Two inspiring tea stories: an interview with Yasuharu Matsumoto, the founder of Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, Global Japanese Tea Association, and Nagasaki Ikedoki Tea. During our visit to Higashi Sonogi, the centre of Nagasaki tea production, we also spoke to tea traveller Marjolein Raijmakers, who moved here to work for the Ikedoki Tea project.
Higashi Sonogi. Photo: Global Japanese Tea Association, 2021.
Set on a plateau overlooking the picturesque Omura Bay, the tea plantations of Higashi Sonogi are renowned throughout Japan and its 400 ha tea field area accounts for approximately 60% of the tea grown in Nagasaki Prefecture, while Nagasaki in itself is a unique tea region in Japan producing only about 1% of country’s tea, which is around 750 tons annually. Ikedoki was established in September 2020 and literally means “tea break” in the local Nagasaki dialect of Omura area.
Yasuharu Matsumoto (Matsu-san). Matsu-san has a long history with tea since 2004, from that point his visionary mind has given birth to many innovative programs for Japanese tea. Photo: Katrina Wild.
- When and how did you become acquainted with tea for the first time?
My younger brother Hiro started tea farming during his university years. Akky [Akihiro Kita; the president of Obubu] and Hiro [Hirokazu Matsumoto] were best friends in high school and started farming together in 1997 when they were 20. After he graduated, he invited me to join the world of tea. Back then, I was working as a civil engineer in Yokohama but didn’t see hope in my job as the industry was facing a serious recession. Tea offered the hope I was searching for at that time as I saw a bright future in my brother’s vision. Later, I discovered that my love for tea was related to the community and people around it. So we started with creating Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms and a domestic online shop for Wazuka’s teas because the internet revolution of 1995 created opportunities for web stores, which at that time was innovative. In 2004 on the 14th of March, we established Obubu [“tea” in the local Kansai dialect]; at that time I was 29, two months before I turned 30. That is when the grand adventure of tea began for me.
Akky-san and Matsu-san in Wazuka, Kyoto Obubu Farms. Photo: Leslie Montes.
- As a Japanese person, how do you view Japanese tea in comparison to teas of other origins?
Tea is like water and air. It is necessary but we usually do not recognise how precious it truly is; we take it for granted. But when we don’t drink tea, we do instantly notice that it is not there. Just like water and air. Japanese people view teas like Sencha, Houjicha, and Genmaicha as water: they should be there for free. While matcha and teas from India and China have ”more value”. Let’s say, that when we walk into a shop or restaurant and get charged 300 yen for a cup of Sencha, people would immediately complain. But if it is black tea from abroad served in a cup with a handle, 300 yen is okay. “Oh wow, that is cheap!“ Hence, it is a challenging trial to open a tea shop in Japan. As farmers, we know that it takes a lot of craft and effort to make tea.
15 days, 15 tea prefectures: Japanese Tea Marathon organised by Global Japanese Tea Association. Tabu Tea House, Riga, Latvia, 2021. Photo: Katrina Wild.
- What motivated or inspired you to create Kyoto Obubu Farms?
I believed Hiro’s eye was bright despite the fact that the agriculture business was not doing so well at first. Wazuka is a small rural town with 600 ha of tea fields with over 800 years of tea cultivation history. Mayor Tadao Hori, a steadfast supporter of Obubu from day one, played a pivotal role in embracing our aspirations. With his encouragement and open-minded way, tea tours, the Teatopia [Chagenkyo] Festival, and international internships took root, laying the foundation for what was to come. Sadly, he passed away a month ago but we will always be deeply grateful for his support and innovative eye for transforming Wazuka into what it is today, being the mayor for 22 years. He witnessed the whole evolution of Obubu and supported it all the way through and thanks to that we were able to come this far.
During the first five years, Obubu mainly focused on the domestic business, which was challenging but miracle after miracle took place, for instance, a TV show made a feature about us, hence, we were able to sell more tea to survive but after that, we faced another wave of hard times. In 2009, a ray of sunshine came through the thick layer of clouds when we started our tea club and since then everything drastically changed. In the first 4 days, 100 people joined it, which became one of our miracles also. That is we introduced our mission “Japanese Tea to the World”. In 2010, Ian Chun [founder of Yunomi.life] joined our team and helped us create our online tea store and international website. Elyse Peterson [founder of Tealet] joined as the very first intern, which kickstarted our internship program. Step by step Obubu kept evolving, and now we have welcomed over 150 interns from nearly 30 countries. We were truly lucky (and continue to be) to meet and be supported by so many passionate individuals from all over the world.
