• Serving as a compass for people to enjoy the world of tea - An interview with Kenji Nakano of 7T+ in Kawaramachi, Kyoto (1st half)


    Located in central Kyoto, Shijo Street is a road that runs through the vibrant commercial center of the city from east to west. It traverses famous Kyoto locales such as Karasuma, Kawaramachi, Gion, and Yasaka Shrine, and also serves as the route for the Yamaboko Junko parade in July, when it is overrun with people watching the procession of floats go by. However, even in quieter times, this famed shopping street is a must-see on any trip to the city, as it’s packed full of restaurants, shops, and hotels. Located just one street over from Shijo Street is the tea leaf specialty shop 7T+ (read “Seven T Plus”) that I visited on my recent trip to the area.

    Look for the neon sign that says “Cha” (tea) on Ayanokoji Street.

    The two sides of the shop that face the street are made entirely of glass, enabling passersby to see inside. I often noticed people stopping to peer through the windows, craning their necks in order to see what was behind the reflection.

    The shop, which originally opened in June 2021, is a tea leaf shop that carries a carefully curated selection of tea leaves from all over the world, with an emphasis on Japan, China, and Taiwan. The white tile countertop that serves as the shop’s centerpiece is covered with approximately 70 glass jars, which contain a variety of tea leaves. The shop also features a full menu befitting of its expertise in all things tea, with offerings such as Uji Matcha lattes and a gelato made with Assam black tea from Taiwan. Inside, shop owner Kenji Nakano and his staff have created a warm and relaxing atmosphere that serves customers from Japan and numerous other countries around the world.

    Kenji Nakano, the owner. On this particular day, his other staff were attending an event held at a department store in Osaka, leaving Nakano on his own to run the shop. “I’m more of a night person, so I’m not very photogenic in the morning,” he says with a laugh as he opens up shop and lets in the sun’s warming rays.

    A shop that can serve as a “compass” to guide people on their tea journey

    As I enter the shop, I am immediately struck by the flat, minimalistic design. In fact, some people might even say it’s on the verge of being too simple. However, the simplicity of the shop’s interior belies the nearly 80 types of tea leaves found on the table and within its walls, with no labels denoting the price or even the type of tea leaf to be found. Even the tea utensils lining the shelves are only marked with small blocks with numbers on them, ostensibly meant to indicate the prices.

    “Everything here is for sale, except me, of course,” Nakano offers with a smile. On the shelves behind him are some fairly rare-looking items, such as blocks of tea leaves that appear to be from China. “Naturally, there are some items here that aren’t usually for sale, but we’re willing to negotiate if the customer insists,” he says. As someone who went so far as to get certified as an official tea appraiser based on China’s national standards, Nakano has a surprisingly humorous side to him as well.

    “I think some people might feel like we’re kind of pretentious, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I simply thought our customers would enjoy it if we took a traditional tea shop and presented it in this type of manner. I’m planning to offer roasted sweet potatoes in the near future as well.” He continues in a light and airy tone, “There are potatoes that have been picked to help thin out the field, so they’re sold for just a few hundred yen per kilo but are still quite delicious.”

    However, Nakano has a reason for everything he does. He feels that “making things inconvenient” leads to more organic communication between his staff and customers.

    “I understand we may appear somewhat distant and unfriendly at times by obscuring things such as the price or explanations of our products since people don’t know what they are looking at. However, I got the idea for the shop’s design the first time I went to China in the year 2000 and tried to buy some tea. My feeling as I set foot in the shop was one of bewilderment. ‘What kind of tea do I like?’, ‘What’s your price range?’, ‘What grade of tea do you want?’ I was asked questions like these in a rapid-fire manner, but I really had no idea how to properly answer them. Since I was basically clueless, I asked them to show me everything, but they replied, ‘There are about 3,000 different varieties of tea, so that’s not really possible.’ That was my introduction to this world, and I feel customers who enter a tea leaf specialty shop like mine will probably feel the same way as I once did.”

    In addition to that background, Nakano says he hoped to create a shop that could serve as a “kind of compass” for people who were unfamiliar with the wide world of tea.

    “I’m often told by people that come in here, ‘Wow, you have a lot of tea,’ but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. I simply select some of the more distinctive types and tell people that they represent those 3,000 different varieties.”

    A gallery highlighting the range of tea, organized into seven different categories

    Based on his trip to China and having experienced the amazing variety of tea the world has to offer, Nakano desired to open a shop that could serve as a “compass” to help people find the type of tea that best suits their individual tastes. To do so, he came up with the concept of classifying tea into seven different categories, which also served as the inspiration for the shop’s name.

    Looking at the photo above and starting clockwise from the upper right, the teas are as follows: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, blue tea, dark tea (post-fermented tea, described as black in Chinese), and black tea (described as red in Chinese), with chagaicha (tea made from plants other than tea trees) in the center. The idea of classifying tea into seven groups is based on the six major varieties of tea that were first proposed in 1978 by Professor Chen Chuan of China’s Anhui Agricultural University. This sorting of tea into the six different colors mentioned above that arise from their method of manufacture helped “bring some semblance of order to the previously chaotic world of tea classification,” says Nakano.

