Cultivating gyokuro tea is not only toilsome, it also requires consummate skill and years of experience, plus a knack for reading the future. You need to have fortune on your side too. That’s why fewer and fewer places grow it anymore. But Yame remains Japan’s leading producer of gyokuro, accounting for more than 50 percent of the country’s output and setting the gold standard for quality. Gyokuro is grown in mountain valleys where there is little sunlight, and the bushes are not pruned but left to grow naturally. To protect them from the sun, the entire field is covered with screens. This increases the content of theanine — the amino acid that gives green tea its distinctive taste — and thus yields the sweet, full-bodied flavor characteristic of gyokuro. In Yame, when 1-1.5 new shoots appear, woven straw screens are stretched over a framework of concrete pillars and pipes to cover the plants. Today synthetic fiber is used almost everywhere else where gyokuro is grown, but Yame’s farmers adhere to traditional methods, despite the extra effort involved, because synthetic fiber raises the temperature in the field too much. In fact, Yame is the only tea-producing region in Japan where such screens are still made of straw, and only here are machines for weaving them still found. At first the plants are 85 percent shaded; then, during the ten days before harvesting, the farmer gradually sprinkles straw over the framework while observing subtle changes in the tea leaves and noting the temperature and weather, until finally the field is 98 percent shaded.
Putting the plants under moderate stress by blocking the sunlight stimulates translocation of nutrients and causes the young shoots to develop slowly. They strive to grow upward, and that striving is the source of the tea’s excellent flavor. Having been cultivated with such painstaking effort and loving care, the gyokuro is then harvested. Again an unusual technique is used. Once four or five leaves have opened, just the uppermost section of the stem is picked with the two accompanying leaves, a task that can only be accomplished by hand. During actual picking the back of the stem is slowly bent with the ball of the finger until it gently snaps, and then carefully placed in a bamboo basket. With the finest gyokuro, attractiveness of appearance is also important. The harvested leaves are then steamed to halt the action of the enzymes and thus prevent any further change in the compounds contained in the leaves. Fine adjustments must be made during the steaming process so that the tea turns out just right, and that too takes experience and intuition. Having been steamed, the leaves are then separated, rolled, and finally formed into an attractive needle shape by seasoned craftsmen. Thus Yame Dentou Hon Gyokuro is special in every regard. Its beautiful appearance, deep, complex flavor, and distinctive aroma are the product of the finest craftsmanship backed up by the dedication, passion, meticulous care, and extensive experience of the people who produce it.