Will tea-producing regions disappear due to the decline of the tea industry? 70% Zairai, zero driven harvesting machines, all pesticide-free. [Mandokorocha Ennokai, Cha Enmusubi / Ren Yamagata]

Probably few people would recognize the above photo as a tea field. About 100 years ago, before mechanization, tea fields looked like this. When tea was only harvested by hand by tea girls, tea fields looked like this instead of the green stripes they have today.

And even now, there is a tea-growing region with this landscape that is dazzling with new buds. This is Mandokoro in Higashiomi City, Shiga Prefecture. Tea cultivation began about 600 years ago, and the landscape of the tea fields from more than 100 years ago is still preserved. It is a historic tea producing area that was once a part of the tea-picking song, saying ‘Uji is the place for tea, but the tea is from Mandokoro”.

The reasons why Mandokoro’s landscape has been preserved are multilayered. But it stands out from other tea regions with several keywords, such as: indigenous tea – Zairai comprises 70%, there are no driven harvesting machines, no pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers and all farmers make tea part-time.

Mandokoro, as a production area, has not pursued the pursuit of economic rationality that has continued from the postwar period to the present, and specifically includes the change in planting from native species to Yabukita to improve quality, the introduction of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to increase yields, and the introduction of driven harvesting machines to improve efficiency. 

Approximately 60 part-time tea farmers continue to produce traditional tea, including gyokuro, on 2.5 hectares of tea fields.

The tea fields that stretch across Mandokoro, the original landscape, quietly answer the question “Is development and expansion the only future that should exist?”. We interviewed Ren Yamagata, who moved to Mandokoro and has been engaged in tea production here for more than 10 years.

Ren Yamagata

Ren Yamagata was born in 1986. In 2012, she happened to come across Mantokoro tea during her fieldwork at the University of Shiga Prefecture, and fell in love with the passion of its producers. Even though she was an amatour Yamagata-san rented a tea field with her friends and visited the producing areas to learn how to make tea from scratch. She moved to Higashiomi City in 2014 as the first member of the Regional Revitalization Cooperation Team, and in addition to producing, processing, and selling Mandokoro tea, she also develops collaborative products and conducts tours and events to promote this area. She is a director of the Mandokoro Tea Production Promotion Association, the president of the Mandokorocha Ennokai, and the president of the Cha Enmusubi.

Mandokorocha Ennokai protecting Mandokoro, a famous tea production area. 

Q: What kind of organization is Mandokorocha Ennokai?

Main members of Mandokorocha Ennokai (Mr. Yamagata is standing in the center).

Yamagata: This is a voluntary team formed by volunteer female members in their 30s living within the prefecture. Because some of our members are public servants, we are not able to do much for profit, but we do work to protect tea production areas and tea farms.

Also, similar to the Mandokorocha Eennokai, which I am the president of, I also run Cha Enmusubi as a sole proprietor. In addition to making and selling Mandokoro tea, Cha Enmusubi also engages in initiatives to increase the number of the production area fans through tours and experience events.

Q: What is your mission?

Yamagata: I think it is to do what we can now to ensure that the scenery of Mandokoro tea will remain visible to the next generation.

Q: What is the best part of being active in the Mandokorocha Ennokai?

Yamagata: What I personally find rewarding and fascinating is the sense that my involvement, however small, may be helping to prolong the breath of something wonderful and important in Japan that is being lost.

Tea picking scene.

Regardless of the approach of Japanese tea, I believe that there are many important aspects of the Japanese DNA that touch your heartstrings, such as “living attentively,” “the spirit of craftsmanship,” and “consideration for others,” that lie dormant in this land, and I hope that you will be able to experience them when you come to Mandokoro.

Q: What are your activities at Mandokorocha Ennokai?

Yamagata: Regarding production, the entire Masadokoro production area is now only 2.5 hectares. I am involved in production as a member of the Masadokorcha Ennokai, which is only about 400 square meters (0.04 hectares). I also work as a factory operator, so I am one of the members who basically processes all the Mandokoro tea, including that from other tea farmers.

Yamagata-san working in the factory.

Additionally as Che Enmusubi, we do not only sell tea that we produced, but also Manokoro tea from other farmers who have no other way of selling. Aside from sencha we also make wood-roasted hojicha, matcha and black tea.

Q: Are there any benchmarks or rivals for the Mandokorocha Ennokai?

Yamagata: There are some things that I refer to. One example is Kasuga Village in Gifu Prefecture, which is a place with production and community development. I have also been shown a cafe called Osawa Chiku in Ikawa Village, Shizuoka Prefecture, that takes into account the entire lifestyle of the producing area. I use such places as an example.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

Yamagata: Actually, I originally did not like Japanese tea that much. So I think there were things I could do precisely because of that. And that is what I am doing now.

I am sure there are no Japanese people who have never had Japanese tea, but surprisingly, not everyone knows about it. In the sense that people have been exposed to it but do not know about it, I think Japanese tea has a lot of potential. It is easy to pique people’s curiosity.

I think the interesting thing about Japanese tea is that people already have a connection with Japanese tea, but they do not know about it.

What has changed over the past 10 years is the increase in the number of people involved. What is behind this change?

Q: What is the current production volume of Mandokoro tea?

Mandokoro tea fields

Yamagata: It has been 11 to 12 years since I started working in Mandokoro, and I think that Mandokoro’s production volume now is about 1/30th of its peak. The production of Aracha is about 1 ton per year.

There are a little over 60 producers, but for better or worse, the number of producers has neither decreased nor increased over the past 10 years. I think the fact that the number of producers did not decrease may be praised to a certain extent, but it has not contributed to the expansion of production.

