Tea sends message of hope

MIDDLEBURY — Barely one year after a tsunami devastated a portion of Japan’s northeastern coast — causing one of the biggest nuclear disasters in history — Masahir Takada made his way to Middlebury, further cementing his relationship with Vermonters who reached out to Japan after the disaster.
Takada is a tea master from Uji, Japan, the birthplace of Japanese green tea (see sidebar), who came to the U.S. this year to meet with his many tea contacts and extend a warm thank you for all of their support since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami. Before arriving in Middlebury last month to hold demonstrations at Stone Leaf Tea House and Middlebury College, he made an appearance at the San Francisco Tea Festival.
Uji, which is located in western Japan’s Kyoto prefecture, was not directly affected by the tsunami. But after one of the most powerful earthquakes on record — magnitude 9.0 — triggered the most devastating tsunami in Japanese history, Takada worked day in and day out for much of the past year to help thousands of people who were left homeless and without families.
Not all green tea is made alike
What’s the difference between Chinese green tea and Japanese green tea? The way in which oxidation is stopped.
First, it’s important to understand that what distinguishes green tea from black tea is the tea’s level of oxidation. Green tea is the least oxidized of all tea categories and black tea is the most oxidized. Oxidation occurs when we bite into an apple and it turns brown. The same thing happens to tea when its cellular structure is broken and exposed to oxygen.
All green teas remain green because oxidation is halted at an early stage — generally, several hours after the leaves are picked. Heating the leaves to the point where the oxidizing enzymes are deactivated stops this process.
The main difference between Chinese green teas and Japanese green teas is how this oxidation is halted.
In China, tealeaves are roasted using a range of different methods, where in Japan they’re steamed. Chinese green teas are often characterized by a roasted honey flavor, where Japanese green teas exhibit more of a bright oceanic or seaweed element.
Either way, both kinds of green teas and many other teas that come from the tea plant species — camellia sinensis — are packed full of carcinogen-fighting antioxidants that have been proven to help humans detoxify their bodies. 
When a German friend of Takada’s reached out to him after the natural disaster, Takada initiated what he calls “phase one” of his aid project — emergency packages. Using funds raised by the friend — whom Takada knows through the Japanese martial art of kendo — Takada created packaged sets of necessities: bulk rice, clothes, medicines, various foods and other provisions. The rice was from his own fields and other supplies were gathered from stores across the country.
“Fortunately, I had a lot of stock at this time, so I sent a lot of rice,” he said.
To receive and allocate these packages, Takada had point people in the Japanese cities of Sendai and Ishinomaki, places that were hit especially hard by the tsunami.
Phase two of the project is what brought him to Middlebury — tea.
Using the world’s most widely consumed beverage — and a centerpiece of Japanese culture — Takada delivered foreign sentiments of hope to those in need of encouragement.
“After this donation from the kendo people, I started to make another donation (on behalf of) the many teashops in Europe and the United States,” said Takada, who ships tea to high-end tea shops around the world.
Takada sent thousands of small tea packets, containing Japanese green tea, to these teashops, among them Middlebury’s Stone Leaf Tea House. On each packet was a space to write a note. The packets of tea were, in effect, postcards for families in need to receive warm wishes and tea.
“Each card had messages in English, Italian, French and many other languages,” he said. “On the backside I explained the meaning behind the project and sent it up north.”
Customers at Stone Leaf and the other teahouses were urged to write their message to the Japanese affected by the earthquake and tsunami and send the packets back to Takada.
In total, more than 2,000 tea postcards reached earthquake victims, including more than 200 from Stone Leaf customers and friends. Takada funded this part of the project. It was not aimed at attracting big donations, he said, that just wasn’t the point.
“The people who live in the foreign countries wanted to do something for Japan. This way people are directly attached to people … no big donations will disappear to some place,” he said. “Tea is the bridge between countries.”
To many, a little packet of tea might not seem like much to victims of a natural disaster. But to a society like Japan’s, where the smallest of gestures can carry the weight of the world, this notion spoke loudly about the feelings of foreign nations for the Japanese people, said Takada.
The Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura addressed this in his 1906 classic, “The Book of Tea.”
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others,” he wrote.
On a sunny day in the Middlebury teahouse in mid-March, over a pot of steaming tea, Takada flipped through a slideshow, recounting the devastation that followed the tsunami.
He showed pictures of crushed cars and leveled houses in Ishinomaki.
“This is the worst city,” he said. “Everything was destroyed.”
He showed a picture of the kendo dojo in Sendai.
“Some of the people lost their houses, but they still continued their practice,” he said. “It makes their spirit strong. If they stop this practice, maybe they’d lose the power.”
When asked if the tea regions were harmed, he replied, “Not by earthquake damage — by nuclear damage.”
As is well known, the nuclear power reactors in Fukushima, Japan, lost electricity to power water pumps and some of the nuclear materials began to overheat and disperse radioactivity.
While Uji’s tea and western Japanese tea regions were left untouched by the radioactivity, higher levels of radiation were discovered in coastal tea regions along the east side of Japan, including parts of Shizuoka, the country’s largest tea producing region.
The devastation wrought by nuclear contamination from the crushed Fukushima Daiichi reactor has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Japanese. Only two of the country’s 54 reactors are currently operating, and the government is looking to renewable sources of energy for the future, said Takada.
One year later, Japan is still reeling. Much of the Northeast is rebuilding from scratch, and dealing with nuclear contamination on such a massive scale presents many difficulties. Takada said citizens are concerned that the government will try to store the waste from the nuclear reactors in their cities.
Recovery has also been slower than expected because the government must now carry out city planning with new challenges in mind. In many cities, the government will no longer permit residential development along the coast, said Takada. 
For those families and people whose homes were destroyed, Takada said they’re living in government housing.
“Everybody is doing their best to recover,” he said. “For the people who lost it all, most people are living in just a simple house that was built by the government. But the conditions are not so good. They want their own houses.
“They are recovering step by step.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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