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The Tea Museums of Asia

By Aparna Datta

From the undulating fields of the Makinohara upland in Japan, with an average elevation of 90 m, to the craggy mountaintops of the Nilgiris in the Western Ghats of India that go up to 2500 m, the tea landscapes of Asia are as diverse as the types of manufacture, and the consuming traditions.

The distinctive character of the tea culture of each country finds expression in the delightful tea museums that dot the continent. While a number of museums on tea and coffee are found in Europe, the narrative and exhibits treat the subject from a Western trading and consuming perspective. The tea museums of Asia, on the other hand, capture the growing and manufacturing traditions unique to the region, besides the ethnic social and cultural habits associated with the beverage. Most of the museums, in fact, are situated in important tea growing districts in each country, and vividly demonstrate how tea forms the life-blood of the local economy. Interestingly, most of these museums were set up during the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, and have quickly found their way into the tourist itinerary.

The Makinohara upland comprises an area of 50 sq km and was brought under tea cultivation in the late 19th century. It now produces about 40 per cent of the tea harvested in Shizuoka prefecture, the leading tea-producing prefecture in Japan.

The Tea Museum situated here was built in 1998 and provides a comprehensive history of green tea manufacture, particularly the processing of sencha green tea made from unfermented tea leaves, and also displays teas from all over the world. In the grounds of the museum, there is a Japanese garden complete with a teahouse that was designed by Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), a prominent tea master and feudal lord of the Edo period, has now been restored to its original state. Visitors get an opportunity to taste the local green tea, and witness the traditional tea ceremony.

Jeju Island in South Korea was formed as a result of severe volcanic activity. With 368 craters now extinct, this is prime land for eco-tourism. The O’Sulloc Green Tea Museum, in a landscaped setting amidst tea fields, is one of the attractions on the Island. The grounds of the museum cover an area of 8,099 sq m, and the museum building covers 1537 sq m; the museum is surrounded by summer houses, stone towers and grass lawns.

“The exterior of the museum is environmentally friendly, using natural materials like clay. A turret made of basalt, a symbolic rock of Jeju Island, looks like a teacup when viewed from the second floor,” says Victor Ryashencev of Jeju Eco Tours.

Exhibits at the Museum, that has been set up by the Amore Pacific Company, which produces green tea under the ‘O’Sulloc’ brand name, include a miniature green tea production line, and an extensive collection of traditional green tea crockery. But of course, there’s a souvenir shop, and a green teahouse with several types of green tea, green tea cookies, green tea products such as green tea cosmetics, noodles and cakes, pottery and even green tea ice cream. Eco tours include a visit to one of the four tea plantations on the Island, where tea picking can be observed during April-May, and a special tea tasting of green tea from Mt. Halla. In 1985, one million tea trees were planted on Jeju Island and now these plantations comprise the largest tea growing area in Korea. Jeju Island is a one-hour flight from Seoul.

West Lake Longjing tea was the ‘imperial tea’ drunk by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty of China (1644-1911), and to this day, Longjing, including the West Lake Dragon Well tea plantation of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, continues to be the premier tea growing area in China. So it was only fitting that the China National Tea Museum, a state-level museum dedicated to tea, was set up here at Shuangfeng village. Opened in April 1991, the tea museum spreads over 3.7 hectares with 3500 sq m built-up area. With tea plantations all around, the museum building blends in with the surroundings with landscaped grounds – pavilions alongside water-bodies, ponds, hills and walkways replete with flowers ensure an unforgettable experience.

The exhibition area includes six show halls, with separate displays on the history of tea in China, tea service rituals and culture. There is a large collection of tea utensils. The International Peaceful Exchange Hall focuses on tea cultural exchange with an audio-visual show. The museum is a magnet for tea aficionados and is the venue for several international seminars on tea culture and exchange. The annual West Lake International Tea Festival at Hangzhou brings in visitors from all over the world.

China recently inaugurated yet another tea museum at Pantuo township of Zhangpu county of Fujian Province. Covering 5.3 hectares and a floor area of 8000 sq m, this is the world’s largest tea museum, with extensive exhibition areas, a hall for conducting the Japanese tea ceremony, a painting and calligraphy hall and other sections dedicated to tea culture in China and other parts of the world. The emphasis here is on live demonstrations of the art of making and serving tea, with classes offered on the traditional tea ceremony.

