SHIZUOKA, May 11 – Ashikubo region in Aoi Ward, Shizuoka Prefecture, is known as the origin of Shizuoka green tea. You’ll see beautiful stripes drawn with tea trees and stonewalls on the steep mountainside with a height difference of about 30 meters at the far end of Okunagashima village in the region. It’s “Okunagashima no dandan chabatake (green tea terraces in Okunagashima)” created almost 50 years ago by a local farmer. It once ran on the rocks, but currently, it’s run by locals and volunteers who are determined to preserve this precious agricultural landscape.
The owner of the 3,000-square-meter green tea plantation is a 79-year-old local green tea grower, Kyoko Fukushima. In 1966, Kyoko and her family started to transfer their tangerine orchard into the tea plantation, using rocks and stones carried from the Ashikubo River flowing nearby with wheelbarrows. They climbed the mountain with the rocks on their backs and piled them up one by one by hand to make the walls. “We worked all day long every day. I was young, so it wasn’t too bad. But I think we did an excellent job,” she recalls. It took almost ten years to complete the stonewalls on the sunny southeastern side of the mountain. Then, they planted tea trees, which naturally started to produce high-quality green tea leaves.
In 2005, however, Kyoko’s then-69-years-old husband, Masashi, passed away, and in 2014, Kyoko found it hard to maintain the plantation herself and almost decided to close the family-run business.
Then, a friend of Kyoko stood up to save the tea garden. Ikuko Katsuyama (66), who was growing tea trees as a hobby while working for a company, decided to preserve the precious local heritage. “I never wanted to see it going empty and waste all the great efforts devoted to it,” she said, and so she decided to take charge. In 2017, she created a new voluntary community “Okunagashima no dandan chabatake mamori-tai.” Today, she takes care of the trees and the garden with nine other members to preserve the landscape.
In the tea harvest season in May, they host a hand-picking event for urban residents. “I live in Shizuoka, so I wanted to try tea-picking at least once,” said Michiru Asanuma, a 41-year-old resident of Shizuoka Prefecture. “I can dedicate myself entirely to one thing. It’s a place to unwind and relax from the stress of the day,” she smiled.
Katsuyama is also planning to widen the stitches and dikes to make it easier for inexperienced voluntary tea pickers to work on the hill and for the group to introduce harvesting machines safely. Yes, she is preparing for the future as well.