• Sharing the teas of the world from the cultural center of Kyoto - An interview with Kenji Nakano of 7T+ in Kawaramachi, Kyoto (2nd half)


    Shijo Street in Kyoto is constantly alive with activity. The area located between Karasuma and Kawaramachi is especially bustling, featuring a steady mix of locals and tourists from around the world. Despite Kyoto’s bitterly cold winters, the street remains full of energy even when the crowds aren’t nearly as large.

    Located one street down from Shijo Street is Ayanokoji Street, which is more of a small, one-way alley. It is there that you will find the tea leaf specialty shop 7T+. True to owner Kenji Nakano’s word, the shop “looks better at night” as the neon sign that says “Cha” (tea) illuminates the scene for passersby to get a captivating glimpse into the shop before being lured through its doors.

    From Francophile to potter, to opening his own Chinese restaurant

    Near the end of business hours, I spoke with Nakano again after the number of customers began to thin out as the shop’s closing time drew near. As mentioned in the first half of this interview, 7T+ classifies tea into seven categories, which are, in turn, based on China’s six major classifications, thereby providing customers with something of a starting point into the complex world of tea. Nakano holds an official certification as an expert Chinese tea appraiser who is well-versed in their quality and manufacturing methods. He is also quite knowledgeable about a wide range of Japanese teas as well. He states, “I think that in order to give tea more mainstream appeal, it is important to place less emphasis on where the tea is from, instead of just fixating on Japan and China, for example.” Instead, he says people should think about what gives tea its variety and depth. Out of curiosity, I ask Nakano about his rather interesting background.

    “Originally, I studied French while I was at university. When most people here think of a foreign country, the United States is usually the first one that comes to mind, but I wanted to be different. I was also quite captivated by the colorful sauces found in French cuisine, so I felt like France was an important center of culture. I went there and traveled around to various places, so I guess you could say I was a bit of a ‘Francophile,’ but it was about that time that I realized I didn’t know all that much about my Japanese roots, actually. You know, things like politics, or what my favorite poem in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu was. It was often quite embarrassing that I didn’t have an answer to such questions, so I told myself that I needed to do something about it. In so doing, I realized that the more I learned about certain topics in Japan, the more interested I became in them. I’m not sure exactly how, but I thought it’d be nice if I could earn a living by making pottery in some remote location. So I simply found a pottery maker that made Iga ware pottery in Mie Prefecture and learned the trade from them. It took seven years until I set out on my own, and once I did, I worked as a potter in nearby Shigaraki in Shiga Prefecture for another eight years.”

    Indeed, Nakano was not wanting for change in his 20s and 30s. However, he realized that he still had that interest in things such as color, aroma, and taste, as seen by his interest in French sauces. Nakano explains, “You can’t make a proper teacup unless you actually try using it for yourself first.” And it was in doing so that Nakano began immersing himself in the world of tea. The Asamiya district in Shigaraki, Shiga, is famous for its tea, and Nakano’s familiarity with its tea culture from his time spent there is on full display in 7T+’s current selection.

    However, there was even more change to come in Nakano’s life. In 2004, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Demachiyanagi, Kyoto. This area is northeast of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and is known for being the location of Shimogamo Shrine.

    “There was a Chinese restaurant I used to frequent on my way home from my workshop in Shigaraki that served delicious food. I ended up becoming friends with a chef from Shanghai and when he decided to go independent, we opened up a restaurant together. Both of us really liked the wide-open feeling of Demachiyanagi, so we chose it as the location. We served over twenty kinds of Chinese tea, which meant I had to travel to China numerous times over the 17 years from 2004 until I handed over the restaurant to new management.”

