People Related to Japanese Tea | SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo

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SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo was a Japanese man who pursued cultivar development of tea throughout his life. In his hometown of Shizuoka, he is called “Hikosaburo Okina (old man)” and respected even after his death.

In this article, I’m going to explain Hikosaburo, the father of “Yabukita”.

About SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo

SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo was born in Shizuoka in 1857. He left his father’s sake brewery and Chinese medicine doctor to his younger brother. Hikosaburo went on the path of the farmer.

Just around the time Hikosaburo was born, Japan concluded the Friendship and Trade Treaty with the United States, and tea became the second most exported product after raw silk and developed into a glamour industry. In those days, Hikosaburo started tea cultivation while learning from his experiences without a teacher.

Hikosaburo served as the organizer of the tea industry association to crack down on inferior products in the chaotic tea industry because of its rapid development.

Hikosaburo was ashamed of not being able to produce good tea by himself, which shows his sincere personality.

Although he succeeded in improving the tea cultivar and created “Yabukita”, he never saw its prosperity and died in 1941 at the age of 83.

Today, his achievements have been recognized, such as the erection of a bust monument in Shizuoka City and the designation of the original tree of “Yabukita” as a natural monument of Shizuoka Prefecture. There is also the “SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo Award” which awards people who have made a contribution to the tea industry.

The achievements of SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo who changed Japanese tea

The Beginning of cultivar development

Hikosaburo learned tea cultivation from officials of the Kanno Bureau (an internal bureau of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of agricultural promotion) and learned tea making from a distant relative, YAMADA Fumisuke, a tea master.

“In order to make good tea, you need good tea leaves”, says tea master Fumisuke, and as Hikosaburo observes tea and realizes that there are some tea leaves that grow early and some that grow late, and that there is a difference between good and bad tea leaves depending upon the tea cultivar.

This is now a matter of course, but in those days it was commonplace to have various cultivars of tea in a garden, and to have variations in the quality of the tea leaves harvested. In such a situation, this realization was a great discovery and the first step to cultivar developing.

Development of “Yabukita”

Hikosaburo was convinced that a good tea tree was necessary in order to produce good quality tea stably, so he put his effort into cultivar development.

However, it was a process of repeated trial and error without any academic knowledge. Nowadays, what Hikosaburo did is now recognized as “cultivar development” but people didn’t understand him at that time and he was treated as an eccentric person.

Even so, he continued to develop new cultivars at around the age of 35. Under these circumstances, he picked out good tea trees and named the one planted on the north side of the bush “Yabukita” and the one planted on the south side “Yabuminami”, and started cultivating them. It was found that “Yabukita” is resistant to diseases, easy to grow, and has a well-balanced taste. Although the quality of “Yabukita” was acknowledged after its release, it was not until 14 years after Hikosaburo’s death that Yabukita spread throughout Japan because of the War.

Dedicated to promotion of the local tea industry

SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo’s achievements are not limited to cultivar development.

In his fifties, he finally got a supporter, “OTANI Kahee, Chairman of the Central Chamber of the Tea Industry” to work on the culitivar development project at the test site. However, when OTANI Kahee stepped down as chairman, Hikosaburo was unable to get any further support from the Central Chamber of the Tea Industry, and forced to give up the test site.

However, the 77 year-old Hikosaburo did not give in to this predicament. He continued his research in the tea garden he purchased, and asked for the cooperation of young people in the neighborhood, so that he could pass on his knowledge and experience of cultivar development to future generations. He also generously shared his knowledge to neighboring farmers. He tried to mechanize the tea industry as soon as possible by introducing new machines as they were developed.He did his best to promote the tea industry in his hometown by repairing the local river and improving the area around the tea garden.

This is the reason why he is loved and respected locally even after his death. Here is an article that explains in detail the process of cultivar development that Hikosaburo pursued throughout his life.

Three episodes telling the passion of SUGIYAMA Hikosaburo

The man called “a weasel”

It is said that Hikosaburo prowled the tea fields day and night, sometimes even going into other people’s fields, in order to find good tea trees. Even though he was ridiculed as “a weasel” because of the way he crawled on the ground and moved around the tea fields, he did not stop searching for his ideal tea tree.

There is an anecdote that when he found a tea tree that he thought “This would be the ideal tree!”, he would chew on its raw leaves and examined them, so his front teeth were chipped. With all his passion, he pursued the ideal tea cultivar.

Travel anywhere for tea trees

Hikosaburo’s passion for “finding good tea.” has driven him everywhere.

At a time when transportation was not well developed, he went to look for tea trees not only in Japan but also in Korea in search for tea trees.

He made sure to bring water retention moss with him on his travels to take a tea tree when he found a good one. It is said that sometimes he would stick a tree branch in the cut of a vegetable to bring it back.

Even if all his 20 years of hard work is turned into firewood

Hikosaburo was 77 years old when he lost his supporters and was forced to give up his test site. All the tea trees that he devoted his heart and soul to growing at the test site for more than 20 years are pulled out and made into firewood.

Even though he was 77 years old and faced such an ordeal, Hikosaburo’s passion for researching tea trees and fostering the next generation can be said to be his tenacity.

When you think about the hardships and passion that Hikosaburo, an amateur tea grower, has achieved over his life, you may feel that your cup of tea is rich and special.