A visit to Shimada, home to thousands of acres of green tea, offers some delicious surprises
May heralds the season of new tea leaves, and when I learned the largest expanse of tea fields in Japan lies just beyond the longest wooden bridge in the world, I decided to visit Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, where they are located.
A 10-minute walk from JR Shimada Station brought me to the wooden Horaibashi bridge over the Oigawa river. The tea fields, called the Makinohara Tea Estate, spread across the plateau on the other side of the river.
The tea plantation covers about 5,000 hectares, accounting for 10 percent of all tea fields in Japan. It was cultivated to grow tea after the Meiji Restoration (1868) by Kageaki Chujo, a former retainer of the Tokugawa shogunate.
The Horaibashi bridge, built for people who started working the tea fields, was repeatedly washed away when the river rose, so the bridge piers were rebuilt with cement in 1965.
The bridge, 897.4 meters long and about seven meters high, was registered by Guinness World Records as the world's longest wooden pedestrian bridge. It is still used by local residents walking to and from work and also often serves as a film location.
As the number 8974 can be read as “yakunashi”, a homophone of “no misfortune” in Japanese, people visit the bridge for good luck, according to Yoshitsugu Haramiishi, a 71-year-old local tour guide.
The bridge is 2.4 metres wide, and the railing comes only up to the knees of the average adult so with nothing blocking the view, it feels rather like walking on air.
The landscape changes dramatically on the other side with a sea of tea leaves that stretch as far as the eye cane see. The contrast between the blue sky and the yellowish green tea leaves shining in the bright sunlight is amazing.
And from the open space that’s home to a statue of Chujo and Oigawa river in the background, it’s possible to glimpse Mount Fuji still lightly dusted with snow.
The development of a tea processing machine by a local inventor enabled the mass production of tea here, which eventually developed the tea industry in Shimada.
The World Tea Museum in the city helps visitors learn about the tea industry and tea culture both at home and abroad. The museum also has a Japanese garden and a tea ceremony room. While viewing the pond in the beautiful garden, I slowly sipped foamed matcha green tea from a tea bowl. It was a pretty tasteful event.
In the city, an event that allowed visitors to experience tea picking was under way. A guide at the event invited me to taste a new tea leaf, which was pretty tender as I felt its pleasant flavour fill my mouth. I heard that new tea leaves also taste good as tempura, boiled and seasoned with soy sauce, or as an ingredient in fried noodles.
Shimada and neighbouring Kanaya are known for having offered places for travellers to stay on both sides of the Oigawa river in the past. Crossing the river was a challenge for travellers along the old Tokaido, a thoroughfare during the Edo period (1603-1867) connecting Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto.
The city has many old temples and shrines, as well as a historical site that shows what the inns were like back in the Edo period.
Shimada is also said to be the birthplace of the Shimada topknot, a type of traditional Japanese coiffure. An annual festival held in September features a procession of women dressed in kimonos with their hair done in a Shimada topknot.
The Oigawa Railway is another local attraction, fascinating even those who are not railroad fans. Steam locomotives have been operating between Shin-Kanaya Station and Senzu Station for the last 38 years, and it is very difficult to procure components for the old-fashioned steam locomotives and their passenger cars, according to the railway operator’s public relations department.
Shimada has many more must-see places, such as Rose Hill Park, where nearly 360 species of roses are grown.
It might make for a tight schedule but all these places are certainly worth a visit.
If you go
_ From Tokyo Station, a Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari train takes you to Shizuoka Station. The journey takes about an hour. From there, an approximately 30-minute train ride on the Tokaido Line brings you to Shimada Station.
_ For more information, call the Shimada City Tourist Association at (0547) 46 2844.