Japan imports coffee from over 40 different countries, and with such a prominent coffee culture that took off after World War II, anyone would assume the island nation has some sort of locally grown coffee beans.
True enough, the islands on the southernmost part of the country took the lead on this. Okinawa, best known as the Hawaii of Japan for its sun, sand and sea, should also be known as the home to thousands of local coffee plantations.
A two-hour drive from Okinawa’s city centre to the mountainous region of Nago was nothing compared to the eye-opening and wonderful experience at one of the country’s pioneering coffee farms, Matayoshi Coffee Farm.
Okinawa For Coffee
Okinawa is almost 3,000km from the equator and doesn’t rise to high elevations – how is it possible for coffee plantations to grow so far away from the “coffee belt” without the usual ideal conditions?
It seems it’s not impossible; with proper farming techniques and care on top of farmable land and a specific natural environment, Okinawan farmers are attempting to popularise homegrown coffee. Out of the entire country, Okinawa has the best temperature and land quality to make it happen.
And while it’s completely possible to grow coffee trees, it’s rather more difficult to grow them stably – a coffee farmer at Matayoshi Coffee Farm, Yuki, admits that it’s mainly because the land is prone to typhoons. Yet, despite the difficulties, farmers like those at Matayoshi Coffee Farm persevere.
Matayoshi Coffee Farm, Okinawa Coffee’s Frontier
To me, a trip to one of Japan’s handful of coffee farms is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, of course, I took that opportunity. Matayoshi Coffee Farm’s second-generation owner Takayuki Matayoshi handles the day-to-day operations including the selling and buying of beans, while his father, the first-generation owner, focuses on farming. Their other family members like the mother and three other children also help out around the farm.
Now, 8 years later, this 24.5 acres coffee farm has established a direct-to-customer business of selling and roasting coffee beans through their cafe located right in front of the coffee farm, as well as supplying local Okinawan coffee shops and hotels with either 100% Okinawan coffee beans or a blend of local and import beans.
Originally, this plot of land was the home to hundreds of roses – imagine a sweet old man caring to his rose garden day in and day out, without a moment’s break. Eventually, even the pesticides couldn’t save the roses from the harsh sunlight, typhoons and saltwater.
So the father and son duo transformed the plot of land by initially planting 15-20 coffee plants from Brazil – a mix of catuai and yellow bourbon – that they got from a friend.
Pre-COVID, the coffee farm attracted about 40 local Japanese customers and 10 foreign ones a week just for their coffee experiences which include the coffee roasting workshop (¥3,000) or a cherry-picking and roasting tour (¥8,000).
Of course, I had to ask Yuki: how has COVID-19 affected the business? Right before the pandemic in January 2020, the coffee farm received a lot of media attention and the customer numbers skyrocketed. But when the pandemic happened, Yuki said
We had to close the shop from May to July because there were no customers, but the farmers were still busy farming at the back-end.
Now things are slowly starting to pick up again, but it’s nowhere near the scale of what it used to be.
Speaking of coffee experiences, I had to go on one myself. I opted for the full farm-to-cup experience of cherry-picking to brewing. Yuki showed me around the coffee farm (which did not only have coffee trees but also lodging, fruit trees and outdoor activities like buggy riding) and guided me to their oldest batch of coffee trees of 8 years old for my very first activity of the day: cherry-picking.
While I was looking for crimson red cherries that were ready for picking, Yuki explained to me that the black nets above the coffee trees are used to protect the plantation from harsh sunlight – not only the cherries but also the leaves, which are used to make tea leaves, can get easily burnt and damaged.
I noticed there were spiders and butterflies everywhere while I was picking, but Yuki reassured me that these insects don’t harm the coffee trees at all. Tons of them roam about freely as the farm is adamant about making itself 100% pesticide-free.
After about 15 minutes of carefully picking the cherries, my cup was overflowing. I was told to stack up the cherries as high as I can – not all the picked cherries have coffee beans that can be used. For every 10 beans, 2 of them are “dead beans”.
Last year, Matayoshi Coffee Farm had harvested 60kg of coffee beans – this year, they’re looking at about 1,000kg! Over the years, the coffee farm has been growing rapidly, so much that they had to section out the farm and pick the cherries in rotation.
Harvest season in Okinawa is during winter, from November to the end of April; in summer, extra care and attention are given to the plantation in preparation for the next winter.
The ones out in the field are about 5 years and older, while the younger ones below 3 years old – the ones aren’t ready for picking – are being cared for in the greenhouse.
A fully grown tree can produce up to 1,000 beans, which is about 8 cups of coffee – by the looks of Matayoshi Coffee Farm, I could go a few years here without running out of caffeine.
Cherry To Seeds Process
So I laid my cherries out and now I had to split them open to separate the seeds from the cherry. I was taught to push the cherry from the bottom, but the seeds popped out like lava from a volcano, so I had to do it differently.
Regardless of the method, you usually get 2 seeds in each cherry – if you’re lucky, you can get 3 or 4. “Lucky beans”, said Yuki.
Cleaning the Seeds
These seeds were sticky and wet, and from what I know, coffee beans don’t feel like that. My coffee seeds were put in a net (two nets, actually) and using the palms of my hands, I rubbed them against each other with water until they made a sort of “shell noise”, quoted from Yuki.
That’s not all – I had to pat down my seeds by “rolling them like sushi”.
After that, using the same tools I would use later on for roasting, I placed my coffee seeds in a pan to dry them – consistently waving them from side to side over an open fire for about 5 minutes.
We’ve divided this article into two parts because there are many photos we want to share in this unique insight into Japanese coffee farming. The second part will be published in a few days.