Are There Any Ancient Japanese Tea Trees Left?

Even though tea has been grown in Japan for over 800 years, any of the tea trees in the country are that old. Unfortunately, the trend in the commercial Japanese tea cultivation has been to replace the tea plants every 40 to 50 years.


The majority of the existing tea trees nowadays have been propagated via cuttings, since this technique allows to preserve the DNA of the mother plant 100%. We can, however, still find some old tea trees grown out of seeds known as zairai. And some of them are a bit older than your average Japanese tea plant.


Before talking about the location of the sites where the ancient tea trees can be found, let's go through a short summary about the history of tea cultivation in Japan.


When did tea arrive in Japan?


It's believed that tea was introduced in Japan not only once but twice.


The first existing records date from the 8th Century. The monks Kūkai & Saichō bring back some tea leaves & seeds from their cultural trip to China.


The seeds were planted by Saichō in Shiga at the foot of Mount Hiei, tea was grown & consumed among the religious & noble classes in its dancha form, leaves pressed in bricks then scrapped from it in order to prepare tea. After a while, dancha consumption declined & almost disappeared.


In 1191, Eisai came back from China bringing tea seeds with him. He first planted them in Kyushu, then gave some to the monk Myōe who in turn, planted the seeds at Kōzan-ji temple, in Toganoo, Kyoto.


Eisai not only planted the seeds but also introduced the Sung style to prepare the tea, grinding the leaves before making tea.


This tea was not only drunk due to its attributed health benefits but also to stay sharp & awake during meditation. Eisai wrote the first book about tea in Japan known as Kissa Yōjōki, explaining how to grow, prepare & consume the tea & what for.


This way of tea drinking became extinct in China due to the Mongol invasion yet the tradition remained in Japan up to this day.


How did the tea plants survive?

Myōe realised that the tea plants in Kōzan-ji needed a more suitable environment to grow, so he looked for a more suitable place & deemed the small village of Uji as the perfect location for this purpose.


Due to its climate along with the purity of its soil & water, Uji tea became highly reputable within the whole country. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu built 6 tea plantations for private consumption, known as Uji Rokuen, & was known for throwing lavish tea parties.


Shoguns like Yoshimitsu kept the tea-drinking tradition alive by providing their support to the trade. And even created a yearly ceremony to celebrate the first harvest known as Chatsubo-Dochu.


We can safely say that matcha drinking was the gateway to tea cultivation in Japan.


Where there any other types of tea being produced?


During the 17th century, sencha & gyokuro manufacturing methods were developed. Both types of teas became really popular & helped to sustain tea production within the country.


There were a number of early Japanese tea exports to Holland & also to the United States which also contributed to keeping the trade alive.


When did the commercial tea cultivation begin?


Tea cultivation began in the Makinohara plateau in Shizuoka (among other areas) in 1869. The Japanese government promoted black tea production & there was even a Japanese tea café open at the World Expo in Paris.


At first, tea plantations were run by the samurai & their families in an effort made by the government to reintegrate them into society. However, due to a number of hurdles such as high manufacturing costs, the samurai left & farmers took over tea cultivation.


Mechanization advanced steadily during this period, which helped to lower costs & to increase tea production.


Where there any breaking points?


Unfortunately, due to the World Wide II, pretty much all the plantations in Japan, including the tea ones, were switched to crop cultivation for the government. Only after the end of the war, the Japanese tea cultivation was reestablished & thanks to their tea exports to the USA the demand for Japanese teas peaked in 1975.


Were there any remarkable events?


In 1954, the most widely cultivated varietal in Japan was tested. Its name, Yabukita, its creator, Hikosaburo Sugiyama. Yabukita got registered in 1956, this is when the orthodox tea cultivation began to be replaced by breed tea cultivation instead.


Slowly but surely, breed tea cultivation picked up, 88% of farms in Japan were using Yabukita by 1774. And in 1999, when 95% of tea farms had switched to breed cultivation, 93. 9% of them were growing Yabukita.


The reason for this change was due to the frost-resistant ability of the Yabukita combined with its easy adaptation to pretty much any soil or weather conditions & its ability to produce high-quality tea.


So did all the old tea trees get replaced?


While almost all the zairai trees were replaced by the Yabukita varietal clones, some of the old tea trees were left intact.

Ureshino is home of the oldest Japanese tea tree known as Daichaju or Daichanoki which has been declared a Natural Treasure. This well over 300-year-old tea tree is 4.6 metres tall & looks like a small forest due to the many trunks coming out from it.


It was planted during the 17th Century & it is the only tea tree left from such period.

There is also an ancient tea plant in Fujieda, Shizuoka, that is believed to be over 300 years old. It is 4 metres height, 33 m of circumference & every year in spring time shincha or new tea is harvested by hand with a fresh leaves production of 15 kg in total.


Other regions that still have very few old tea trees are Saitama, Uji, Nara, Ise & Makizono. The oldest tree in Makizono reached the end of its life years ago, the second oldest is located in front of the Town Hall & it is 1.5m tall. Tea is still being made using leaves from the old tea trees in Makizono.


Have you ever tried tea made of old Japanese tea trees?

While I have tried some teas made using zairai, the bushes weren't that old. It is something I would like to do so it is pending on my tea wishlist. And you, have you tried any Japanese tea made using the leaves from ancient tea bushes? Comment below!

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