Long before dawn, Hekizanen's tea farmers harvest the leaves of their eucommia trees, one of the oldest-known rubber trees dating back 6,000 years in China, to make Tochu tea. A two-hectare plot of land, about the size of two soccer fields, produces four tons of Tochu tea twice a year during the summer. Hekizanen collects all the leaves in the morning and then sends them to the production site to complete the entire tea making process in the same day, ensuring superb quality.
Hekizanen is located in Aikawa, Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo. The town is situated on the foothills of a mountain range with a scenic view that makes one forget that Kanagawa neighbors the bustling prefecture of Tokyo.
Aikawa once thrived in sericulture (silk making) and was known as 'Ito no machi' (Town of yarns). After the industry declined in recent decades, many idle lands began to appear with no foreseen plan. Seventeen years ago, a local woman by the name of Chieko Yasuma, was inspired to address these issues and repurposed these lands to grow Tochu tea for the community. Her ambition to revitalize the town motivated many people including local farmers, students, and senior citizens, to support Aikawa's bright future.
Inspired by her first sip of Tochu tea
Chieko Yasuma, the founder of Hekizanen, was moved by the taste of Ehime's Tochu tea when she had her first sip back in 2003. At that time, she had been searching for solutions to utilize the increasing number of idle lands in Aikawa.
Ms. Yasuma wanted to make this project personal — something that reflects the town's name 'Aiko-gun, Aikawamachi' where 'Ai', which means love in Japanese, is repeated consecutively. The project was called "Ji-ji (grandpa) and Ba-ba (grandma)'s Tochu Tea Harvest", named after the endearing way to say grandparents in Japanese. Ms. Yasuma imagined interactions between grandparents and grandkids, where the grandparents passed down their wisdom with love. Whether related by blood or not, the Aikawa seniors came together to be the younger generation's Ji-ji and Ba-ba and to create a communal asset, Tochu tea, out of love.
Tochu: one of the oldest medicinal plants
Tochu is a medicinal plant used in Kampo medicine, which incorporates natural ingredients such as plants and minerals. The bark of the eucommia tree is typically used for Kampo medicine, but recently the leaves have been used for tea. While brown Tochu leaves are the most common, leaves with green pigments contain twice the polyphenols.
"When the leaves are exposed to sunlight, they self-induce heat, changing the color from green to dark violet, which harms the nutritional compounds abundant in green leaves," explained Ms. Yasuma. While it's common for tea farmers to sun-dry the fresh leaves, Hekizanen skips the sun-drying process, using their own original production technique to grind the green leaves into a powder — allowing for easy consumption and preservation of nutrients.
My great-grandmother, a sake brewer, once said: "Seek knowledge from the experts to answer the unfamiliar."
Ms. Yasuma had no prior experience growing or selling agricultural products. Reminded by her great-grandmother's advice, "Seek knowledge from the experts to answer the unfamiliar," she reached out to experts, turning her inspiration into a concrete goal.
Hekizanen's first few years were filled with countless failed experiments in trying to root the trees in the soil. They were once told that it was almost impossible to propagate eucommia tees in Japan. Nevertheless, the senior community members persisted in visiting Hekizanen and for four years held monthly study sessions. Recalling their parents' mulberry tree plantations for silk-making, they applied their knowledge to finally root the eucommia trees. In 2009, the first trees were successfully propagated. Today, Hekizanen has locally grown 300 eucommia trees.
Every person contributing to the Tochu tea making process is essential, regardless of their experience or age. All students, from elementary school through college, devote their time to helping and learning alongside Ji-jis and Ba-bas. From the beginning, it has been Hekizanen's priority to offer as many opportunities for the community as possible and to provide an environment to learn about their local agriculture. Hekizanen is avid in finding ways to expand employment for seniors and people with disabilities. As a result, the packaging process is done at social welfare institutions, and all machines are altered for easier accessibility. Ms. Yasuma believes in people's inclusion and each person's potential by using the right tool and resources.
Growing organic Tochu Trees for long-term communal benefit
Sustainability was a core motive for Hekizanen to care for people's health and Aikawa's nature. It wasn't just the flavor of Tochu tea that moved Ms. Yasuma. She foresaw that the pest-resistant eucommia tree could grow organically, nurturing the idle lands. Hekizanen steers away from pesticides and chemical fertilizers; instead, they are devoted to using locally made organic fertilizers composed of fermented rice. Eucommia trees are great for absorbing excess carbon dioxide, reducing carbon emissions and creating better air quality. For the Aikawa people, growing organic trees are indispensable for the long-term communal benefit. Helping both the people and nature to stay healthy, sustainably.
Hekizanen's Tochu tea is now an Aikawa regional brand, recognized as a part of its heritage. In the next three years, Hekizanen plans to expand 30 hectares of idle lands to Tochu tea plantations, and 100 hectares more in nearby towns. Hekizanen has proved that it takes a village to make endearing tea — and they are more ready than ever to share Aikawa's loving tea to the world.
"Our business has operated with love, which reflects the name of our city Aikawa: 'Ai' meaning love. High school and college students continue to actively volunteer with us. Both Tochu tea and the people are spectacular!" - Ms. Yasuma, founder of Hekizanen.
Learn more about Hekizanan and their Tochu tea at https://www.hekizanen.jp/
By MARY HIRATA MCJILTON, GUEST WRITER: Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.