• Faith in the power of tea to connect all things:
    An interview with Kyoko Yoneda of Jikonka in Mie (1st half)



    Opened by Kyoko Yoneda and her husband Hironobu Nishikawa in 1998, Jikonka is a gallery and store selling goods related to the necessities of everyday life located in Sekicho in Mie Prefecture. With this original location followed by the opening of Jikonka Tokyo (in Okusawa, Setagaya-ku) in 2010 and Jikonka TAIPEI in 2012, the brand not only sells selected tableware and clothing but proposes the establishment of a richer and more fulfilling lifestyle through its wares.

    In recent years, though, Yoneda has devoted much of her energy to the making of tea.

    I traveled to Mie to savor the truly unique tea experiences that, in all of Japan, can only be found at Jikonka.

    Seki: a town that breathes history, dating back to the year 670

    With the Suzuka River to our left, we drive along National Route 25. Turning north just before Seki Station on the JR Kansai Main Line, the road begins to climb, and I feel like I am slipping backward in time.

    On either side are historical buildings, the kind that feel more at home in photographs than in real life. Sekicho in Kameyama City was once a thriving post town known as Seki-juku. Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” is a series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the 53 post stations on the former Tokaido road, beginning at Nihonbashi in Edo and terminating at Sanjo Ohashi in Kyoto. Seki-juku was the 47th of these, located quite close to Kyoto, and was a major intersection for long-distance travel for many years.

    The naming of the town is said to date back to the Suzuka Barrier, or Suzuka-no-Seki, established in the year 670. While the truth of this era is shrouded in mystery, the town is indisputably deeply dyed in history. Although the borders have shifted over time, the names of the major regions of modern-day Japan, Kanto and Kansai, are said to derive from the three “seki,” including Suzuka-no-Seki, which were located in this area: everything to the west of the three was designated as “Kansai” (literally “west of the seki”), everything to the east was “Kanto” (“east of the seki”).

    In the very heart of Sekicho stands the gallery Jikonka SEKI. The atmospheric showroom and store, erected within a restored building of the late Edo period and which still feels less like a place of business than a living space, is dotted with works by famous Japanese artists and artisans.

    “I was a potter in my younger days, but I took it upon myself long ago to organize some group exhibitions of works by friends of mine from near and far who specialize in arts as diverse as ceramics, woodwork, and dyeing, and over time that gradually began to take the form of this business we called Jikonka. Spending so much time on the organizational side of things, I found myself with less time to make much of my own, so I eventually realized that someone needed to take on the role of explaining all of these pieces to the general public, and launched the store. As ceramic tableware and food are basically two sides of the same coin, we even opened a dining space and served food for a while.”

    The inner garden of KOBO Jikonka, where clothes dyed indigo blue using traditional aizome techniques are drying in the sun. “Jikon” means “this time now,” and “ka” means grain; the name of the store means “the necessary grains of life” and was bestowed upon the business to identify its central mission as the quest to find how best to live in the moment.

    Two minutes’ walk from Jikonka SEKI is the studio known as KOBO Jikonka, also a converted traditional homestead. The traditional art of indigo dyeing, sho-aizome, has been practiced here since 2018. When it was first brought to Japan from China, the indigo plant’s primary use was as a medicine, said to be effective as an antipyretic and antibacterial. The concept of wearing medicinal plants dyed into cloth survives today in the etymology of the Japanese word for ingesting medicine, which still contains the character for “clothing.” Visitors can experience traditional sho-aizome, which uses only the plant’s natural dyes with no chemical additives, for themselves here.

    Yoneda’s background as an artist and a gallery owner has developed her innate sense of quality and how to incorporate these items of superior quality into a modern lifestyle.

    What we wear, what we use, what we eat and drink.
    Shaped by human hands and the forces of nature, these are what shape our very lives.

    It does not take long after I arrive for me to understand that this is an integral part of Jikonka’s worldview. And the one commodity that truly expresses that worldview in the present continuous tense is tea.

    Yoneda and her sister, Kaori Okada, make hand-picked white tea and black tea on site, and sell it at Jikonka. KOBO Jikonka, which functions as the center of the company’s tea production operations, is also equipped with a tearoom designed by Yoneda herself. The primary purpose of my journey to Seki is, of course, to sample some of the tea Yoneda and her sister make for myself, but I will save a description of that treat for the second half of the article.

    The reason for this is that, shortly after my arrival, Yoneda tells me that she wants to take me to see her tea garden. Also located within Kameyama City, it grows a variety unique to the area and even contains plants of over 90 years in age.

