• New to The Conran Shop—the Daikanyama location features an Asian theme with its TEA BAR Chokeikyo (2nd half) - An interview with Shinichiro Nakahara and Shinya Sakurai "Representing Asia through Japanese tea"


    The Conran Shop’s Daikanyama location is the company’s first “locally edited” store. In conjunction with the store’s focus on Asia, TEA BAR Chokeikyo is a space that lets customers experience Asia’s tea culture in an entirely new way.

    For this interview, I sat down with Shinichiro Nakahara, president of The Conran Shop Japan, and Shinya Sakurai, president and CEO of the Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, who helped supervise Chokeikyo’s creation. We spoke in detail about this “TEA BAR” and its focus on Japanese teas, as well as the attention it has attracted both domestically and overseas.

    Shinichiro Nakahara (left) and Shinya Sakurai (right) sit in the gallery space located next to Chokeikyo.

    —— The Conran Shop is widely known for its selection of furniture and lifestyle goods, but with this location, you’ve also decided to add a dedicated tearoom in the form of TEA BAR Chokeikyo. Can you please talk about how this decision came about?

    Nakahara: We actually were the ones who approached Mr. Sakurai about creating a tearoom within the store. I think it was about a year and a half ago now. The Conran Shop will celebrate its 30th anniversary in Japan next year, but given that we are a company that hasn’t had much widespread exposure in Japan or Asia over the years, we decided that we should do something that ties everything together, especially now that we have established a foundation here in Japan. The space we took over previously featured a Japanese restaurant on the basement floor, and there was a tearoom there as well. I felt it was an ideal space for exploring how to live in a modern Japanese setting, so I immediately contacted Mr. Sakurai. I basically told him, “We have this kind of space available, but is there anything you can do with it?”

    —— So the tearoom that was already there helped give rise to your plan. How long have you two known each other?

    Sakurai: Since 2016, when I moved my shop, Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, from Nishi Azabu to Minami Aoyama. Mr. Nakahara was serving as the director of the company Landscape Products and came up with the design of the Minä Perhonen store, which was also located in the Spiral complex in Minami Aoyama, where I set up shop. I knew of him before that, but that’s when we really got to know each other. I heard he was named president of The Conran Shop, and he said that we should work together sometime when he came to visit my shop, so when I saw he was calling, I figured there might be something in motion. I feel like we both have an understanding of each other’s work, so I knew I could trust Mr. Nakahara and agreed to help with the project.

    —— What were your thoughts when you first saw the location?

    Sakurai: Originally, it was a tearoom, complete with tatami mats and a tea preparation area.

    Nakahara: When I spoke with Mr. Keiji Ashizawa, who was responsible for the store’s design, we decided to rethink the layout in order to make it more convenient from an operations standpoint.

    Sakurai: The Conran Shop is a company from England, which, of course, has a strong tradition of afternoon tea and tea culture in general. So given that as a starting point, I began thinking of ways for that culture to be adapted to Japan. I knew I wanted to use Japanese tea, for example, but it was a matter of how to present it. I didn’t want to focus too heavily on black tea, nor did I want to concentrate solely on Japanese tea either. So I started thinking about tea’s history throughout Asia, and how tea culture has been passed down over the years. Then it came down to deciding what kind of atmosphere I could create within the shop through the use of tea.

    —— Were there any particular keywords or themes you focused on while discussing the shop?

    Nakahara: One was “Asia.” We are a London-based company, so when deciding how we would serve the tea, rather than using a word like “chashitsu” (tearoom), we felt that the name TEA BAR would invoke something more along the lines of a tea or coffee bar, giving the concept a more modern feel. At first, I thought we should use tea leaves from a wide variety of regions, but Mr. Sakurai recommended we express that same essence solely through the use of Japanese tea leaves, which immediately made sense to me, given his background.

    The tea bar needed to use Japanese tea

    Sakurai: From the beginning, Mr. Nakahara asked what I thought about using Asia as a concept and how we could potentially serve as a representation of The Conran Shop’s efforts in the continent. He mentioned that there would be a tearoom, but rather than calling it as such, he wanted to call it a TEA BAR instead. I thought about the assignment from various angles: London, Asia, something that captured the feel of The Conran Shop, Mr. Ashizawa’s design, and Mr. Nakahara’s concept. I felt as if we could call upon inspiration from Asia and London while doing so from Japan. So, my plan was to use Japanese tea, but I thought it would also be interesting if I gave it somewhat of a European or Asian flair as well. I was hoping to find tea leaves that could evoke such feelings from people. That’s why I decided on mainly using fermented teas that are grown in Japan. Our green teas consist of tamaryokucha and gyokuro, while all of the others are fermented teas. Unlike the ones I serve in my own shop, I chose these based on Mr. Nakahara’s concept.