Intern wall of fame, Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms.
- Seems like Global Japanese Tea Association was the further evolution of what Obubu is standing for. How would you describe the mission and core values behind GJTeA?
Simona Suzuki (Zavadckyte) from Lithuania was one of our first interns and later on she became a staff member of Obubu. The internship program was going well, as well as international sales, tea tours, and tea club were running smoothly. Since Obubu was doing good, we felt like we should do something for the Japanese tea industry, which had been declining since 1975, hence, the mission of “Japanese Tea to the World” took real shape in 2016. I went to The Netherlands with the Japanese Tea Instructor Association (Nihoncha) and the Japanese Tea Promotion Council. However, the problem was that the promotion was a challenge due to the language barrier and the export events take place only once a year/three years/a decade depending on the grants and the project has to finish within the time scope of that grant. But one year is not enough to cultivate relationships and community. Industry and government’s strategies tend to focus more on short-term profits as in one year and 5 years but not decades. Lastly, all the immense Japanese tea research and information is not translated into English. We felt like we wanted to address those issues despite being simple tea farmers. Therefore, Simona, Anna Poian (Spain), and I established the Global Japanese Tea Association four years ago in 2019. The main goal was to cultivate a long-term international community and offer accessible information about Japanese tea. Currently, we are supported by the Agriculture Ministry of Japan, which is very important for us to continue sustainably operating as a non-profit organisation. We wish to act as a bridge between the Japanese tea industry, research and culture representatives, government, farmers, and tea enthusiasts from all over the world.
Japanese Tea Master Course, 2016. Photo: Global Japanese Tea Association.
- What is your idea behind Nagasaki Ikedoki Tea and what is its core philosophy?
In 2016, Canadian professor Lee Jolliffe [Routledge Handbook of Tea Tourism] did the Japanese Tea Master course in Wazuka with us and gave me an idea to promote tea tourism in Nagasaki. I researched this prefecture and visited it in 2018 for the first time with my family and the scenery fascinated us. We wanted to move from Wazuka because I felt quite bored there. Obubu was doing well, it was like a paradise; a dream that already came true. But I feel “dead” and uninspired in paradise because I need to continue growing and creating to feel alive. So I decided to move on and create another “paradise” somewhere new.
Tea tourism is getting popular, hence, I felt like we should invest time in creating more tea tourism opportunities across Japan. For instance, French winery tours are a great example of successful niche tourism offering a unique personal experience. Each prefecture in Japan has its own distinctive tea production traditions, hence, it holds the potential for an exceptional journey across flavours, terroirs and culture. Nagasaki was a good starting point because it is one of the most unique tea-producing areas in Japan with its ocean and tea field scenery.
Culture exchange programs, collaborations with local government and farmers, and export are part of our activities but the main goal is to revitalise tourism in the area. Obubu is a private company, so it focuses on its own sales, production, and management, i.e., less direct involvement in the regional contribution and benefit. On the other hand, Ikedoki Tea doesn’t produce its own teas but focuses on nourishing and supporting the region’s tea production and relationships. After Obubu, Wazuka started gaining more tourism and other internship programs started appearing run by other farms there too, while the other tea regions still utilise the old-fashioned approaches, and I feel part of my mission is innovation and fresh ideas. Ikedoki way is also more abstract – it is like a proactive idea factory.
The motto of Ikedoki Tea is “spread a peaceful world with Japanese tea”. Nagasaki is a well-known place in the world, just like Hiroshima, but for rather tragic reasons. Hence, we wish to infuse our region more with the symbolism of peace rather than the tragic past. Tea is a metaphor for peace, hence, a perfect product for this goal, I believe. Nagasaki has a lot of very friendly people, a tranquil atmosphere, and wonderful scenery, so we wish that it becomes famous not only for the tragic incident but also for the positive, lively, and beautiful current situation. Peace revolution through tea!
Together with Haruna Nishida [Nihoncha Instructor], Yuichi Nakayama [Higashi Sonogi Town Hall], Ikedoki Tea created a Sonogicha Ambassador Program for international ALTs (Alternative Language Teachers) of Nagasaki Prefecture. Photo: Katrina Wild.
