In this piece, we are visiting with Kyoko Yoneda, proprietor of the gallery Jikonka SEKI and operator of the sho-aizome indigo dyeing and tea-making studio, KOBO Jikonka, both located in the Sekicho district of Kameyama City in Mie Prefecture.
Having returned from our visit to see where the legendary F4 tea plants grow, we dine on thick futomaki sushi rolls from Seki’s famous Suzukatei before returning to the studio for a spot of tea as organized by Yoneda.
Yoneda’s tearoom was created based on her own designs. I have to bend slightly to make my way under the low arch of the entrance. Inside, tea utensils Yoneda has collected from across Japan, Taiwan, China, and South Korea lie bathed in the gentle afternoon sunshine.
Yoneda prepares three different teas for me to try: marucha, F4 black tea, and Ise Xiaoqinggan citrus tea. As we partake, Yoneda explains the fundamental features of her view of tea.
Marucha: The beauty of the opening leaves
The first brew I get to sample is what Yoneda calls “marucha.” I’ve never heard that name before…
“This is one of our originals. It’s made using F4 tea leaves picked in spring when the shoots haven’t yet opened at all. We use essentially the same techniques as white tea: the tea leaves are left for a while to wither them. Then, while they still have a certain amount of plasticity, we gently roll them into balls using gauze and hang them out to dry on the washing line. That’s how this tea is made.”
Yoneda takes one of these spherical agglomerations of tea leaves, about four or five grams in weight, places it in a teapot, and pours hot water in on top. As the water is added, I find myself transfixed by the sight of the ball gently unfurling itself.
“When I serve tea to my Japanese customers, I always want them to focus on the leaves. Many people think of tea leaves as some burden that has to be dealt with – garbage, essentially. In that respect, tea bags and bottled tea are a lot easier, and I understand that totally. But I want to remind those people that tea is originally a plant, that when we drink tea, we are imbibing something created by the forces of nature.”
A pale golden color, the tea is clear and transparent, and ever so slightly viscous. “Good white tea has a certain amount of viscosity,” explains Yoneda.
Her tea style is heavily influenced by Taiwanese tea culture. Yoneda’s connection to Taiwan dates back to 2004, when her book, Oishii o tsukuru mono (“What makes deliciousness”, co-written with Hironobu Ishikawa) was spotted by famous Taiwanese fashion designer Jamei Chen. Convinced that the lifestyle wave they wrote about would soon make its way to Taiwan, Chen took Yoneda to Taipei, where she staged exhibitions of Japanese pottery.
“The Japanese woman who served as an interpreter for me was also a tea expert herself, and she introduced me to researchers in the science of tea, tea farmers, and tea brewers. The more different types of tea I tasted in Taiwan, the more I found myself drawn in to the beauty of its world.”
While her eyes were opened to the world of tea in Taiwan, Yoneda’s roots also lie in the tea her mother made.
“The tea my mother and her friends made from hand-picked new leaves was so delicious,” she tells me. “But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find that flavor anywhere as an adult. It wasn’t until I started going to Taiwan for work, and I came across Wenshan baozhong tea (one of Taiwan’s most famous tea varieties, a lightly-fermented type of oolong tea), that I thought to myself, this is it – I’ve finally found it! That was a real catalyst for me to start making my own tea. Plus, I was so moved by the wonderful sight of Taiwanese people enjoying tea that it made me jealous, really, that I lived in a famous tea producing area, and yet I wasn’t enjoying tea the way they were.”
F4 black tea: A distinctive sweetness and the aroma of menthol
Seeing for herself the way tea culture was firmly embedded into the way of life of the people of Taiwan, Yoneda tells me that she came to a realization. “Without knowing the joy of brewing and savoring tea, you are wasting – well, I won’t say half your life, but a third of your life at least!” The second tea she serves me now is F4 black tea, for which I have already been privy not only to the brewing process, but also its growing and harvesting.
The aroma is every bit as wild and powerful as you would expect from the leaves of a plant that has grown on its own for decades, without human intervention, to be several meters tall. Once imbibed, the initial sugary sweetness is accompanied by notes of shiso pickles. Finally, perhaps F4 tea’s strongest characteristic of all is its clean, smooth aftertaste, with just the right amount of astringency.
“The menthol-like aroma is the most distinctive feature of F4,” explains Yoneda. “There is no nasty bitterness, but just a smooth, fresh tartness left behind in the throat.”
It is the kind of tea you want to savor again and again, using multiple infusions.
Yoneda tells me that many people in Taiwan spend their days enjoying multiple infusions of the same tea. Children will be playing alongside. “I like the third brew, so tell me when it’s ready,” one will say – this is how they learn about the beauty of tea in an organic way. What a beautiful image of peace and cultural vibrancy. Yoneda tells me that watching such scenes, she understood the vital role tea plays in connecting the people to the culture of their land.
