Sayamacha is a tea mainly produced in Saitama prefecture in Japan. Especially Sayama area including Sayama city, Iruma city and Tokorozawa city produces the most amount of tea in Saitama. It’s been about 700 years since the tea cultivation started in Saitama. The area is very cold for tea cultivation (Sayama is considered as the northern limit of business tea farming in Japan), the leaves grow slowly and become thick. Sayamacha, the tea made from the thick leaves has a rich and robust flavor.
Sayamacha’s specialty is not only its flavor. Not like other tea producing areas in Japan, most of the tea farmers in Sayama are small-sized, family-operated, and do everything from cultivation to retail, just like wineries. So you can explore your own favorite Sayamacha as each farm has its own style and taste. Also, you can stop by your favorite tea farmers when you come to Tokyo – it takes only about one hour to get to Sayama from Tokyo area!
Tea was brought to Japan from China, but it’s not known exactly when. The very first official record that mentions about tea was written in 815. (It says “When the emperor came to Shiga prefecture, a Buddhist monk served tea to him”.) Around that time, emperors and aristocrats yearn for Chinese culture, so they loved tea as it came from China.
In 1191, a Buddhist monk called Yosai who was studying in China came back to Japan. He opened the first tea garden in Japan in Nagasaki prefecture, and wrote a famous tea book “Kissa Yojoki: How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea”.
The tea at that time was considered something as similar to Matcha today. Tea was well-used in temples, and the tea trees were often cultivated in its yard. Eventually, tea was spread all over Japan through temples.
Why tea was so popular among temples? Tea contains Caffeine and Theanine – Caffeine wakes you up and Theanine calms you down. For Buddhist monks especially in Zen temples, tea may have been the best drink as it keeps them awake but calm.
In the document written in around 1356, finally the name of Sayamacha appears. The sentence goes, “The tea from Toganoo, Kyoto is the best, but there are more good teas – (several location names…), and the tea from Kawagoe, Musashi.” At that time, the tea in Sayama area was called Kawagoecha, not Sayamacha.
Sayamacha once prospered enough to be mentioned in the document, but it fell into a decline after the famous temples in Saitama were burnt down in the war-torn era around 1400. Then Sayamacha disappeared from the history for a long time. Actually, the cultivation of Sayamacha was not stopped completely; tea trees were used as hedges, and small amount of tea was processed from those trees.
About 1800, three men – Mr. Yoshikawa, the carpenter, Mr. Murano, the swordmaster and poet, and Mr. Sashida, the farmer – started a project to revive Sayamacha. They were trying to innovate a newly invented tea making technique to invigorate Sayamacha production. Finally, they overcame many hardships and succeeded to produce good quality Sayamacha in large volume with a great support of Mr. Yamamoto, the tea merchant in Edo (the former name of Tokyo). In 1819, Sayamacha was sold to Edo for the first time since the Sayamacha production was almost dying down.
After the dramatic comeback, Sayamacha production increased in area and size, thanks partly to the start of exportation. However, the consumption and the production of Sayamacha have been slowly decreasing again – may be because of diversity in people’s lifestyle. On the other hand, now green tea is popular all over the world, and many people outside Japan are interested in Ocha (Japanese tea).
Tea tree was originated in the subtropical regions in China. So Sayama, where we often have frost and snow in the winter, is considered as a very cold area for tea cultivation (Sayama is considered as the northern limit of business tea farming in Japan). The leaves grow slowly and become thick in the cold weather. Sayamacha, the tea made from the thick leaves has a rich and robust flavor.
Sayamacha is harvested only once or twice in the year because the trees need to rest for a while after each harvest. Tea production in Saitama (Sayamacha) accounts for only 2% of all tea production in Japan.
Freshly harvested tea leaves go trough the process as below -
Steaming -> Cooling -> First drying -> Rolling -> Second drying -> Shaping ->Third drying
Sifting and Sorting -> Final drying ->Blending ->Packing
Small-sized, Familly-operated: Most of Sayamacha farms are small-sized and family-operated. As they keep their business sustainable, many of them have a few hundred years of history.
Farmers do everything in their farm: Most of the Sayamacha farmers do everything from cultivation, production to retail, just like vinyards/wineries. So each Ocha (Japanese tea) from different farmers looks, tastes, feels different!
Close to Tokyo: From Tokyo metropolitan area, it only takes about one hour by train. So you can come visit your favorite tea farms when you have a chance to come to Tokyo area!