    —— Mr. Sakurai, I know you have visited various tea-growing regions throughout Japan, but was the potential of tea, including fermented tea, in Japan an idea you’ve been nurturing for a long time now?

    Sakurai: Yes, I believe so. During my travels across the country, I encountered people who were growing fermented teas such as white tea, oolong tea, black tea, and Pu-erh tea. I also realized that their quality was getting better each and every year, so it just seemed like the right choice. You can express all of the different elements we wanted to convey with Japanese tea. When you come here, it is almost like a textbook on Japanese tea, in that you can learn pretty much everything you want to know about Japanese fermented teas. That is only possible because the tea growers here have been getting better and better at their craft. Obviously, we could have sourced black tea from India, for example. However, I wanted to take advantage of the fact that we’re based in Japan in order to capture that Asian essence we were aiming for. That is why I felt we needed to use Japanese tea.

    —— What is the scale of these tea producers’ operations, and where are they located?

    Sakurai: They are small-scale outfits. As such, I don’t think many of them are very well-known. However, we took a look at what they’re doing and chose the ones that are really making an effort to try different things. The “Chokeikyo Blend” (as mentioned in the first half of this feature) is a tea that is brimming with originality and features a distinctive aroma. While researching Asian teas, it reminded me that many cultures here use spices with their food. I think that’s one thing we managed to incorporate quite well.

    —— The spices are ground and mixed with the tea right before your eyes. Was this a new kind of challenge for you?

    Sakurai: Actually, during Christmas dinner one year, Mr. Konno (of the wine bistro “uguisu” in Sangenjaya) requested a tea that would pair well with dessert, so I made a tea using hojicha, burdock root, and spices. That experience led to me developing this “Chokeikyo Blend.” I used a siphon for the brewing, which I hope will help give people a glimpse into what the future can hold for tea. I also feel that it’s interesting to be served tea in such a manner without using the traditional tea utensils that people are familiar with. So, although we have a teapot like a typical teahouse, we also use hot sand brewers, so I think there’s a rather eclectic mix of items at play.

    —— I feel like the siphon really brings out the tea’s aroma.

    Sakurai: Yes, it’s excellent for extracting the aroma and flavor. If you simply pour hot water over the tea as you would normally do, the tea tends to give off a rather gentle fragrance. I think that is also quite appealing in its own way, but I feel like the siphon really gives our tea a distinctly Asian feel.

    Nakahara: I agree; it’s much more mellow.

    Sakurai: You can really tell the difference in the flavor when you use a siphon.

    Creating a space people have never experienced before

    Nakahara: It’s an interesting process to just sit there and watch, too. I remember being fascinated by the utensils. I felt that using modern utensils, rather than the more traditional ones, was a great idea that would give our TEA BAR a unique kind of appeal. The smaller the space, the easier it is to mix the various scents and allow people to experience them. As such, I thought it was interesting that the focus of the shop would be on seasonings, spices, and fermented teas.

    —— Instead of concentrating on one country in particular, I feel like Chokeikyo features an excellent blend of flavors from all over. I imagine that people from overseas, as well as Japan, think the same thing.

    Nakahara: Mr. Sakurai is a consummate professional, so I figured he would detest it if we insisted that it be like “this or that.” I knew he wasn’t the type of person to just leave something in its most basic form.

    Sakurai: I was definitely feeling the pressure, so I’m happy that I was able to live up to the expectations that were placed upon me.

    Nakahara: Since we were doing this, I wanted to do it properly and create a space like nobody had ever seen before. Our goal was to take this entirely new type of experience for us and add it to our core foundation. This is new ground for us as an interior design shop, and I felt like collaborating with Mr. Sakurai and allowing him to do something new would be mutually beneficial. Of course, the whole endeavor has been quite challenging for us both.

    Sakurai: If it wasn’t for Mr. Nakahara, I doubt I ever would’ve come up with this kind of idea on my own.

    —— I was surprised to learn that tea can be made with the same utensils that are used to make Turkish coffee.

    Sakurai: Personally, I felt like waiting for the water to boil was a very Japanese thing to do. I believe the best time to brew the tea is the very moment that it boils.

