Q: What led you to start pesticide-free farming?

Akahori: If the area of the tea farm is large, even if pesticides are sprayed every day, you cannotl not keep up. And the number of insects does not decrease either. I started thinking, “What if I was using pesticides unnecessarily?” and before I knew it, I stopped it. This is the main reason.

Akahori Seichajo tea field. A large area is under elevated shading.

The impetus came from a local elementary school, where I served on the PTA board and interacted with parents raising children, which led me to think more and more about child development, health, and food safety. The conclusion I reached was to stop spraying pesticides.

Spraying pesticides is harmful to my own body, and when I considered the impact on the neighbors of Akahori Seichajo, I thought it would be better to try pesticide-free cultivation.

Q: How have your tea fields changed since you stopped using pesticides?

Akahori: After we stopped using pesticides, things only got worse until about the fourth year, and from about the fifth year, the tea fields themselves started to get stronger in some places.

Q: What made you feel that the tea fields themselves were becoming stronger?

Akahori: Tea plants were vibrant and had a strong feel to them. For example, I think that tea plants that grow in areas where chemical fertilizers are applied tend to have more branches. Akahori Seichajo tea fields do not rely on pesticides, and our cultivation method incorporates organic farming as much as possible, so tea plant branches grown under organic pesticide-free farming are strong and robust. However, fewer branches mean fewer buds, so the yield is lower.

Q: Why do you continue pesticide-free cultivation?

Akahori: To be honest, wholesalers sometimes tell us to use pesticides and produce more clean tea leaves that have not been eaten by insects. To them organic cultivation is not worth it and they cannot afford to buy the tea at a good price.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I would like to produce tea that is good for the body and does not put a burden on it.

I think that there are still not many people who are trying pesticide-free or organic cultivation. I believe that I am working on something that is ahead of other producers in the tea industry, and I will continue to cultivate tea without compromising my beliefs.

“I want to make carefully selected matcha”. Why do we continue to make matcha by hand?

Q: Is all Akahori Seichajo tea harvested by hand?

Akahori: No, not all. We also harvest using machines.

Q: What made you decide to make matcha by hand?

Akahori: One of the reasons is that it is for junior high school student work experience. Not only junior high school students but also local elementary school students want to experience tea picking, so sometimes we open the tea farm up for free and let them pick as much as they want.

Hand-picking scene.

Q: Which cultivars do you use to make your matcha?

Akahori: The cultivars are: Saemidori, Okuhikari, Benifuuki, Okumidori.

Q: Are you making matcha with Benifuuki? That is rare. Why did you decide to make matcha with Benifuuki?

Akahori: We found Benifuuki at the same time we found seedlings of the other three cultivars. So I thought, “Let’s try making it,” and started growing it.

Q: How is Benifuuki matcha?

Akahori: I do not think it is bad.

There was a person, who suffered from severe hay fever, and he told me that he felt better after drinking Benifuuki matcha.

Q: Do you plan to continue increasing the amount of hand-picked matcha?

Akahori: We are planning to add 5 new cultivars. Just now we are trying to decide which ones to increase… I am thinking of producing Seimei, Kirari and Sun Rouge, which are all the rage right now.

Q: I have never heard of hand-picked matcha from Sun Rouge cultivar… I think it might turn into a purple or pinkish matcha.

Akahori: I cannot say for sure until we actually make it, but I am looking forward to seeing how the color will turn out.

There is still a lot of room for growth in the world of matcha. We will continue providing matcha that is good for health

Q: What are your future plans for Akahori Seichajo?

Akahori: Right now, road construction is being carried out in front of Akahori Seichajo, so even if we wanted to we cannot build any new buildings or facilities until this work is completed. Water drainage and other aspects have to be checked beforehand.

However, because we cannot build something new at this time, we decided to do what we can do now, starting with a food truck, then a cafe, and so on. I think it would be great if eventually we could make this into our own supply chain. And eventually, I would like to focus on the tea farm tourism business as well.

Q: What kind of person are you?

Akahori: What kind of person? A selfish person (laughs). I put my ideas into action immediately, which I think causes a lot of trouble for my family and people around me (laughs).

Akahori-san is holding a popular menu item, green tea curry.

It is not fun or interesting to do the same thing all the time.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

Akahori: Japanese tea… Hmm, what should I say. I believe that Japanese tea is a drink that helps maintain health.

Q: Do you ever feel any difficulties working with Japanese tea?

Akahori: This is from a producer’s perspective, but you cannot go against nature. Even just in this day and age, the climate is getting stranger every year. The climate changes rapidly every year, so the most difficult thing is to grow Japanese tea accordingly.

To be honest, last spring (2023) we had a huge mite infestation, and about 1/3 to half of the tea fields were affected. Last year’s fall and winter were warm, so I am concerned that there may be many insects overwintering. I try to remove the insects by hand, but there is no end to it, so I feel like I have no choice but to leave it to their natural enemies.

It has been several years since we stopped using pesticides and started practicing organic farming, but our tea farm is still a developing environment from the perspective of living things. I hope that if the environment improves, even if insects appear, their natural enemies will also live there, and we will be able to produce better tea.

Q: What do you want the future of the tea industry to look like?

Akahori: I am not talking only about Nishio, but there are many tea producing areas in various parts of Japan. I believe that Japanese tea has its own characteristics in each production place.

Recently, there has been an active movement to create something new, but instead, it is necessary to go back to the roots once again and provide education on why a particular Japanese tea has been produced in a particular production area. For example, here. Nishio in Aichi Prefecture began producing tencha for matcha production, and became one of the major areas. Why was this and what is its history? I would like everyone to know these things.

*All photos by Akahori Seichajo