    Furthermore, what we consider to be “types of tea” are constantly evolving, and at a pace that might surprise us.

    “It’s not necessarily wrong to say that green tea is unfermented while black tea is, but there is also withered green tea, and the first flush of some Darjeeling tea is not fully fermented. So in a sense, there are some descriptions and classifications of tea that are not keeping up with the reality of the situation. Over time, I think more people in Japan will want to try fermented tea, so I feel the idea of classifying tea into six major categories will be helpful when explaining things to them. I want everyone to know there are many different kinds of tea that go well beyond the usual green tea and black tea that they are familiar with. That’s the reason why I placed the dark tea in the fifth spot, between the blue tea and the black tea.”

    Due to this concept, all of the tea leaves at 7T+ are treated equally—none of them are selected based on the usual marketing terms like “carefully selected leaves” or from where the leaves were grown. I found this to be a rather new and unexpected experience. However, Nakano replied to my observation as follows.

    “If you take the example of wine, you first have to make choices such as red or white, rosé or orange, and then you get to the finer details such as the origin, grape variety, and manufacturing method. It’s the same with coffee, too; you choose a flavor that suits your tastes, and then you’re shown where it’s grown or how it’s made. In my opinion, I think the same thing holds true for pretty much anything that is both produced and consumed by people from around the world. It’s hard to choose a particular region for tea leaves when you aren’t even sure what kind of tea is out there in the first place. Take, for example, the region of Uji, where every farmer has a different approach, and they become more and more specialized as time goes on. So there are some things about tea that are increasingly removed from simply where the leaves are grown.”

    Here, Nakano is making me a cup of tea. Although many of the teas from China seemed quite interesting, he chose a Japanese green tea while sharing some fascinating tidbits about it with me.
    “This tea is from Shiiba, a village located deep within the mountains of Miyazaki, at an altitude of more than 1,000 meters. This is a very traditional, hand-picked, kamairicha (pan-roasted) tea. It also has a somewhat fermented aroma, kind of like what you find with oolong tea.”
    The glass tea utensils he uses are incredibly stylish, but as Nakano says, “I always tell people that if they have a cup—any kind of cup really—they can easily make tea at home.” Basically, you just need to put some tea leaves and hot water in a container and then put a lid over it.
    Nakano is anticipating this type of Japanese tea to receive more worldwide attention going forward, as a Japanese kamairicha won a gold medal in an international tea competition held in the UK last year.

    “I wouldn’t say that every tea we carry is reserved for tea enthusiasts. For example, we have a deep-steamed sencha from Sayama, which is what I would call a classic Japanese tea. In fact, probably one out of every three teas we carry is what could be considered a more normal kind of tea. I find that the things we think are truly delicious, even without knowing any kind of information or context behind them, are those that have a sense of familiarity. That is why I want to continue providing those types of teas as well. The other two-thirds are small-batch teas that are replaced with new products once they’ve sold out. I think one of the most appealing things about our shop is that we sell a variety of teas that are produced on such a small scale.”

    Nakano likens the atmosphere of his shop to that of an art gallery. Indeed, the shop shares the same minimalistic style of exhibiting its wares, and the “artists” are changed out frequently, leading to endless new discoveries. Yet at the same time, there are always the flavors that people already know, offering that comforting feeling of familiarity.

    “Yes, I am constantly mindful of maintaining that balance. As long as this shop stays in business, I will continue stocking teas such as Asamiya tea, which is a typical sencha. There is a strong tradition of blending tea varieties, and we have no intention of giving preferential treatment to single-origin teas. I feel that unless the market for standard teas is thriving, the industry as a whole will be unable to grow. Without the standard teas to draw the necessary attention from people, nothing else will be able to catch on either.”

    You can get a feel for his opinions on tea in each and every word, and I’m eager to hear even more about the topic. In the second half of this interview, we take a closer look at Nakano’s life, from his origins as a potter to his trips to China for more than 20 years after owning a Chinese restaurant.

    Kenji Nakano
    Originally born in Osaka, he was raised in Tokyo. He studied French while in university and spent some years living in France, where he was awakened to the wonders of Japanese culture. After training at an Iga ware pottery shop for seven years, he opened up his own shop in Shigaraki, Shiga, where he worked as a potter for another eight years. One day, a chance meeting with a chef from Shanghai led to him opening a Chinese restaurant named En-En in Demachiyanagi, Kyoto in 2004 (currently operating under different management). In June 2021, he opened 7T+ in Kawaramachi. He is a certified tea appraiser based on China’s national standards and also instructs people in the ways of Japanese tea.

    1-73 Shioyacho, Shimogyo, Kyoto
    Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (year-round)
    (Hours are subject to change. Check the shop’s Instagram for the latest info.)

    Photo by Tameki Oshiro
    Text (originally in Japanese) by Yoshiki Tatezaki