Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tokyo's tea-picking samurai

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.

—Mellow Monk


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