Makers Spotlight: Nakanishi San

Our friend and fellow Rishi, Ryo Iwamoto, a Urasenke Tea Master and Japanese Tea Ambassador, had the opportunity to sit down with Nakanishi San, a renowned farmer whose family has over 250 years of tea farming history. Nakanishi San is one of the key matcha producers for Rishi Tea and started his tea career when he was 17 years old. Now he has more than 60 years of experience, which he is passing down to his son. Nakanishi San’s farm is in the Fushimi District, Kyoto, Japan. Tea from this region tends to emphasize the deep, savory and sweet flavors with balance of umami and elegant tannin structure. This area of Kyoto is a heritage site for Japanese green teas and is within the region where Japanese first started to cultivate tea many centuries ago.

“Since our farm is in the Fushimi District of Kyoto and close to the Uji river, the night time temperature is relatively warmer, compared to the mountain side gardens. This place is the best for tencha farming due to this reason. Generally speaking, in the mountains, the tea gardens are sometimes damaged by frost due to the low temperatures. Tea gardens in the mountains are especially vulnerable to frost damage during the shading time. Shading of our gardens prevents tea leaves from absorbing sunlight and enhances the deep green and rich flavors of matcha. Each tea bush cultivar has different timing and duration of days for shading. On average, we shade around 30/40 days but must be flexible and keen to change the times based on the cultivar response to the seasonal weather.”

 “Fushimi District, Kyoto has a layered soil structure with clay and sand. Our Matcha has rich and complex taste with gentle aromas. The umami balanced with mineral and natural character of the cultivars is special for our area. The minerality and lasting flavor of our matcha comes from these terroir conditions and proper fertilization, control of shading duration, and the timing of the harvest. The main characteristics of our family’s matcha is the highlight of the farm’s natural essence and a long lasting flavor that is more than just deep umami.”

We see Nakanishi San’s farming style is minimal intervention with special organic practices. This is rare in the world of premium matcha. He cultivates naturally grown tea bushes with the apex removed*. Nakanishi San doesn’t prune his tea bushes and the bushes are spread out in the garden. Due to low planting density, the bushes grow tall and wide. Unlike the manicured hedges of most Japanese tea gardens, Nakanishi San’s tea garden is like a grove of tree clusters. This low interventionist and old style method of tea planting is called Shizenjitate in Japanese. There are a few experimental tea bush cultivars, but they are not available for commercial purchase yet. Most of the tea bushes at Nakanishi san’s garden are clones and some are seed saplings. To fertilize the land, the soil is covered with carbonized rice husks. This thatch husk covering is spread across the soil to keep the tea tree bases root system and top soil warm to encourage stable growth. Under the rice husks, the natural soil bacteria remain active and nourishing to the tea bushes.

“Your farm is located within the region where the first tea was planted in Japan. It is truly a special place for green tea and tea history. Do the original strains of the tea bushes planted in Japan centuries ago still thrive in your region? Also, this is maybe a funny question to ask a farmer, but why do you think this was the first area for tea planting in Japan? By luck or by some specific choice due to the special character of the area?”

Nakanishi San graciously shares his thoughts and information,

“Fushimi District has a history of natural type of tea bush from the ancient times, including 5 hectares of tea plantations with 90% of them being of these natural and original type of seed tea bushes. There is a hypothesis that Kyoto is the first area for tea planting in Japan because of its weather, temperature, soil structure and geography. As we know, business is supply and demand. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, meaning this place had the biggest business and buying power. Many monks studying in Buddhist countries and other tea areas came to Kyoto with tea experience and seeds. Over time, people in the city bought and consumed more tea relative to other districts in Japan, so the farmers were incentivized and able to supply large quantities of tea and succeeded the tea supply demand cycle. Kyoto used to have lots of battles and wars. Every time the incidents happen, people raid cities for rice (essential things), not tea. So, the tea consuming cultures in Kyoto were stable from ancient times.”

At Rishi, we are very honored to have this interview translated for us by Ryo San and to have the opportunity to have this detailed and nuanced information provided by Nakanishi San.

*In botany, apex refers to the highest point or vertex of a plant stem or root. The shoot apex is the place on the stem where new development of stems, leaves, and other parts of a plant grow after the older parts dry out or fall off. The shoot apex can inhibit the lateral bud growth. If the apex is removed, the lateral buds are released and begin to grow.

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