    The legendary black tea variety F4

    After driving for around 20 minutes from Sekicho, we arrive at an area of tea gardens in the northern part of Kameyama, at the base of the Suzuka Mountains. In the foreground is the familiar sight of neatly trimmed, waist-high tea plants, but these do not belong to Jikonka. What we are here to see lie beyond these: giant plants over two meters high, virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding forest.

    Walking among these colossal F4 tea plants, I feel like I have stumbled into a parallel dimension, where I am a tiny being among giants. F4 is a variety suitable for black tea, originally brought over from Taiwan and cultivated here in Kameyama on an experimental basis. Never officially registered as a commercial tea variety, though, it was essentially left to grow wild at the foot of the mountains.

    “This area of Kameyama features a lot of plants that have their roots in Taiwanese mountain teas or Assam-type black teas, led by the efforts of Tsutomu Kawato, who used to work in the black tea production industry in Taiwan before the war. The F4 tea that we harvest is one of these varieties. Black teas in Mie Prefecture have always been based on varieties that are almost entirely specialized as black teas, rather than varieties that can be used to create both green and black tea.”

    Yoneda explains that she came across these plants just a few years ago. Back then, they were taller still, and had become so overgrown that they had essentially become one with the scrub of the forest. Even now, she uses no industrial chemicals or fertilizers and, other than periodical pruning, leaves the plants to grow naturally.

    I was aware that a number of farmers throughout the country have recently begun to develop so-called “wakocha,” or Japanese black tea, but had no idea that Kameyama had such a rich history as a site of black tea cultivation.

    In the Meiji era, tea production was encouraged by the government to develop a local product that could be sold overseas to secure foreign currency, which led to the promotion of black tea cultivation in Kameyama. While varieties such as Benihomare (formerly known as C8) were developed and registered, F4 never made it that far, remaining forgotten in this small corner of the nation without ever spreading elsewhere or gaining an official nomenclature. Now, finally, it has begun to achieve some recognition as a legendary tea variety unique to Kameyama. Having been the first to understand its true value, Yoneda and her colleagues carefully hand-pick its leaves to create both black and white teas.

    Kyoko Yoneda (right) and her sister, Kaori Okada (left), harvesting leaves from an F4 plant. They have to draw the high branches down to their level to pluck new shoots.
    F4 leaves. While other varieties have flowers in full bloom at this time of year, F4 is still seeing its shoots grow, and is yet to blossom.

    One of the most notable characteristics of F4 is the size of its leaves. They appear three or even four times the size of standard green tea leaves. Its other key feature is the extremely sweet smell of its freshly picked leaves. Imbued with a faintly spicy scent, this sweet aroma comes into its own when brewed into tea. “The whole area is filled with a sweet scent when we are harvesting,” notes Okada. Just imagining the two of them plucking the leaves while almost buried in foliage and perfumed by the scent of F4 is enough to bring a smile to my face.

    The leaves and seeds of an F4 plant (top), compared to those of a more standard tea variety (bottom). Even the seeds of the F4 are three to four times the size of other tea plants.

    “It was the aroma that really struck a chord with us and made us start using the leaves to make tea. At first, we enlisted the help of the people at the Tea Research Institute, borrowing machinery from them. They weren’t particularly interested when we told them we needed it for an F4 plant. I remember being so disappointed by their reaction that I got quite heated, telling them how amazing it was… It’s a little embarrassing to recall now,” laughs Yoneda. The impact the leaves made on her must have been truly unforgettable.

    “It really is wonderful. Just truly wonderful.”

    Yoneda’s heartfelt words as she glances back at the F4 plants on our way back to Sekicho tell me everything I need to know about how she feels.

    I am more curious than ever to discover what tea made from such wild plants will taste like.

    Full of anticipation, I accompany the sisters back to KOBO Jikonka.

    Kyoko Yoneda
    Born in Matsusaka City in Mie Prefecture, she studied pottery at art school before setting up her own pottery studio. She organized several ceramics and textiles exhibitions before opening Jikonka in Kameyama City’s historic Sekicho district. The store sells lifestyle goods based on the central theme of learning from our basic necessities. Since meeting legendary Taiwanese fashion designer Jamei Chen, she has staged several exhibitions in Taiwan, showcasing Japanese crafts. Still based in Sekicho but expanding her activities into China, she spends much of her time now exploring the possibilities of tea.

    Photo: Kazumasa Harada
    Edit & Text (originally in Japanese): Yoshiki Tatezaki