Hong Kong’s colonial heritage is on show at the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware situated on the north side of Hong Kong Park. Built in the Greek Revival style and completed in 1846, this erstwhile home of the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces is the area’s oldest surviving colonial building, and is itself an architectural treasure. In 1981, the building was turned into a museum tracing the history of tea with displays of some 500 items of tea ware. The core collection comprises pieces donated by Dr. K.S. Lo, a local collector, ranging from earthenware to porcelain, and focuses on ornate oriental tea ware of Chinese origin, dating back to the 7th century.

Just an hour out of Taipei is the Pinglin Tea Industry Museum, which opened in January 1997. Located in the green hills of Pinglin in Taipei county, this museum with 2.7 hectares of exhibits took eight years and US$10 million to complete.

Displays at the Museum give an account of the more than one thousand year old history of tea, along with details and live demonstrations of the various types of processing, ancient as well as modern. The exhibits are housed in a spacious facility in a setting inspired by the traditional gardens of the southern Fujian aristocracy. The Museum has two teahouses and three tea pavilions.

Pinglin has been producing tea for over a century, with family farms being tended through five generations. The Wenshan paochung tea, an aromatic sweet-tasting brew, has its origin in Pinglin, where the ‘spring tea’ picked every year from the end of March through the first half of April, is highly prized. The one main road in Pinglin is lined with small tea factories where tea is fermented, dried and packed; between these factories nestle numerous tea shops that allow visitors to sample the famous local brew. Like Chinese oolong, paochung tea is partially fermented.

Sri Lanka
The Ceylon Tea Museum at Hantane, Kandy is a joint project of the Sri Lanka Tea Board and the Planters’ Association of Sri Lanka. Opened in January 2002, the Museum is housed in a spacious four-storied tea factory that was built in 1925, and had been abandoned for more than a decade before it was identified for the museum project.

The ground floor accommodates heavy machinery used for tea manufacture; on the first floor is the withering chamber. The Library and the Audio-visual center are on the second floor, and the sales outlet occupies the third floor. The “Rolling Room” gives a glimpse of the great orthodox tradition of Ceylon tea, through a fascinating collection of tea rollers, the showpiece being the manually operated “Little Giant Tea Roller”.

The Tea Museum is located some five km from Kandy, Sri Lanka’s hill capital, and is close to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Also in the vicinity is Loolecondra, where James Taylor first commercially planted tea in 1867. The Museum is a tribute to the pioneers who laid the foundation for the success story that is Ceylon tea.

The Tea Museum set up by Tata Tea Ltd., is located at its Nullatanni Estate in Munnar, in Kerala state, South India and was inaugurated in March 2004. Currently operated by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company Pvt. Ltd. (KDHP), the Museum provides a glimpse of the history of planting in the High Ranges dating back to the 1870s, with exhibits of rare curios and archive photographs.

A Sundial in granite, made in 1913 by the Art Industrial School at Nazareth, Tamil Nadu, greets visitors at the entrance. The memorabilia preserved in the Tea Museum include the original Tea Roller of 1905, the Rotorvane – the vintage CTC-type tea processing machine, the Pelton Wheel used in the power generation plant that existed in Kanniamallay Estate in 1920s, and a wheel of the rail engine of the Kundale Valley Light Railway that transported men and materials between Munnar and Top Station during the early part of the last century.

The Tea Museum also houses an Iron-age burial urn of 2nd century BC that was exhumed near Periakanal Estate in the 1970s. In one of the rooms, all the old bungalow furniture, cash safe, magneto-phone, wooden bathtub, cast iron wood-burning stove are displayed. In another room, antique office equipment such as typewriters and the EPABX of the 1909 telephone system that was in use in the High Range, are exhibited. There is also a tea tasting demonstration room with a variety of teas on display. The Tea Museum also has a fully operational mini CTC and Orthodox tea-manufacturing unit.

For anyone who starts each day with a cup of tea, the tea museums of Asia are a pilgrimage. By combining the passion for growing, processing and consuming in an experiential tour, each museum evokes tea in its own special way, and contributes to the wonderful mosaic of tea cultures that is Asia. It’s a year-round celebration that does the leaf proud.

© Aparna Datta, 2004

Published in Tea & Coffee Asia 4th Quarter, 2004



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