The overwhelming thing that has changed over the past 10 years is the increase in the number of people involved in Mandokoro.

Group photo with the participants of the tea picking event.

Some people come to Mandokoro one time as a tourist, while others continue to come. The number of newcomer residents has also increased.

There is a pattern of people from outside taking over fields when there are no local people in Mandokoro as successors. Some fields are run by university students, and some by high school students. It seems likely that the number of people involved in Mandokoro will continue to increase in the future.

Q: Do most of the producers who make Mandokoro tea pick it by hand?

Tea picking scene

Yamagata: First of all, there are about 60 tea producers and about 100 tea Fields. About 20 of them hand-pick at least one field. Others harvest using machinery. There are people who harvest with sheers, with harvesting machines carried by one person, and with harvesting machines carried by two people.

Harvesting by one person.

Approximately 70% of Mandokoro tea is native species – Zairai. The remaining 30% are cultivars, but it is almost exclusively Yabukita. Yabukita Fields aredesigned to allow two people to harvest, so in some places they use harvesting machines held by two people.

Reasons for returning to basics in this day and age. What the producers’ pride protected.

Q: Mandokoro was once a production area that was praised for its high quality tea. Do you still feel that pride?

Yamagata: I sense this from the fact that the producers have not lowered the price of Mandokoro tea.

After cultivar teas became the norm and cultivation methods changed drastically, auctioning off the Mandokoro tea became unviable. Wholesalers began to regard it as inferior tea. There was a period of about 50 years when Mandokoro tea was left out of distribution.

The timing of my visit to Masadokoro was very good.

Mandokoro is a depopulated and aging area that is said to have the greatest number of problems in Higashiomi City. I came to Mandokoro at the critical moment when they decided to borrow the help from outsiders.

Since the time I arrived at Mandokoro, the price for Mandokoro tea has gradually changed and I was recognized for my efforts to protect Mandokoro tea.

Even though the world’s standards have changed dramatically over the past 50 to 60 years, it is truly amazing that the Mandokoro tea growers have never given up their pride in their Mandokoro tea and have not forgotten what they should cherish in making tea. The producers did not lower the price of Mandokoro tea.

Q: The current situation in the tea industry is that tea prices are generally declining, but does that mean that the price of Mandokoro tea has not declined?

Yamagata: When I first arrived in Mandokoro, I often heard that there was a lot of Mandokoro tea that had no place to sell. When we actually went to the producers, we found that there was a lot of unsold Mandokoro tea.

When I asked one of them what he was going to do with the tea, he replied: “I would rather throw it in the field than sell it cheaply. If I have to bow down to you to buy it, then you do not have to buy it.” That is what he said.

The producers of Mandokoro tea take the stance that people who want it should come and buy it. But of course not everyone is like that (laughs).

The producers do not find any joy in making Mandokoro tea, which is not wanted, and selling it at a low price, throwing away their pride just so they could make a living. I believe that pride in Mandokoro tea has protected this area up to now.

“This is how we should be” and “this is how we should remain.” We aim to be a role model production area that people think of.

Q: What kind of future do you envision for the Mandokoroaha Ennokai?

Yamagata: I am not thinking about the future. But I do not think that the Mandokoro production area will be attractive even if Mandokoro tea alone remains. For example, there are many vacant houses in Mandokoro, so by inviting newcomers to use them I would like to create a community among them.

Yamagata-san working on a tea farm.

I think it would be wrong to simply take over what has been done by local people. I believe that history is connected by protecting what needs to be protected and changing what needs to be changed. In that sense, I hope that not only the tea fields and Mandokoro tea, but the entire producing  area will not fall into despair and will continue to exist in the future with its blood flowing through its veins.

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

Yamagata: I think it is difficult to fully convey the appeal of Mandokoro tea just by looking at the tea in a bag. I feel that just putting tea leaves in a bag and placing them on a shelf does not convey the appeal, and it makes it difficult for consumers to choose our product or compare it with tea made in other regions.

There is a world where Japanese tea is evaluated at competitions, but just because you use Zairai – native species, you may not be able to get a ticket to participate in such competitions. I think we need to think hard and fight for ways to help people enjoy the diversity of Japanese tea, which is a gourmet product.

Q: What do you think the future of the tea industry will look like? And what do you want it to look like?

Yamagata: Times are changing, and I think that a production area like Mandokoro can be possible. From the standpoint of a large government office, the importance would be placed on numerical figures such as production volume and sales amount to see how well the numerical targets are met. I think there are some tea producing areas that are having a hard time because of such numerical targets set by the government.

Even if it is a small amount, if it is delivered to the people who want to receive it, I think there is a sense of spiritual satisfaction. Of course, there are those who make Japanese tea out of a sense of obligation, but I believe that everyone continues to make tea because there is some value other than money to be gained.

In Mandokoro, there are many tea growers who are engaged in multiple businesses. Until now, the evaluation has been that, if you are not a full-time tea grower or have less than 2.5 hectares, that is not a tea producing area. We are also trying to do something about this divide.

I think that expanding the scale of tea production can lead to a decrease in quality and mechanization can lead to a decrease in tea prices. I wonder about that too. That is why I hope that people will see the Mandokoro production area and think “This is the right way to survive”.

Yamagata is currently focusing on Japanese tea, Mandokoro tea, more than anyone else.

I think the happiness of those involved in the tea industry will increase if we can think, “This kind of production area is possible,” and “This kind of way to remain is a happy one”.

*All photos by Mandokorocha Ennokai