Tokuya Yamazaki, head farmer at Kamo Nature Farm is a true example of the idea that the body and earth are no two different things.
In other words, the body and earth are one and the same.
Shin-do Fuji (身土不二).
Tokuya puts this idea to practice in how he deals with his tea gardens.
From his tea trees and the environment on his tea gardens he learns things that he can apply to his own health. And through observing his own body he discovers ways that he can work more beneficially with the tea trees.
Tokuya’s approach to tea farming is not at all a conventional one. While he faces a lot of criticism from other farmers, he aims to stay true to his own beliefs which involve exclusively natural methods. These do not employ any pesticides or fertilizer at all. In my latest meeting with Tokuya I was able to discover more about his philosophy. In this article I present a summary of the main points of focus that he observes when cultivating his tea.
Making weeds your ally
Tokuya’s tea gardens tend to have a very wild appearance with many different kinds of weeds growing around and through the tea gardens. On the first tea garden we visited, a Yabukita tea field for sencha, we were able to compare his approach to cultivation to that of his neighbor who is a more conventional tea grower.
Comparing the composition of the garden itself what stands out is the wide space in between the lanes of tea trees on Tokuya’s tea garden. The tea trees on the garden of the neighboring farmer grow much closer to each other and there is hardly enough space for a person to pass through the harvester’s paths. Where we stood in Tokuya’s garden there was about a meter between the lower and the upper row of tea trees and he explained that he did this on purpose.
Most conventional tea gardens let their tea trees grow close together so that there is hardly any space for the sunlight to reach underneath, which helps to prevent the growth of weeds in between the rows of tea trees. But Tokuya takes the opposite approach. “When there is more space between the tea trees, the sun can more easily reach the soil. This allows more weeds to grow. Weeds will grow and wither again. And thanks to this natural cycle various bacteria will live at the roots of the weeds. This helps to cultivate and nourish the soil. I refrain from adding extra fertilizer to the soil. Instead I don’t stop the natural drive to improve the soil by itself.”
“I believe that the workings of the soil resembles the working of the intestines in a human body. We don’t add external bacteria for it to function. It is the abundant presence of the original bacteria that help us to stay healthy. And in the same way I approach the workings of the soil. I help to maintain the abundant presence of the environment’s original bacteria.”
Is there any particular weed you pay particular attention to?
“In fact the soil contains seeds for many different weeds. But, what will grow depends on the state of the soil. For example, if the soil is hard, tall weeds with deep roots will grow. Thanks to that, the roots will loosen the soil. They will help to till the soil and make it easier for air and water to flow through.”
“On the other hand, when the soil is soft shorter weeds will grow that will help with transferring nitrogen from the air into the soil.”
“Naturally, depending on the state of the soil, different weeds will grow. Every year I see different weeds grow here. And it is not important for me to interfere with that in any way. Instead, I can anticipate, based on the weeds that are present what state the tea garden is in at the moment.
What is the function of the weeds we see now?
“This is a type of fern. Ferns tend to grow a lot around here, and they like to grow in crowded places. There is a difference between where ferns grow a lot and where only a few and as I mentioned earlier, all weeds have their own purpose. If you look at the neighboring tea garden there is hardly any space in between the tea trees. I try to keep an open space in between for the sun to reach below and to allow sufficient airflow through the tea garden.”
“In addition, I aim to keep sufficient space in between the branches as well. I prune my tea trees in this way, but the ferns also help with this. By the time the ferns wither the branches on the inner side of the tea trees naturally become brittle and break off. Ferns like to grow in crowded spaces, but they also make room for themselves. So as they crawl through the narrow openings, they push the branches that are in the way away to make more space. When the ferns wither, space on the inside of the tea trees will have been created.”
“In this way, I try to tend to cultivation in harmony with the weeds. Through understanding the working of the weeds I can work with them and let them do their work and benefit from that. If I do this work for them their work is not needed anymore and then another weed will grow instead.”
Gravity and balance
“Another aspect I pay a lot of attention to is to allow the tea trees to grow upright in relation to gravity. If you look at the neighboring tea garden you will see that the tea trees are slightly tilted forward. This is because they are growing vertically on the mountain slope, which is in fact at an angle. This is how it’s done on most conventional tea gardens.”
“I have learned instead, through martial arts, that when you are slightly bent over, or are putting in an effort to stay upright, you’ll have difficulty to put strength forward towards your opponent. Only if you are properly centered and balanced in relation to gravity, and your body is properly upright, it becomes effortless to perform. The same is true for the tea trees. Only if they are properly upright the energy can flow through unhindered and will allow them to perform their purpose in the best possible way.”
