Japan Travel

Kyoto: Biking in Wazuka tea village

We are not tea drinkers to begin with and our time in Kyoto was limited. But images of a quiet Japanese village surrounded by endless rows of tea fields appeal to me. So we headed to Wazuka for a day trip.

More than half of the tea consumed in Kyoto comes from this village. But when we asked for directions, we got curious looks instead. “Whoever goes to Chagenkyo (the village’s ancient name) anyway?”

Rained on

From Kyoto, it takes at least two hours to reach Wazuka. The bus from JR Kamo station comes once every hour so the trip alone can consume half of your day. It’s easy to see why tourists skip this town.

We caught the 7:12am train to Kizu. We reached Wazuka at 9am and without proper breakfast, we contend ourselves with deep fried chicken and corndog at Lawson’s. The drizzle that started when we left in Kyoto has turned into a heavy downpour. We lost all hopes to see the sun and make beautiful photos.

The rain let up just when we were finishing breakfast but the drizzle keeps the sleepy town in a drenched state. If not for the scattered brushes of autumn colours, one would think it was spring time. The landscape’s lush greenery reminded me of rural Philippines surrounded by rice fields.

Farmers trimming new tencha leaves.

We decided to brave the rain. It’s not very different from the weather we’re used to in Holland anyway but we bought an umbrella just in case.

I read from the brochure that I picked up at Kyoto Station that you can rent a bike at Wazuka-cha Cafe. As Dutchies on vacation, there’s no better way to discover a place. “Joe” from Wazaku-cha Cafe speaks fluent English so we didn’t have any difficulty renting a bike.

Joe from Wazaku-cha Cafe explaining how the e-bike works.

“You must be getting a lot of visitors here,” I asked him while his colleague was preparing the bikes for us.

“Not exactly but they are starting to discover this place,” he said, sounding a little less optimistic.

Wazuka is about 17 kilometes from the city of Uji, a more popular destination for tea lovers visiting Kyoto. In addition to the usual shrines and temples, traditional tea buildings lined the merchant streets of Uji, untouched by modern times, including the Tsuen Chaya Shop, which is said to be the oldest tea house in Japan. Uji is also the birthplace of Nagatani Soen, the father of Japanese sencha.

And that is why we skipped Uji and went straight to Wazuka.

A farmer and his mother harvesting new leaves at Wazaku. Photo by Robin Kuijs.

Heavenly tea fields

“Tea fields that reach up to the sky.”

When I read that line in one of the few online articles about Wazuka, I knew I had to go there. I’ve always enjoyed drinking matcha, the terribly sweet and overpriced drink from Starbucks. But in another Dutch TV program, I watched how special the preparation of real matcha tea is.

Tencha, the variety of tea leaves cultivated in Uji, including Wazuka, is produced using a technique called ooishita or shade-growing. It traces its history back to the Sengoku Period in the 16th century Japan. Ooishita makes the tencha leaves very dark creating the frothy, green colour of matcha,

Joe gave us a map in Japanese, so all we could do was follow the drawings of the road.

“It’ll be exciting,” I thought. “Not knowing where to go.”

We pedaled up the hills and not even five minutes later, came up to a plantation. A farmer and his mother were pruning new leaves. She was maneuvering the motor while he was carefully running the cutter above the bush, giving them that clean, manicured look. It takes two rounds, going up and down the hill to trim one bush and I can only imagine how stiff your arms become after a whole day of working in the field. They must have very strong arms.

I asked permission to take their photos. I would have wanted to try trimming myself but I was too shy to ask. Besides, I may not be fit enough or dressed appropriately for the task. One day, maybe.

Two days after the marathon, biking up the mountains of Wazuka.

We pedaled on, passing more tea fields, climbing steeper hill and stopping every kilometer to admire the view. We let our curiosity lead the way. After one another climb, we came to a view point with slopes covered in rows of tea bushes. Robin exclaimed “That’s the Ishitera plantation!”

Ishitera tea fields are apparently one of the most visited in Wazuka. The view spans across endless tea fields with the majestic mountains in the background. Such a pity that it was a grey and raining. The view could have been prettier when splashed in sunlight.

me
The rain started pouring heavily again so we were forced to take refuge in a shed where Robin hardly fits. The umbrella finally came in handy. Not wanting to waste time waiting for it to stop, we decided to get drenched and continue biking. After an exciting descent, when I had to tightly squeeze my break for at least 10 minutes so me and my bike won’t come tumbling down a hill, we reached a bridge connected to the main highway. The river that runs under was very clean and looked icy cold, the right conditions for cultivating tencha.
A crystal clear river run across the village.

