Maiko Tea is a company based in Kyotanabe, Japan and offers a variety of Japanese green teas. They are also the only sellers of Yamashita Toshikazu’s gyokuro — a suite of award winning tea that have helped make this part of Kyoto Prefecture world-renowned for producing incredible gyokuro.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today Mr. Tamiya. I have been a dedicated drinker of Maiko’s tea for many years, Yamashita’s gyokuro in particular. I felt very lucky to visit your tea fields in Kyotanabe and share tea with you at Maiko in 2009. It has been such a gift to enjoy your tea for so long! Maybe a good place to start would be a little bit of a backstory about Maiko?
Could you share a little bit with us about the history of Maiko as a company? What made Maiko form? Also, could you introduce yourself to our readers and share what your role is at the company?
(TAMIYA MASAYASU from Tea Maiko) In 1970, we changed our name from the former Fugenji Tea Factory to Maiko no Chahonpo 舞妓の茶本舗 and began retail sales of Japanese tea. Prior to 1970, we were engaged in gyokuro production, tea manufacturing, and the wholesale of tea products. My family has been tea farmers for four generations before me, so we have been involved in the tea business since the early 1900s.
The name “Maiko Tea” was chosen by my predecessor, who believed that “maiko,” a cultural art form of Kyoto, would be accepted worldwide in the future when selling the tea leaves under his own brand. I am the third president of Maiko Tea Honpo, and as a tea master, I purchase and blend tea leaves myself, and run the leaf tea shop with the wish that, “everyone in the world can enjoy delicious Japanese tea.”
You sell many kinds of tea at Maiko. How does Yamashita’s gyokuro fit into the larger vision of the company?
We sell a variety of Japanese teas, including gyokuro, matcha, and sencha. Yamashita’s gyokuro is the highest grade of Japanese tea.
Many people reading this might not know much about gyokuro production, and perhaps have never tasted this kind of tea. For people new to gyokuro how would you describe it? What might someone new to gyokuro experience across the different varieties that Maiko offers?
Gyokuro is considered the highest grade of Japanese tea. Most teas are generally harvested approximately three to four times a year: the first harvest in April and May, the second harvest in June and July, the third harvest in August, and the autumn harvest in fall. Gyokuro is harvested only once a year because it is covered for 20 to 40 days after the leaves first start to appear. This covering is a process that helps concentrate the flavor in the tea leaves. Because this process is very hard on the tea plant, it is harvested only once. It is important to support these tea trees for one year in order to harvest the new shoots.
Gyokuro tea at Maiko is available in eight different ranks, and the differences are based on the strength of their flavor. The higher-grade tea leaves have stronger umami, while the lower grades have a mix of subtle umami and astringency. Gyokuro tea priced over 6,000 yen per 100 grams have been hand-picked. Other tea prices, below this, are determined based on the conditions of that particular year.
The hand-picked Gyokuro tea leaves are very precious, with only about 7,000 kg harvested in the whole country.
Many people have memorable experiences the first time they drink gyokuro. Do you recall the first time you tasted it? Did it leave a particular impression?
I grew up here and am a nephew of Yamashita, so I have been drinking the best gyokuro since I was born. By the time I was about 3 years old I had experienced the delicious flavour of gyokuro. When I brewed the tea, the difference between the light color and the richness of its delectable flavour was the most impressive thing.
Tashikazu Yamashita has been awarded the “Sixth-class Isao ‘Order of the Sacred Treasure'” for his gyokuro. He is perhaps the most well-known gyokuro maker in the world, an artist of gyokuro. What do you think makes Yamashita’s gyokuro so unique and award-winning? Could you share more about his approach and how it differs from other producers and regions?
I think that my uncle is the world’s best gyokuro-making master. At the time my uncle started making gyokuro it was typical to inherit vague techniques such as ‘experience’. My uncle questioned this and investigated tea with researchers and scientists. Tea leaves are an agricultural crop, so the quality of tea leaves changes depending on the climate each year. I believe his knowledge is the result of research that has allowed us to produce tea at a consistently high level throughout the years. I also think it is wonderful that he has been able to provide guidance to other tea farmers.
Gyokuro is a very substantial tea, more like “food” than many other types of green tea. Does Yamashita drink gyokuro everyday? Do you? And do you have any suggestions for pairing it with food or is this a tea that should really just be savored on its own?
I drink gyokuro almost every day. I myself do not drink it with food, but rather I think it is something to be savored on its own. For the higher-grade gyokuro, savouring the rich flavor is the best way to enjoy gyokuro. Brew it slowly and enjoy it by itself at a leisurely pace. When it comes to gyokuro for everyday drinking, I think it is good to enjoy it cold with a meal, as we do with other cold-brew teas and coffees. As for food, we recommend light white meat, sashimi etc.
Yamashita’s grandson Shinki is also an incredible gyokuro producer. How does his process differ from his grandfather? Will Maiko be offering Shinki’s teas in the future?
Currently, Yamashita is elderly and the Yamashita tea garden is almost entirely run by Shinki, who has taken over the production of gyokuro from Toshikazu. Maiko Tea will continue to sell tea leaves produced at the Yamashita Tea Farm.
What do you think makes Kyotanabe so special for growing gyokuro? Are there particular aspects of the climate or landscape that make it ideal?
Sencha is a tea leaf made by nature. Gyokuro is said to be a tea leaf made by man.
Gyokuro trees require a lot of time and effort from people, it cannot be done in large production areas. Because Kyotanabe is a small production area, mass production is not possible. So, the farmer’s willingness to bear the cost and put in the effort to produce a delicious gyokuro is what makes this tea possible.
As an element of cultivation, I think that the climate of the basin has a climate with a good balance of hot summers and cold winters. Stil, the most important factor is the willingness and dedication of the tea growers.
The world of Japanese tea is changing a great deal and there has been a surge of interest in green tea from locations outside of Japan in recent years. Have you felt this at Maiko?
We have been in business for about 20 years with the wish that everyone in the world would enjoy our delicious Japanese tea. During these decades, there have been several small fads. We are very happy to see the current popularity of Japanese tea in the world, as we had hoped it would not be a passing fad, but become the norm. Still, since hand-picked gyokuro tea is quite rare. So, at the same time we also feel it is important to preserve this important tradition.
In closing, what is your outlook regarding gyokuro in the future? What is your ideal scenario for Maiko 10 years into the future?
As I mentioned before, hand-picked gyokuro tea leaves are already rare. Whether or not this method of production will still be around 10 years from now will depend on the farmers and those who sell it. In order to preserve the best-tasting gyokuro, we need the cooperation of many people. We would greatly appreciate your cooperation. I believe that some kind of activity is necessary in order to preserve this wonderful gyokuro for future generations.
Are visitors able to come to Maiko tea, tour the fields and learn more about your company? If so, how do they learn more about this?
We only produce tea from late April until around May 20th, so visitors have a small window to visit the tea fields during this time, and we also need good weather. Drinking delicious gyokuro at Maiko Tea is possible on non-business days. Please contact us for more information if you’d like to visit.
Thank you again for your time! We really appreciate learning from you and look forward to enjoying your teas for many years to come.
LEARN MORE ABOUT MAIKO TEA:
- Website: https://maikotea.jp
- Yamashita’s Gyokuro: https://maikotea.jp/yamashitas-profile/
- Virtual Tea Room and shop: https://maikotea.jp/vrshop
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maiko_tea_japan
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUO2F2aPIdeaR8obFreD-mQ