A woman drinking Japanese tea at a tea salon. Charly Triballeau/AFP
From matcha ice cream to cake and chocolate, producers of traditional Japanese green tea are capitalising on growing global interest in its flavour — even as demand for the drink declines at home.
At Shigehiko Suzuki's tea shop in central Japan, adorned with a traditional "noren" drape, the customers are flooding in but more to scoop up gelato or cake than to sip the bright-green tea.
"The demand for matcha is rapidly growing in the world... There's demand for ice cream, desserts and coffee.
In 1998, Suzuki's company Marushichi Seicha started making powdered matcha green tea — traditionally made using a bamboo whisk in a tiny room. The firm now exports 30 tonnes of green tea to the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
"The demand for matcha is rapidly growing in the world... There's demand for ice cream, desserts and coffee," Suzuki said at his shop in Fujieda, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
Japan exported more than 5,000 tonnes of green tea — mainly to the United States — last year, 10 times more than two decades ago.
Not many successors
Tea growers like 67-year-old Yoshio Shoji are also jumping on the bandwagon to grow matcha leaves — as they command a higher price than "sencha", needle-shaped leaves used to make the traditional Japanese drink.
The matcha leaves sell for 3,100 yen ($30) per kilo on average, compared to 1,400 yen for sencha, according to the Japanese Association of Tea Production.
A woman brewing Japanese tea. AFP
But Shoji said tea fields are shrinking as farmers get too old for the physically demanding work.
"The oldest one is over 80. There are not many successors," he said as he gazed out over his tea fields on the mountain slopes.
"The tea price is dwindling and the work is tough."
"It is mainly the over-60s who drink tea. The younger people are, the more they drink coffee... Tea is no longer attractive to customers. Our priority is to boost its appeal.
Matcha developed in 16th-century Kyoto when tea master Sen no Rikyu established the traditional tea ceremony known as "chanoyu."
Farmers using a tea harvester to collect matcha tea leaves. AFP
Traditional Japanese tea also suffers from something of an image problem, argues Suzuki, as it is considered the preserve of older generations.
"It is mainly the over-60s who drink tea. The younger people are, the more they drink coffee... Tea is no longer attractive to customers. Our priority is to boost its appeal," he said.
Some tea rooms are trying to modernise the traditional drink to pull in younger punters.
Matcha tea products at a tea shop in Fujieda, Shizuoka prefecture. AFP
"It's important to come up with new ways to present and taste tea, as well as new recipes to let people rediscover the value of Japanese tea."
Suzuki has enjoyed some success in expanding his matcha products, he doubts whether the industry can be saved given intense global competition.
"As matcha is popular around the world, it's now made everywhere in the world. Japan is no longer the only country making it. We'll face global competition."
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