- All of the projects you have actively engaged in and nurtured have a very unique touch to it. Can you tell us more about your vision for the Japanese tea industry?
The Japanese tea industry is coming to its turning point, in my opinion. The farmers are getting older and older, production continues to decrease. Those circumstances are impossible to change for good overnight. A few years ago, I was convinced that young people do not like tea much and the situation seemed quite hopeless to me. After our Japanese Tea Evangelist Program, I gained new hope because so many young Japanese people have joined with a lot of passion. Now I am positive. We wish to keep our beautiful customs for the next generations: tea fields, factories, processing traditions, how to drink tea, and the feeling of Japanese tea. This is very conceptual, so how do we find pragmatic solutions? Ikedoki Tea can promote local tea region by tea tourism as a strategy and directly exporting from a local place. I believe that tea tourism is a powerful tool to change the situation for the best and Wazuka was a good example of revitalising this tea region. Global Japanese Tea Association is also one of the cultivators and incubators of ideas and innovations between Japan and the world while nurturing a worldwide community. Think global, act local.
Marjolein Raijmakers. Marjolein is a seasoned avid tea traveller with a huge luggage of precious knowledge and insights about the world of tea. During her journeys, she has explored China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and South Korea. Marjolein joined Nagasaki Ikedoki Tea in Higashi Sonogi this year in May as the general manager, hence her nurturing hands are the driving force for shaping the exciting future of this project. Photo: Marjolein harvesting at Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, Wazuka, 2018.
- How did your journey of tea begin?
Tea was always there, I grew up drinking tea with my mom, so I associate it with a feeling of home. I am from the Netherlands, but due to my father’s work, I grew up in different countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Zimbabwe, hence, I was surrounded by tea-growing areas and cultures from young age, although, the interest in tea grew much later. Like a seed lying dormant, waiting to sprout. There was not one single moment that sparked off my deeper journey into tea but rather a series of events. As written in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
Spring hand-picking tea leaves for white tea in Hadong, South Korea, 2023. Photo by Mihee Kang.
One of my first profound encounters with tea was my first trip to Japan 12 years ago when I stayed with a family of friends and witnessed how they brewed tea: with attention, respect, and sincere intent. On the second trip to Japan, four years later, I told my friends in Shizuoka that I wished to see Japanese tea fields for the first time. Between 18 and 20 years old, I had a love for the city of London, which started with love towards the Natural History Museum, then Borough Food Market as I was working in an organic food store; I was interested in the producers behind fresh vegetables and artisan foods. London became a special place for me to visit for music, and arts and crafts fairs. And then, I naturally discovered a tea bar at one of those craft fairs. It was my first time drinking oolong and seeing tiny Yixing teapots. A few years later, the tea bar closed down, hence, that is when my “tea panic” occurred as I needed to find a new tea spot in London; that was the beginning of my tea explorations. I discovered Mei Leaf and met Don Mei, who had absolutely fantastic educational material on YouTube for beginners. Afterwards, I studied tea at the Dutch tea academy (International Tea and Coffee Academy), completed the UK Tea Academy sommelier course, and then the serious tea travels began. Suddenly, I had two interests: tea and pottery. I applied for a pottery apprenticeship in Cornwall but didn’t make it to the scholarship. Beforehand, I told myself “If I do get it, tea will have to wait.” To be honest, I felt happy and relieved that the tea didn’t end up waiting.
“Porcelain Capital” Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, China. 2019.
The ITC Academy co-hosted an event together with the Japanese Tea Export Promotion Council in the Netherlands. That is when I met Matsu-san, 7 years ago. He was part of the assisting team for this program; he told me about Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms and that they accept international interns. I promised to come to Wazuka in one year, and so I did. By that point, my life was already centered around tea. It was my passion and a crossroads of all my interests: history, culture, travelling, agriculture, artisanship, and meeting new people. It all connected to tea.
- You have travelled in plenty of places for tea such as Sri Lanka, China, South Korea, Japan, and Europe. Can you tell us a bit more about those journeys and how it enhanced your further tea experiences?
