Excursion to Nishio – the matcha capital of Japan
When my Japanese teacher Chieko-san suggested a trip to a matcha factory in Nishio when my best friend and fellow matcha enthusiast Ellen, was visiting from Australia, I said” i-i idea” and “iki mashoo”, (good idea, let’s go!) That’s about the extent of my Japanese.
I had never heard of the small town of Nishio before and I definitely didn’t know that it was where a lot of Japan’s finest tea leaves used for making matcha was grown. Even though Kyoto is world famous for its matcha, apparently a lot of it is actually grown in Nishio and then transported and processed in Kyoto so it can get the highly sought after “made in Kyoto” tag.
As we were driving into Nishio, Chieko-san pointed out the fields and fields of tea bushes all in beautiful neat rows. That alone was quite impressive. As we approached the factory, we also passed half a dozen more boutique factories but we had a guided tour booked at AOI Seicha Co., Ltd and we couldn’t be late.
Upon arrival, we headed into the factory’s shop where there were so many matcha products and paraphernalia that the fan girl excitement started to kick in. I was in my element. I mentally selected half a dozen products to check out after the tour and before we knew it, the tour was about to start. In typical Japanese form, we had to remove our shoes and wear special factory Crocs. We started the tour by seeing where they packaged the matcha and a loading area where they arrange all the international deliveries. Pretty much all of the boxes stacked in piles higher than me were off to the USA. Didn’t see any marked for Australia.
Then we went into the guts of the factory where dozens of machines were grinding dried tea leaves into matcha powder. That was very cool. The aroma was intense even through the thick glass which divided us. In a small area looking out into the processing area, there was a manual stone wheel grinder and we all had a go at turning the wheel. That thing was seriously heavy.
The grinding wheel was only about the size of a large dinner plate as were all the ones throughout the factory. Apparently, they all have to be that size because any smaller and they don’t yield enough tea and any bigger and the matcha tea powder loses too much of its nutrients by the time it travels across the width of the stone and into its collection area. The factory is also super cold to preserve nutrients and colour and the matcha is refrigerated straight after processing for the same reason.
We learnt that pretty much all tea comes from the same tea plant – it’s how they are processed after harvesting that makes the different teas distinguishable. Green tea, white tea, black tea and oolong can all be made using the leaves picked from the same tea plant. It’s just what happens to the leaves after picking that makes them taste and smell different.
With matcha, the tea bushes are covered in a black cloth 1 month prior to harvesting and this causes the leaves to become very thin, soft and a more vivid green colour which produces more chlorophyll and amino acids. Then, only the new baby leaves are harvested to produce the finest matcha.
The leaves are then dried, heated, sorted and then milled all according to the product quality standard. AOI produces a range of different matcha products from cooking matcha, to the highest grade tea ceremony matcha powder at $340 for 180g!! The process varies depending on the product being made. For example, some are milled using stone wheels, and others by mechanical milling.
What I also didn’t know was that all good quality matcha needs to be refrigerated and used within 6 months or kept in the freezer and used within a year otherwise a lot of the nutrients are lost.
Following the tour, we hit up the factory shop and they treated us to a medium quality and top quality matcha tea with accompanying Japanese sweets. My almost 2 year old daughter Luka had some matcha icecream which we originally bought for her because it would keep her busy while we enjoyed our tea and it apparently had a strong matcha flavour but low amount of sugar – she LOVED IT. We tasted some and decided it was so good that we bought some to take home.
I also bought some reasonably high quality matcha tea, some cooking matcha, some matcha icecream powder to make my own icecream, tea tins and presents galore for friends and family back home. Fair to say I caught the matcha fever! For only $3, the tour was beyond worth it.
Then Chieko-san took us to a fabulous matcha restaurant called Syoukakuen where we were seated in a tatami room (cushions on the floor around a low table) and had a set course including matcha soba noodles and an assortment of hamburg, fish and omelette as well as picked vegetables, baked savoury egg custard, miso soup and rice with matcha flakes. There are no shortage of matcha restaurants and cafes in Nishio and each dishes up matcha delights better than the last.
After this out came a sundae dessert which had a matcha soft serve icecream and Luka thought all her Christmas’s had come at once. Icecream twice in one day! It also came with another matcha tea and by this stage we were buzzing on a matcha high!
We had an absolute fabulous day and thoroughly recommend Nishio and visiting these two places, but you’ll need to take someone to interpret to the factory as I don’t think anyone there speaks English. All in all a bloody great day out! One of my highlights while I’ve been in Japan and I’m stoked that Nishio is only 20 minutes away from the town we are living in, Kariya. I’ll definitely be going back to Nishio again!