Three new Kiva loans
Mellow Monk just made three new loans through wonderful Kiva, the microloan organization that helps family farms and other smallholders expand their operations or start a new business.
Check out our Kiva profile to see other examples of the hardworking, independent people Kiva helps. The folks at Kiva do wonderful work, and we are thrilled to help them achieve their mission.
I came across the Nabegataki waterfall while wandering through Oguni, a small town in Kumamoto Prefecture of only about 8,000 people — but surrounded by some absolutely amazing natural beauty. The falls are even lit up during a long holiday weekend in May.
The bottom photo is the view from behind the falls.
This work was drawn by Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506) near the end of his life, at age 82. He creates an amazing sense of perspective with his mastery of light and shade (notan). Perhaps his aim was to create the feeling of calm that comes from viewing the actual splendor first hand, the feeling of mindfulness.
Walking through Tokyo's exclusive Shoto (松濤) neighborhood, gazing up at the uber-upscale homes of Japan's movers and shakers, you would probably never guess that you were walking through the ghost of a tea plantation. But you are.
The plantation goes back to a time when the Tokyo area had much more empty space. In 1871, the Meiji government, which had overthrown the shogunate only a few years earlier, turned over the land that would be known as Shoto to the Nabeshima clan, formerly of the Shogun's Saga fiefdom. The government provided the land under a swords-to-plowshares program designed to encourage ex-samurai to take up non-lethal pursuits in agriculture and industry. The clan decided to start a tea estate. Since tea was a labor-intensive proposition in those days, who knows how many former warriors picked tea leaves there. (From sword to tea basket — what a Zenlike transition that must have been.)
The name the clan chose for its tea estate was Shoto En (松濤園) — "En" meaning estate or plantation and "Shoto" meaning "wind whistling through the pines" but also being a poetic term for the sound of steam gently escaping a kettle. Another instance of the word's use in tea: this Rokyaku-yaki (鷺脚焼) teapot, apparently part of a "Shoto" series of teaware. (Don't worry if you've never heard of Rokyaku-yaki. This now rare line of pottery was started in 1881 by Nakagawa Yujiro and discontinued when his son and successor Hisao died almost 100 years later — quite a run for a two-generation workshop.)
Shoto-cha, as the tea was known, soon became popular throughout Tokyo, but its run was cut short by progress: Once the Tokaido rail line connected the capital to the Kansai region in the late 1880s, tea from prestigious but distant sources such as Uji and Shizuoka began to pour into Tokyo at lower prices, undercutting the Tokyo tea. In response, the Nabeshima clan in 1904 began converting Shoto En to fruit orchards. Eventually houses began to sprout up, further crowding out the tea. The last of the plants were torn up in 1932, when the remaining undeveloped land was turned over to the Tokyo municipal government. (A piece of that real estate surrounding a natural spring-water pond became a park, predecessor to today's Nabeshima-Shoto Park.)
The tea plants may have disappeared, but their name stuck.
So when your neck gets tired from looking up at all the expensive homes, stop by Shoto's lovely park and amble over to the pond. You'll be gazing at a scene that also undoubtedly brought much quiet enjoyment to Tokyo's tea-picking samurai.
One of our grower–artisans, Mr. Watanabe, in Sagara, Kumamoto, was kind enough to include this lovely maple-themed kyusu in a recent shipment of green tea.
Instead of a tea basket inside, this single-serving kyusu has a built-in mesh screen at the base of the spout. This way, you can hold the kyusu by the handle and really swirl the tea around for thorough steeping.
Sagara, by the way, is right next door to Hitoyoshi, known as Japan's "little Kyoto."
My previous post highlighted the integrated cultivation of tea and feed grass in a traditional way that not only benefits both species but is also more sustainable than when the two are cultivated separately.
In this post I present another Japanese farming technique designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: the traditional management of grasslands by the people of Aso, which is home to one of Mellow Monk's tea artisans, Koji Nagata.
The farming equivalent of the U.N.'s World Heritage Site system, the GIAHS program recognizes truly unique, traditional agricultural approaches that not only represent a means of sustainability worthy of preservation in their own environment but also a potential path to sustainability for others around the world.
Noyaki is a traditional technique of controlled burning that keeps grasslands from being overgrown with thicket species. From the blog "Tomo no Hitorigoto".
In the case of Aso grassland, the FAO recognizes that over the generations, traditional grassland management has preserved the biodiversity of rural landscapes and served as the cornerstone of region-wide sustainable agriculture for other crops, too. Says the GIAHS report: "The remarkable feature of [the] Aso region lies in this dynamic system of sustainable agriculture through cyclical grassland use and its management system."
This 2013 presentation (PDF) by Kumamoto Prefecture's vice-governor explains the philosophies and interdependencies involved wonderfully.
At the heart of this responsible grassland use is the same traditional philosophy that our tea artisans represent — that one does not own land so much as have temporary stewardship over it; that use of the land should ideally benefit others and preserve the land and its environment for future generations, as well.
The photos are of Kumamoto Prefecture's Tea Research Center (a.k.a. "Chaken"). Chaken is where new cultivars of tea are developed and tested by researchers funded by the prefectural government of Kumamoto — where our grower–artisans ply their trade.
Only teas that pass the rigorous taste-testing shown in the photographs proceed to the next step.
These new cultivars include ones with greater natural resistance to the various natural foes of the tea plant. Or just cultivars with better flavor or aroma.
Well, not "better," because tea is such a matter of individual taste, yes? Because one person's oversteeping is another person's just right.
Tea basket and an oversized mug: perfect fit
Occasionally I like to brew a lot of tea at once and enjoy it over a large temperature range as it cools. This oversized mug holds a bit over 500 mL (almost 17 ounces), so it holds more than some small teapots. I bought it at a festival bazaar in Aso City. On a different trip I got this stainless-steel tea basket (93 mm in diameter, 3.6 inches), which is of the kind for putting inside teapots — and at 93 mm in diameter, this size is definitely for large teapots. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find out that the basket fits Goldilocks perfectly into the mug. A perfect match, brought together by tea.