Target – olive oil. Abandoned tea fields across the country are heaps of treasures – tea seeds. The popularization of tea seed oil will revive abandoned tea fields. [Japan Tea Seed Oil Association / Kumiko Jito]

Tea production is declining and tea fields are disappearing. The total tea farm area in Japan has decreased by two-thirds in the past 40 years, from 61,000 ha (1983), the largest in history, to 37,000 ha (2022).

The decrease of 24,000 ha of tea fields is only a statistical decrease, not the disappearance or death of tea plants. Most were simply excluded from the statistics because they are no longer managed for production.

These tea fields are known as abandoned tea fields, and are densely covered with tea plants two to three meters in height. In autumn, tea flowers bloom in these abandoned tea fields, and they get covered with tea seeds. And tea is a plant of the Camellia family, and like with camellias, oil can be extracted from the seeds.

Now that abandoned tea fields are increasing in tea-growing regions across the country, more and more people are turning their attention to the tea seed oil. Although still small in number, tea seed oil products are beginning to appear.

Then, in 2016, the Japan Tea Seed Oil Association was formed, and people from all over the country, who had previously focused on exploring tea seed oil individually, were now gathering together.

There are also some research results on tea seed oil, although still few, showing that tea seed oil contains oleic acid and linoleic acid, which is comparable to oil of other camellias.

While the world of tea seed oil is still in the developing stage, the number of abandoned tea fields is still expected to increase.

We interviewed Kumiko Jito, the president of the Japan Tea Seed Oil Association, about the possibilities of the tea seed oil.

Kumiko Jito

It has been 8 years since I found tea seeds and I could not forget the excitement I felt then. Connecting with people all over Japan who collect tea seeds, I run an association and hold events to make baum cream with the oil. Every fall, the tea fields of Shiga, my home ground, call me and I bravely go to the fields. I love tea seeds so much that once I go there, I lose track of time harvesting them.

Explore the unknown potential of tea seed oil.

Q: Please tell us about the Japan Tea Seed Oil Association.

Jito: We are a voluntary organization that started our activities in 2017.

Members of the Japan Tea Seed Oil Association.

The impetus for our formation came from a tea seed oil event held in Koenji, Tokyo, in June 2016. I met Shimoyamada-san of Ryokumon Corporation, who was hosting that event, and told him that I was also interested in collecting tea seeds, and he said he knew some more people who are interested in tea seeds, suggesting we get together.

Then in the fall of the same year, about 15 of us got together and called it the 1st Summit, though it was just a drinking party. Then in December 2017, we had the 2nd Summit in Nagoya – this time a study session. The 3rd Summit was held in November 2018 in Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture, where we collected tea seeds and squeezed tea seed oil.

Q: Are the members active in different parts of the country?

3rd Tea Seed Oil Summit held in Shiga Prefecture.

Jito: Yes. We have members in various locations, in Saga, Shiga, Nara, and Kyoto Prefectures.

We have one unique member who became interested in tea seeds while living in India, and after returning to Japan, has been traveling back and forth between Tokyo and Saga while picking tea seeds in Ureshino’s tea fields. He harvested about 300 kg of tea seeds in the fall of 2023.

Q: It seems that every tea farmer has thought “It would be great if we could utilize tea seeds”. Yet, why have tea seeds not become a business until now? What difficulties lie behind this?

Jito: I guess the extraction rate for tea seed oil is quite low at 10%. In the example of the member I mentioned earlier, even if he harvested 300 kg of tea seeds, after drying there was only 150kg and when he pressed the tea seed oil, there was only about 15kg of it. It is not very efficient, so it is very difficult for people to get involved in the business.

And there is also the issue of harvesting time. The best time is when the pouch holding the tea seeds is ripe and about to crack. Since there is about a week between when the pouch is about to crack and when seeds fall out, it is more efficient to cut down the branches and harvest during that time.

Collected tea seeds.

Once the seeds fall, you have to crawl on the ground to find them, which is time-consuming and tedious. I like to look for the fallen seeds because it is like a treasure hunt. Every year, when it is time to harvest, I go to the tea field every day and collect about 2 kilograms of tea seeds. The amount is reduced to only about 100 grams when made into tea seed oil, but that is fine with me because I enjoy harvesting them.

Another difficulty in dealing with tea seed oil is that consumers are unaware of its existence because its use has not been established yet and its products have not been developed yet. The lack of demand makes it relatively expensive even if products are created. I think that is the issue.

I hope that research will continue to find the unique characteristics and strengths of tea seed oil. 

I enjoy picking up tea seeds so much that I may have been born for this.

Q: How did you come across tea seed oil? 

Jito: About eight years ago, when I was working at a tea specialty shop in Shigaraki, I found an unfamiliar object in a benifuki tea field. I brought it home and asked the boss what it was.

He said “It is a tea seed, don’t you know?”.

I looked it up in a tea encyclopedia, but could only find a few lines of explanation. When I told the boss that there was very little about it, he said that you can get oil out of it. So I bought a hand squeezing machine and tried squeezing the oil myself. When I showed this to my father, he made a machine to break the seeds by hand, and from there I gradually became hooked.

I still remember the excitement I felt when I collected seeds for the first time. At first, I would just go to the tea field with nothing and come back with the seeds I collected in my pockets. But my pockets were filling up quickly.

Tea seeds on a tea plant.

Next I took a plastic bag, but it was difficult to use in because the opening was not sturdy. To solve this problem, I decided to take a bucket. 

“Today I will pick tea seeds from this area”, I decided. Once I finished I took the bucket and moved it about 2m. As I lifted the bucket I found that many seeds were on the ground.

I was so excited, thinking that maybe I was born to collect seeds. But it was not like that. The seeds that I thought I had put inside the bucket, did not go in properly, and instead just fell around it. It is a funny story.

The buckets we took to the tea field gradually grew bigger and bigger, and by the end we were using buckets of about 30 cm in diameter.

We left a large bucket on the road and used smaller buckets for collecting seeds that we would bring to the larger bucket to unload. Today we collected from one area and tomorrow we would go to a different area. We had a flow like this.

My passion for tea seed oil may have boiled over and evaporated (laughs).

Q: What is the appeal of tea seed oil?

Tea seed oil is visible in the back right of the photo.

Jito: You cannot say that it is delicious.

The components are almost the same as in the oil of other camellias, and there are some qualities like its good absorption rate when made into cosmetics, or that it may be good for children’s atopic dermatitis. Currently, oil specialist Naoko Jibiki has joined us as a member, and we are undergoing trial and error while receiving information as we go along.

Rather than because the quality is good, we started from the idea that we wanted to do something about tea seeds being underutilized. It feels like we are a group of members who wants to do something that no one else is doing.

I myself cannot forget the excitement I felt when I found tea seeds for the first time, and every fall I return to my home in Shiga to collect them almost every day. It is possible that my passion for tea seeds has been boiling over so much that it has already evaporated (laughs).

Q: What is your vision for the future?

Jito: Tea farmers are in a very difficult situation right now, so I hope that by creating demand for tea seeds and tea seed oil, tea farmers can benefit as well. I hope that one day tea seed oil will be as famous as olive oil.

*All photos by Japan Tea Seed Oil Association