Monday March 12, 2012 | 9 comments
Where would you expect to see such a thing? In none other than the “Green Tea Capital” of Japan – Shizuoka prefecture! Although I did not see green tea coming out of faucets first hand, if I’d have known about it before visiting Japan, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! I discovered this after being introduced to yet another phenomenal Japanese family – The Sugimotos. Families are important in Japan and although things are changing locally and globally – tradition is, for the most part, still being upheld with honor.
The Sugimoto Seicha Co., Ltd. was founded by the grandfather, Zenichi Sugimoto, right after World War ll. The company is now being run by his son, Hiroyuki. In 1986, Hiroyuki Sugimoto won the title of Best Tea Connoisseur by winning the National Blind Tasting Championship, said to be the most dignified competition for tea experts in Japan. Only by looking, smelling, and tasting green tea, contestants must identify the harvest season, the cultivar, and the growing region of the tea plants. Hiroyuki’s keen sense of taste and smell earned him the highest score. That same year, Hiroyuki’s green tea received the Agricultural Minister’s Award for its outstanding quality. Since then, people have respectfully been calling him “Tea Maestro.”
Hiroyuki has two sons, Masaaki and Kyohei, making them the third generation of tea growers and producers. The eldest son, Masaaki, a blind-tasting champion himself, runs the factory in Japan, while the second son, Kyohei, has brought the company to America – to Seattle, Washington. Masaaki is on his way to taking over the title of “Tea Maestro” from his father, whereas Kyohei is here in the States to introduce quality Japanese green tea to America. The family story gets even better. Hiroyuki’s wife, and the mother of their sons, Kazue, is on a mission to preserve the traditional tea-rolling and kneading technique called “Temomi.” When Sen Cha was invented about 300 years ago, all of the manufacturing processes were done only by human hands. Today, all of these processes are mechanized and the Temomi technique is almost forgotten. Kazue Sugimoto has a license to teach this technique and proudly presented her Temomi Cha to the Japanese Imperial Palace in 1997.
I was thrilled to visit their pristine factory and company office while in Japan. A room lined with trophies and awards, where you wear red slippers, was the place where we sampled Kazue’s hand-rolled tea – a most enjoyable, once-of-a-lifetime experience. Not only was it made by Kazue, but she steeped it for us and then served it to us as well. You then put on green slippers and walk through a “wind tunnel” (my interpretation) that blows away any spec of lint on you, thus preventing it from being carried into their spotless factory. (There is a lot of shoes on, shoes off, slippers on, slippers off, in Japan.)
After being introduced to the Kinezuka family of tea farmers and learning of their passion for growing the best tea, I was thrilled to learn of the Sugimoto’s motto – “Tea quality is determined by tea farmers. That’s why only eleven tea farmers are expert enough to be selected as growers of our company green tea plants. These tea farmers have great passion for quality green tea. And they bring their own artistry to the process.” This is almost like a family and business “code of ethics” among the people I met while in Japan. I found this to be most honorable and very encouraging for the tea industry – globally.
The Sugimotos will be at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this coming June, so you simply must drop by and meet them. I am looking forward to meeting Kyohei in person for the first time; since returning from my visit to Japan, he and I have had many conversations via Facebook.
To read the story about tea coming out of the faucets at schools in Shizuoka prefecture, visit their blog. A visit to their website will also get you to the story about green tea drinking in local schools, answer any questions on their company and family history, and address the current issue of radiation testing on their tea leaves – it’s good news, by the way!
I close by saying “thank you” to another wonderful Japanese family – The Sugimotos – for their outstanding hospitality, the gifts I was given, and the time spent with me while in their country. As Japan heals itself from the catastrophic damages it suffered in 2011, I ask that we all be supportive of our global tea family members.