“That is why I aim to grow my tea trees not upright in relation to the mountain flank, but in relation to gravity. I help them to grow the center of the stem vertically by pruning them on the front side. This way it becomes easier to stand upright vertically.”
What is your main focus when growing tea?
“What I am most focussed on when making tea is not, ‘how am I going to make a delicious tea?’ But rather, how will I help the tea trees to grow in a healthy way. That is my main focus. I want to help the tea trees to develop on their own in the best way possible. My job is only to accommodate this and make sure that the environment is right for it. As a consumer, you will ask about the quality of the tea each year. In the same way, this is also something I am always looking forward to. I am always looking forward to seeing how the tea is growing and developing this year. And each year this is different.”
Why do you harvest only once a year?
“When you harvest the tea, it means that you will remove something that was produced in this garden. If you take too much out, too often, on top of the first harvest, that means that each time you will take away some of the energy or life force that was created here. If we instead, like with the Autumn pruning, cut the tea and return the cut leaf to the soil then the energy that was born here cycles back eventually to the tea garden. That is why I try not to take more from the energy that is produced here in one year than necessary, because that will cause the tea trees to grow thin in the long run and I’d like to avoid that. Instead I aim to allow the tea to grow richer and more vital and that is why I harvest only once.”
“The second buds that grow on the tea gardens now will be left to grow until Autumn. Then I do a last pruning and then I harvest again next year in Spring. In Autumn I will also take care of the growing weeds and cut all of them down with a small sickle whereupon I spread them on the ground to decompose and become nourishment for future buds again. That is probably the hardest work.”
Do other farmers have criticism on your methods?
“They don’t tell it to my face though, but other farmers hate it that I grow weeds on my tea gardens.
One of the reasons is that they believe the weeds spread seeds to their tea gardens from where weeds will grow in their tea gardens as well. In reality that doesn’t happen. In fact, the soil already contains many seeds for many different weeds and that are the ones that sprout in their tea gardens. But unfortunately that’s what they believe, and they blame me for it.”
“Another reason, and that’s one that is deeply routed in farming culture in general, is that weeds are generally considered a nuisance. It is an enemy of the farmer and needs to be taken care of. Growing them in essence is seen as a bad deed and if you’re growing them that becomes a bad thing in itself.”
Healthy natural tea trees
“It’s summer and it is getting hotter. This means that more bugs are present in the tea gardens. In general, summer is the peak season for conventional tea farmers to use pesticides so they can repel the bugs. I don’t use any pesticides on my tea gardens, and if you look at my tea trees, you also won’t spot any harmful bugs or damage or diseases. I believe this is because I have become able to maintain the natural cyclus of the farm without the need for fertilizer. If you add fertilizer, the tea trees will grow fat and more foodstuff will be added than what the tea trees need to develop. That is one reason why there will be an imbalance. When the balance in the soil is normal then even the buds may grow during high season for bugs and pests, there won’t be any damage.”
“If we take a look at the conventional tea garden adjacent to mine, you’ll see that there is damage from bugs and that there is some sickness on the tea leaf. Some of the tea leaves are tinted yellow. This happens when bugs drink the saps from the leaf, which causes them to turn color. And some of the other leaves have damage from mold or bacteria. Although it’s the same area there are several distinct differences between the two tea gardens.”
“On my tea garden there are bugs too. But thanks to having a natural balance in the soil and the health of the tea trees, there are other bugs that eat those bugs and so on.”
Tokuya’s approach to tea cultivation is truly unique and admirable. His methods don’t come from the school books. He begins with observation. Through looking at the way tea trees develop, how they interact with their environment, and how they react to different kinds of interference, he has learned what they favor and what not. What allows them to develop happily and healthily, and what causes them distress and sickness.
Not only does he learn from his tea trees in particular, but he also observes himself and obtains essential information about life and survival through his own body. Practice in martial arts and a close connection to nature has instilled within him an essential understanding of what it is ‘to be alive’. And this is an understanding that does not apply only to humans, and perhaps also animals, but any living organism on this planet.
His tea growing is not just a day-job for him. He is not a farmer who is producing a crop. Interacting with his tea trees is, to him, interaction with the source of life itself. Tea growing is for Tokuya a way of life. He makes no distinction between his tea bushes, other crops as rice or vegetables, his children, himself, and any other living organism he interacts with. All he aims to do is to support any ‘life’ to sustain itself and to develop in the most health and happiness promoting way so that it can thrive to its fullest potential.
Tokuya’s tea is a direct reflection of his philosophy and life-style.