    Nakahara: It really draws the other customers’ attention as well. You can see them thinking, “What are they doing?” I mean, it’s not really something that you can easily picture in your mind just by reading the menu.

    —— The Conran Shop operates under the concept of “Plain, Simple, Useful,” but what kind of feelings did you have when touching upon Sir Terence Conran’s philosophy, Mr. Sakurai?

    Sakurai: I actually paid a visit to The Conran Shop in Shinjuku when it first opened. I also looked at books to see how they showcased their products and created the various spaces, and then used that as an image for what I wanted to create. Ultimately, it was Mr. Nakahara who would be making the final edits, so I looked to him more than Terence-san, actually.

    Mr. Sakurai pours a cup of tamaryokucha.
    In regards to Mr. Sakurai, Mr. Nakahara says, “He is more than just a tea master; he’s someone who is an expert in the art of expression.”

    Nakahara: I know people often use the word “simple,” but simple can end up being quite complex. So, in that light, the space itself is quite minimalistic, but its actual content is filled with a variety of different elements, including a rich and complex history, the shop’s refined sense of etiquette, and also the utensils used to make the tea. One thing that Terence always adored was the various implements and paraphernalia that accompany luxury goods. He was a big fan of cigars and wine. When his home was put up for auction, I took a look at the items for sale, and I think about a third of the contents were solely various kinds of beverages. It is fascinating how various tastes, the ways of etiquette, and implements can all come together in service of a common purpose.

    —— It sounds like if Sir Conran had ever been exposed to Japanese tea culture, he would have been quite intrigued by it.

    Nakahara: Yes, most definitely. He might not be fond of sitting in seiza (a formal Japanese style of sitting in a kneeled position), but I think a chair like this would be perfect for him.

    —— How did the two of you feel while working together to create this space?

    Nakahara: Once it was finished and I got to experience it for myself, I felt as if the look of the space and the presentation of the tea matched flawlessly. Now we just need to hone the necessary skills to service such a place and work with the staff to create a proper sense of atmosphere for the room. Once we do that, I think this will be a place that we can be even more proud of. Due to the store’s location, we get many customers from overseas, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they respond as well. Furthermore, I hope our shop also helps inspire Japanese people to find new ways to enjoy tea. Ideally, we can help our customers learn more about Japanese tea producers as well as the techniques they utilize to cultivate their crops. I feel like The Conran Shop is a company that has influenced interior design shops throughout Japan. However, once Japan has imported something, we focus on continued specialization until the thing has become quite different from its origins. I think it’s really quite an intriguing aspect of our country. As such, I would like to see some changes occur within the tea industry here as a result of our efforts.

    Sakurai: For me personally, I think I’m finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Although, we are still only halfway on our journey, as this is just the first stage of what we eventually hope to achieve. As more people come to learn about this place, we’ll add to our menu and create even more ways to enjoy what we have done here. Our food menu is one such example, but we’d like to do an Asian-style afternoon tea service as well. We also mix cocktails that match Chokeikyo’s mood and atmosphere, and we plan to just continually expand things as we go. I am extremely excited about what the future has in store for us.

    Shinichiro Nakahara
    Born in Kagoshima Prefecture. He is the president of The Conran Shop Japan. He established the design firm Landscape Products in the year 2000, which is responsible for Playmountain—a shop featuring original furniture in Tokyo’s Shibuya district—and the cafe Tas Yard, among other endeavors. He is also an interior designer with a focus on furniture and collaborates on product design for various companies. His activities tend to center on the theme of creating beautiful scenery through the art of design.

    Shinya Sakurai
    Born in Nagano Prefecture. He is the president and CEO of Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, as well as the director of Association SABOE. After working at the Japanese restaurant Yakumo Saryo and as a manager at Higashiya, a wagashi (Japanese confectionary) shop, he set out on his own to open the Japanese tea specialty shop Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience in Tokyo’s Minami Aoyama neighborhood in 2014. He gives presentations both in Japan and overseas in order to create and pass on the traditions of tea to modern society, plan menus, and educate people on how to brew tea.

    HILLSIDE TERRACE Building F 1F/B1F, Sarugakucho 18−8, Shibuya, Tokyo
    Hours: 12:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. (last order 6:00 p.m.)
    Open year-round
    Phone: 03-6703-6710
    instagram.com/theconranshop.daikanyama (The Conran Shop, Daikanyama)

    Photo by Masayuki Shimizu
    Interview & Text (originally in Japanese) by Yoshiki Tatezaki