Through Chagusaba, Japan Connects with the Earth
Tea has been a part of Japan’s agriculture for centuries, deeply entrenched in both its culture and commerce. Japan is often defined as the leader in agricultural technology, investing in some of the most advanced techniques, from mechanical harvesting to robotics. However, there is another side of Japan, a side that carefully evaluates the sensorial aspects of the tea and the processes that naturally lend to it. One such process is the labor intensive practice of the traditional tea grass integrated system, chagusaba.
The word chagusaba translates to semi natural grasslands, an apt description of the process, which harvests bamboo grass, Japanese pampas grass and other regional tall grasses to enrich the surrounding tea fields. This method of agriculture has been used for centuries, as both a crop to feed livestock and to nurture the soil of the tea plants. Urbanization has seen a drastic reduction in the amount of green space allocated to grass lands reducing it from 30 percent in the 1880s to less than 1 percent. Today, Japanese tea farmers are once again prizing the grasslands and the benefits of the chagusaba system both to enhance their tea leaves and increase the overall biodiversity of the region.
From the low levels surrounding the Pacific Ocean to the rich soil beneath the mountain to, the terrain and temperate climate of Shizuoka prefecture is ideally suited for growing tea. Over 40 percent of the green tea produced in Japan is from this region, where they are most well-known for processing an umami rich sencha. However, it is the hilly terrain of Kakegawa, boasting the awe inspiring backdrop of Mount Fuji, where the practice of chagusaba has become standard. With 10,000 hectares of tea fields, these farmers also grow and maintain approximately 300 hectares of grass, using it to enhance their tea while also expanding the biodiversity of the region.
It may seem counterintuitive, however, but it is the harvesting of the grass itself that has led to the rich diversity of this region, creating an area that is now home to over 300 species. Seven of these species are either unique to the area or endangered, including the wild flower sasayuri, and the flightless grasshopper, the Kakegawa Melanoplinae. The annual harvesting both limits dominant plant species from taking over while increasing the amount of light to the region. As a direct result, smaller, less resilient plants and species now have an opportunity to survive. Recognized as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS), the GIAHS identifies areas that are able to co-adapt with the community and the environment. Chagusaba is a wonderful example of this, illustrating how an agricultural practice can not only enhance a product but increase the overall sustainability of a region.
The Flavor is Worth the Effort
Traveling through this region, it is evident that the tea fields and grasses beautifully coexist together, creating a kaleidoscope of botanicals from the bright green tea leaf to the small wildflowers peeking through
to get their share of sunlight. This is not a situation where grasses are planted as a separate agricultural crop, the farmers recognize the value of maintaining the grasslands within their tea field and how the plants help each other flourish.
One farmer who has been practicing chagusaba for decades, is Tetsuro Tsuchiya, a third-generation farmer residing in the uneven terrain of Kawanhon. Tsuchiya said that until recently, no cars could reach the area due to its challenging terrain. With no roadways, the farmers in the region had to develop innovative
techniques to ensure that the rich terrain continued to be fruitful.
So, during the off season, the farmers cultivated the grass that surrounded the tea plants and used it to cover the tea plants. The end result, the grasses enriched the soil while also enhancing the overall flavor and aroma of the tea. Today, despite access to fertilizers and technology, this method continues to be widely practiced in the region.
Tsuchiya picked up a handful of soil expanding on the value of chagusaba method. “It feeds the land, but more than that,“ he emphasized. “It gives the leaves their distinct taste, which creates a wonderful sencha.”
At the 2012 Japan Tea Exhibition, tea produced using the chagusaba method won 48.3 percent of the awards, as opposed to the 10 percent from other non chagusaba sites. Tsuchiya believes that it is chagusaba that has resulted in his award-winning, hand-plucked tea.
The process of chagusaba is both time consuming and laborious, it begins with the grass being harvested in late autumn and then left to dry. Once dry, the grass needs to be cut and then meticulously placed throughout the tea fields. During the cool, dry winter months, adding the layer of grass adds both insulation and moisture to the soil. With temperatures often dropping below freezing, the tea plants benefit from the warmth of the grasses. The uneven terrain is also prone to soil erosion, annually adding the grass barrier helps prevent the outflow of soil while also suppressing weed growth. As the grasses break down, they add microorganisms and nutrients to the soil, enriching the soil while also enhancing the flavor of the tea.
It is this umami rich flavor of the tea leaves and the rich biodiversity, that continually demonstrates the value of preserving this traditional method. Each organism contributes to the health and well being of the other. There is no doubt that the process is labor intensive, but for the farmers of Kakegawa, it is truly a labour of love.