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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Serving Japanese Tea to the World

Nov. 15, 2016

Kyoto is famous for its ancient shrines and temples but it's also home to some of the best Japanese tea farms -- and some have seized on the influx of foreign "nihon-cha" aficionados to promote their products.

Farmers have been growing tea in the town of Wazuka for over 800 years. The community in southern Kyoto Prefecture has fewer than 5,000 residents, but its plantations stretch as far as the eye can see and the leaves grown there are renowned for their quality.

Foreign tourists have begun making pilgrimages to Kyoto Obubu tea farms and like some wine lovers they want to get a close look at the source of their favorite drinks.

The 10 members of one tour group came from around the world, including the US, Turkey and Ireland. Last year, more than 300 people took the tour, which started 6 years ago.

After seeing the farm, the visitors gathered in the office for a tasting and tried 6 different types all grown on the farm.

Among the varieties on offer was sencha, the most common Japanese green tea, which should be steeped at a relatively tepid 70 degrees Celsius, blunting the bitterness and bringing out its sweetness.

Next on the menu was matcha, which is growing in popularity worldwide. Unlike other Japanese teas it's made by pouring piping hot water onto tea powder and then whipping the mixture up with a "chasen" bamboo whisk. The secret is in the wrist snap -- a swift back-and-forth motion yields good foam.

"It is nice; very, very nice," says one woman in the group.

Kyoto Obubu tea farms does more than offer tours -- to get the word out about Japanese teas, it also takes on foreign interns.

Jennifer Swann, from Berlin, has been thinking up ways to make Japanese tea more popular in Germany.

"I love the Japanese culture in general but I love tea. And Japanese tea and it was just a feeling that I should come here," she says.

Since the internship program was started 4 years ago, 50 people from 16 different countries taken part and some have gone on to open Japanese tea businesses back home.

The interns live on the farm for 3 months and their education includes lending a hand with the work. They practice brewing tea every day and, through experience, learn the secrets of getting the best flavor out of the leaves.

They also create new recipes using tea. Jenny used powdered tea and flour to make pasta. Nurturing this sort of creativity is an important element of the internship.

Jenny and her colleagues also made a smoothie using brown rice tea. Soy milk and fruit were added, and some locals were asked to taste the result.

"It’s very different from the flavor we’re used to. It’s really tasty," said one man.

Locals are very receptive to these innovative recipes, and the interns think they will help popularize Japanese teas.

Jenny was awarded a diploma for her efforts when her internship ended.

"Thanks to the 3 months at Obubu, I learned about the different characters of tea. I learned so much about green tea that I want to spread in Germany in the future," she said.

A former intern from Lithuania named Simona has been promoted to a regular staff member at the farm, and she says the internship program has been a success.

"Having young people come here and learn about tea and be inspired and passionate about it that they want to go back to their home countries, and tell about tea to their friends and families and expand it into bigger circles I think this is the best part of the internship," she said.

The interns are spreading Japanese tea to the world with their passion. But more than that, they're adding to its allure and finding new ways to appreciate Japan's age-old venerated drink.