“A small boy taught me about the role of each brew. ‘The leaves haven’t yet opened in the first brew, so you just enjoy the aroma,’ he explained. ‘They start to open in the second brew, and in the third brew, the aroma and flavor are perfectly balanced.’ Through my time in Taiwan, I learned how brewing and drinking tea are essential elements making up the key processes underpinning the cultural lifestyles of the people of the land.”
Ise Xiaoqinggan: The joy of watching the tea leaves boiled out from inside the citrus
Before our final cup of tea, Yoneda introduces me to a few more unusual teas she has encountered.
What is this circular black object? Yoneda has brought out a box from deep in the recesses of her store, which she says contains a certain type of tea. Within the box is a small bag marked with characters representing the Chinese phrase daji dali, meaning “good luck and great prosperity.” From within the bag emerges this black object, which is, remarkably, a Chinese citron, or bitter summer orange. Within, she tells me, is stuffed oolong tea.
“There’s a famous fruit-growing area of Taiwan called Nantou County, and I visited the people who make this tea. They take these big citrons and stuff them with tea. This is slightly different from the tea made by one of the area’s minority ethnic groups, where they mix citrus flesh with Chinese medicine and tea leaves – this particular creation is an original developed by a local tea master and calligrapher, which involves hollowing out a citron and filling it with oolong tea leaves. When I visited his home, I saw a huge one of these on display. He explained to me that he had made it when his son was born and that when he married, he would invite friends and family, and they would all drink that tea together. In China and Taiwan, such coming-of-age milestones are often celebrated by communal tea drinking.”
Yoneda takes it out of its box momentarily so we can take a photo, but even just that small moment allows me to sense its beguiling aroma – citrus, but with sweet, indescribable, caramel-like notes.
These smaller, perfectly round packages the size of large gumballs are known as “xiaoqinggan” and feature pu’er tea stuffed inside mandarin oranges. Having first come across these creations at the Chinese National Tea Research Institute in Hangzhou, Yoneda was inspired to try and create them for herself in Japan, and searched for them at tea houses everywhere by way of research.
“The thing is, I don’t even like pu’er tea very much, but the xiaoqinggan imbued it with the aroma of citrus, making it so much easier to drink. Above all, I was drawn to their cute appearance. And the first time I drank this tea, I thought I’d love to make this myself. Since Mie is a major citrus-growing region, I thought it would be perfect if we could use all locally sourced ingredients. They warned me in Taiwan that it wouldn’t be easy to make, but I was determined to create something using just local materials – I figured it would end up being something unique to Japan. From that moment, I poured my energy into creating our own original xiaoqinggan.”
She uses two-year aged black tea, stuffing it in yuzu citrus which has been picked while still unripe, then roasted and dried. While the end product should be able to be stored for a long time, even the tiniest issue in the creation process can lead to the formation of mold. After several years of trial and error, the result was the creation of a new product which she dubbed “Ise Xiaoqinggan.”
In terms of how it is to be drunk, you begin by breaking the yuzu while it is still wrapped in its paper. You then add boiling water and carry out repeated infusions. While it is possible to use a kyusu teapot, that would result in the best flavors only emerging from around the fifth brew. To fully draw out the flavor from the very first brew, the recommended technique is to add hot water and put it back on the heat to bring it to the boil once more.
The piping hot Ise Xiaoqinggan has a darker color than normal black tea. Yoneda adds more water to the pot and puts it back on the heat to boil once more. While conventional wisdom in the world of Japanese tea is to allow the water to cool to prevent astringency, she adopts the opposite approach here. Despite this, the brew has no hint of astringency and is truly delicious.
“While I do love Japanese sencha as well, I feel like it’s very difficult for beginners to get the temperature just right. In that respect, fermented teas have a much lower barrier to entry, as it were, in that you can simply use boiling water to brew them. That’s one of the key reasons behind my desire to spread the gospel of fermented teas. I saw how easy they are to make when I watched them brew tea in Taiwan using freshly boiled water.”
All three types of tea she served are the result of the influence of Taiwanese and Chinese culture on Yoneda’s philosophy.
“I hate jumping on the bandwagon just because something is enjoying a boom in popularity,” declares Yoneda. She believes it’s no fun following in someone else’s footsteps, trying to create a weaker version of what’s already out there. As we finish the last of our tea, Yoneda sums up her philosophy in a few powerful words.
“I genuinely believe that tea has the power to connect all things and bring change to Japan.”
This unwavering belief provides Yoneda with the strength she needs to cultivate and brew tea. Having witnessed first-hand the cultural richness of Taiwanese and Chinese teatimes, she is committed to creating tea that can provide its drinkers and brewers with an experience of similar value. It is that commitment and that practicality that gives her words such persuasiveness.
Yoneda tells me that one of the effects of Ise Xiaoqinggan is that it warms the body.
I don’t know whether it is from the tea or Yoneda’s passionate words, but my body is warmed from its very core, and my spirit is fulfilled by the unforgettable time we have spent together.
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. jikonka.com instagram.com/jikonka_seki
Photo: Kazumasa Harada Edit & Text (originally in Japanese): Yoshiki Tatezaki