After the internship at Obubu five years ago, I decided to do long-term travel dedicated to tea. My first trip was to South Korea for one and a half months: Jeju, Boseong, and Hadong. Afterwards, I returned to Japan for another three months of tea travel to experience different tea regions and to join the tea study program in Shizuoka and Kagoshima organised by the Japan Tea Export Promotion Council. During the 2 weeks of the program, our international tea professional and enthusiast group visited plenty of tea farmers, factories, and a tea research institute. In 2019, a good friend of mine organised a tea tour in China, visiting Wuyishan (cliff oolongs, Da Hong Pao), Zhenghe (white tea), Jingdezhen (porcelain), Qimen (red tea), Taipinghoukei (green tea), Yixing (clay teapots), Hangzhou (West Lake, Long Jing green tea). In 2019, the “De Theefabriek” [a tea museum in the Netherlands] asked me to join their team as a tea expert and tour manager for a tea documentary in Sri Lanka. It was a unique experience, especially, since we got to visit the tea auction in Colombo, which shot down because of the pandemic and hasn’t reopened since and remains online until today. In 2020, I came to Japan again, I was working towards a working visa for Ikedoki but then the pandemic hit, and everything got postponed until May this year.
Idalgashinna Bio Tea Garden, Sri Lanka, 2019. Photos: Marjolein Raijmakers.
Through tea, I linked up with some beautiful tea farmers in Europe, such as Monica Griesbaum of Windy Hollow farm in Scotland, Dutch tea farm Het Zuyderblad, and Tschanara in Germany. For me, the European tea-growing community is very inspiring as they are working together, sharing information, experience, and seeds. I wish to support their pioneering mission since it is not a region where tea has been farmed for generations like in Asia. It will be very interesting to witness the next decade of tea production in Europe as they hone their craft and develop a good foundation for European tea terroir flavours.
Wuyishan and Zhenghe (Fujian Province), China. 2019. Photos: Marjolein Raijmakers.
- Four months ago, you have joined Nagasaki Ikedoki Tea as a general manager of the project. What was your experience so far living in Higashi Sonogi?
Technically, I joined Ikedoki Tea three years ago and we did a few online tea events, and from there on I was waiting for Japan to open up after the pandemic. My life was a bit on hold with this adventure on the horizon. During my 2018 Japan tea travel, I came to Higashi Sonogi as a tourist and stayed with the Green Tea Homestay where you get hosted by tea farmers. Before moving here, I was lucky to get familiar with the environment and connect personally with locals, farmers, and their families. Shouji Iizuka from the local tourism association took me around and now we are working together on tea tours. Because I am Dutch and there is so much history with the Netherlands in Nagasaki, I was a rather special guest and even got introduced to the mayor of the town while being simply a tourist. It was bizarre to be invited into a mayor’s office for an official photo and local newspaper interview, I felt like Alice in Wonderland a bit. A lot of the townspeople ended up knowing that I was going to come to work in Higashi Sonogi, hence, they were expecting and waiting for me. That helped with the integration now for sure. I got to make so many new friends since everyone is so incredibly welcoming here.
Some of Nagasaki Ikedoki’s teas ascended the peaks of Aso-Kuju National Park. Ikeda Chaen’s (池田茶園) Shiraore (stem tea; 白折) cold brew and Tozaka Chaen (東坂茶園) handmade winter houjicha (冬ほうじ茶) on top of Mt. Hoshisho (星生山) before sunrise. Photo: Katrina Wild.
- How does tea of Nagasaki differ from teas produced in other prefectures in Japan?
In Nagasaki, ‘ocha’ (お茶; tea) is automatically assumed to be tamaryokucha (玉緑茶); while in other regions of Japan, it would usually be assumed to be sencha (煎茶). Tamaryokucha is mainly produced on the island of Kyushu, as well as in Shizuoka Prefecture. Sonogi Cha is also mostly tamaryokucha – steamed curly-shaped green tea, which in flavour isn’t necessarily very different from deep steamed Fukamushi Sencha. Instead of being rolled into the thin, needle-like shape of sencha, tamaryokucha is rolled into a distinctive comma-like shape (guri). Nagasaki’s tea history is very rich despite being a small tea production area and a lesser-known tea region and processing methods differ considerably from areas like Shizuoka and Kagoshima. Teas from here do have strong umami and prominent marine tones since we are in a deep-steamed region, and Japanese tea market trends incline more and more towards umami rich teas. Frequently, wholesalers’ most valued blends, expensive and highly-prized teas are made with Tsuyuhikari cultivar as it has a lot of umami richness.