Not quite the tea ceremony
We cycled back from the bridge and turned left on a small street where we found ourselves in front of a tea processing building. The heady smell of dried leaves wafts down the road leading us to its doors like bees following a scent. We lingered for a while then decided not to be intruders and leave the workers at peace. Cycling uphill again, we came across a tiny store/cafe. The thought of warm tea and snacks was looking more appetizing at that very moment. We were drenched and starting to get very cold.

We parked the bikes outside. Upon seeing us, the old lady manning the store immediately fetched a pot of thee and poured us both a cup.
A small cafe in the middle of nowhere

As I sip the clean, slightly sweet tea, its aroma travelling up my nostrils while soothing my palate, my cold warmed up and I have completely forgotten the complicated 4-hour long tea ceremony that I initially wanted to partake. Japan’s tea ceremonies reserved for warriors, noble men and rich merchants and particularly the shogun families can last for hours and hours. And also on offer for tourists.

My tea is not made from premium gyokuro. This humble cup is made of bancha, left-over mature leaves, drank by locals and farmers who prefer to sell their premium products to Kyoto. This is the people’s tea, not the kind that tourists come here for. But the hospitality of this lady made it a lot more meaningful for me.

friendly-old-lady We paired the tea with rice balls filled with yam and matcha jelly cream.

The language barrier did not stop us or the lady to have a conversation, which however difficult, touched upon the kind of tea we were drinking, what kind of store she has, the pathetic weather and how delicious her tea was. I think we had about six cups.

After we paid the bill of 580 yen, we told her that we will continue biking and showed her the map so she can point us to the direction of the Miroku Stone Budda. When she realized I am going to bike in the rain, with my swollen belly, she pointed to Wazaku-cha Cafe. Before we know it, she was on the telephone and few minutes after, we were sitting at the back of her van, while she drives madly through the hills. We realized that she is going to take us back to Wazaku-cha so I yelled “NO”.

We explained to her that I can still bike back. So she drove us back to her cafe and gave us big plastic bags to protect our bags from getting soaked. I’ve lost count of how many bows I made to show her how grateful I was for her thoughtfulness. But when I tried to give her a hug, she stiffened. I guess that was going too far.

A cup of real matcha

It was a struggle to bike up and down the hill again. It was raining heavily and we’ve had enough of being cold and wet. We decided to forego the other sights and go back early to Kyoto. The bus does not leave in yet another hour so we hang out at Wazaku-cha Cafe for a cup of matcha and shop for goodies to take back home.

Matcha served in intricately painted bowls at Wazuka-cha cafe.

While I was stirring in the air with my new bamboo whisker, one of the ladies at the counter interrupted us and told me that the right way to create a proper foam is by stirring back and forth and not through a circling motion. She said all that in Japanese. It is amazing how a cup of tea can transcend language and cultural barriers.

We caught the 13:20 bus back to JR Kamo station. This time we were the only passengers. As the bus zigzagged through the narrow roads, slowing down every once in a while to let a truck inch its way up the bend or in one of the stops, we watched the rain fall heavily on bamboo trees and rocky rivers. The crystal clear water gushes heavily downstream. I imagine the delight of kids fishing and bathing here in the summer.

I wish to come back to Wazuka, do exactly what we did, hopefully in better weather conditions and show the old lady at Cafe Terasse the gift that we were talking about.

Useful links:
Download the brochure A Walk Through the 800-year History of Japanese Tea. It includes the history of tea drinking in Japan as well as several suggestions on day trips from Uji to Wazuka and surrounding areas.

How to get there:
From Kyoto central station, take the Japan Railways (JR) Miyakoji Rapid Service line to Nara. This stops at Kizu station. From Kizu station, take the train to JR Kamo station.

Right outside the West Exit is the bus station to Wazuka Kosugi. Get off at Wazukasan-no-iemae stop, which is about 11 stops from JR Kamo. There’s a sign of all the stops at the bus stop. You would see the Lawson convenient store at the right side of Wazukasan bus stop.

Wazuka-cha Cafe:
Wazaku-cha Cafe is located a few hundred meters from Lawson. Cross the pedestrian lane, go straight and then take the first left, crossing another pedestrian lane. The cafe is on the right side of the road. Bike rental is 1000 yen or about €10.

Address: 35 Ohasama Shirasu Wazuka-cho Soraku-gun, 619-1222 Tel: +81 774-78-4180

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