Tamaryokucha cultivar comparison tasting with Tozaka-san: saeakari, ookuyutaka, saemidori, tsuyuhikari, and yabukita. He was explaining the strategical schedules of his tea bush trimming to coincide with insect peaks so pesticide use can be avoided to still keep the plants healthy. Photos: Katrina Wild.
- What about teas specifically from Higashi Sonogi?
The two main specialties of this town are tea and whale meat, although whales are not hunted here anymore and it is imported from outside to preserve the old tradition. Around 40 years ago, it was a hidden tea region since it fell down under the umbrella of Ureshino tea (Saga Prefecture), the tea region on the other side of the same mountain Fudoyama. In 1987 the local farmers decided to establish their own brand and identity as producers, what we currently know as Sonogi Cha. Japanese really love awards and it does indeed help support producers. There are two notable awards in Japan: the Nihoncha Award by the Ministry of Agriculture (it is the oldest and most recognised one, judging industry standards, the right colour and shape of tea, etc.). The other one is around 7-8 years old and was founded by the Nihoncha Instructor Association; they judge a tea mainly by flavour, which perhaps allows more creativity from the tea farmers’ side. Sonogi has won both of these awards several times and the local government actively supports the tea industry here, which I find inspiring.
Sonogi Tea Ambassador Program; Tamaryokucha training. Photo: Katrina Wild.
- For the future of Ikedoki Tea, how do you envision the development of the project?
As I see Matsu’s vision, he wishes to help the overall situation of the Japanese tea industry through his projects. Recognising that local production, sales, and consumption continue to drop. Seeing an opportunity for global recognition and appreciation of Japanese tea and exports. Seeing value in not just tea itself but also knowledge, stories, and culture around it. He really wants to focus on tea tourism to allow people to directly connect, and easily visit tea fields, and different tea-producing areas. He explained to me once that it used to be very difficult to visit tea farmers as they are shy, don’t speak English, and have concerns about how to welcome foreign guests. After Obubu Tea Farm’s first 15 years, he noticed the interest that people have in visiting farmers and how it helps the farmers feel more proud and valued for the job they are doing. So he dreams of introducing tea tourism in all major tea-producing areas of Japan. Ikedoki Tea is the first project after Obubu, hence, we are currently trying to see what kind of formula and shape tea tourism can take while not necessarily having our own tea farm. If we can create a model that effectively works, we might be able to suggest it and transfer it to other tea regions as well.
I love being the storyteller and the bridge between the producer and the consumer. While we make a start in Higashi Sonogi, I personally dream of getting to know and work with tea producers from across Nagasaki Prefecture. To get to know this region very deeply. It would be great if we could become Nagasaki Prefecture tea specialist hub preserving all this precious knowledge and history. While tourism is our main goal at the moment, I also wish to introduce more education opportunities and programs in this region and an online shop dedicated to this region with the stories of the farmers. Moreover, welcoming people to Higashi Sonogi is also part of my dream and one of my greatest joys.
Sonogi Cha event in Saikai run by Higashi Sonogi Town Hall and Chanoko tea truck. Photo: Koto Gurashi.
- If someone visits Nagasaki, what are the places and activities you would recommend venturing into?
In my opinion, if a tea enthusiast comes to Kyushu island, it is possible to do an incredibly rich tea tour here. Well, firstly, in a non-biased way, I would recommend visiting Higashi Sonogi, the centre of Nagasaki tea with its spectacular views of tea fields and the ocean. Nagasaki Prefecture is worth exploring as it has a connection to the senchadō ceremony, and Nagasaki City is great to visit for its rich trading history as you get to witness the fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch cultures. Hirado island has a unique history of warrior-style Chinshin tea ceremony, sōan-style Kanuntei Tea House, and one of the oldest Japanese tea gardens Fushun En (since Buddhist monk Eisai, who brought tea seeds from China, arrived to Nagasaki first before moving back to Kyoto). Ureshino in Saga Prefecture next to us has a tea museum and more than a 350-year-old tea tree, one of the oldest ones in Japan, as well as great onsens. There are famous kilns like Arita, the origin of porcelain in Japan; a little bit north there is also Karatsu pottery. Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture is famous for Gyokuro, and visiting some tea places in Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Oita, and Kagoshima Prefectures might also add an interesting twist to your Kyushu tea itinerary.
National Natural Monument: one of the oldest tea trees in Japan, approximately 350 years old, Ureshino, Saga Prefecture. It is 4 m tall and 12 m wide in branch diameter. Photo: Katrina Wild.