    I asked if the sweat jacket with China emblazoned across the front was specifically chosen for the purposes of this interview, to which Nakano replied, “No, these are my regular work clothes!” I ask him for another cup, and this time he prepares me a cup of Chinese tea.
    A cup of Taoren Xiang, a type of Phoenix Dancong oolong tea that is grown on Fenghuang Mountain in Guangdong Province. The word Dancong means “one single tree,” and this particular variety is a green tea (oolong tea) made only from the leaves of a single large tree that is approximately 130 years old.
    “This method highlights the individuality and potential of a single tree and really brings out its best features. The yield begins to decrease as the tree continues to age, but it also means that the flavor contained within the leaves becomes more and more concentrated and can be sold for even higher prices. Therefore, the people there work diligently to preserve the old trees that are still healthy. However, these trees can only be found in this particular region of Guangdong. The fermentation and roasting techniques are also extremely refined, and therefore, the tea commands higher prices. And that is why you get such a luxurious flavor concentrated within a single cup.”
    As you may have guessed from the name, Momojinka tea offers a surprisingly refreshing taste that is accented by the sweet scent of peaches and apricots. “Once you reach the fifth round of roasting, the aroma begins to mellow, and the tea is at its most flavorful.”

    An important sense of value learned in China
    The idea of tea leaves that increase in value, and customers who seek out the most expensive leaves

    “One of the things I like best about Chinese tea is that they have conducted thorough research on the benefits of aging the tea leaves and have created a style of tea drinking and its accompanying culture that believes this style of tea is best served aged. This idea that ‘even if these tea leaves don’t sell this year, they’ll taste even better next year,’ is a completely different mindset when compared to Japan’s thoughts on tea. Naturally, it’s not a perfect comparison, as there are different conditions to take into account, such as farming methods. I think another large difference between our two societies is the value we place on money. In China, it is considered rude to recommend something that is considerably cheap to another person. They can get really upset, and might even think the other person is intentionally making fun of them.”

    In Japan, businesses embrace the concept of narrow margins and high turnover, where offering high-quality products at low prices is considered a good thing. In fact, it may even be thought of as a kind of virtue here. When it comes to running a profitable business and making money, however, it’s not really something people can express out in the open unless they also adopt an attitude of humility first.

    “In China, the act of making money is considered to be a kind of virtue in and of itself. It is thought of in that way since it is viewed as the “compensation” for bringing someone else happiness. The people think of it in those terms, so they know that if it will be profitable, they are sure to put extra effort into whatever they’re doing. In terms of the tea industry, the continued specialization combined with the rising quality means it has become a business built on the foundation of making money. That is one area I feel Japan needs to pay more attention to. Whenever I take a look at the state of the tea industry here in Japan, I often feel like we’ve lowered our own sense of the product’s value by selling it too cheaply. It’s sad that we feel lowering the prices to such an extent is an important part of the service we provide, and I think many businesses are starting to feel the negative effects of such decisions.”

    Witnessing a tea “paradise” in China
    The outdoor teahouses of Sichuan Province

    Another cherished memory of Nakano’s from his time in China is how tea is commonly enjoyed throughout Sichuan Province.

    “Sichuan is known as being the first place in human history to successfully plant and cultivate tea. As a result of such a long tradition, the province enjoys the most teahouses per capita in all of China. There are outdoor teahouses everywhere, and pretty much any large park you visit will have several hundred bamboo chairs for you to sit and enjoy your tea. You simply order a cup of tea, and then you can spend the entire day doing whatever you feel like. People play cards or mahjong, have lunch, do their homework, or even get some work done away from the office while relaxing in the park. This small sliver of paradise can be found in parks all over the province. These teahouses really give you a glimpse into the daily lives of Sichuan’s residents. Tea is constantly bringing people together, and even when they’re sitting there drinking it, they’re usually talking about something else entirely. Seeing that makes me think, ‘This is how tea is supposed to be enjoyed.’ I feel like my time there left a deep impression on me. That was my first experience with the scene, and I would love to see such a culture take root in Japan as well.”

    Nakano shared a variety of interesting Chinese teas with me. While Jiangxi Province is known for producing high-quality tea, it isn’t considered a particularly famous region, so they came up with the idea of wrapping some black tea in string in order to be given as a gift. He says that the colorful strings must be untied in the proper order, which is another aspect conveyed with giving the gift. It is truly remarkable how much thought they put into it.
    Hot water is poured over the ring-shaped tea leaves that were depicted in the upper part of the top photo in the first half of this interview. Known as Nu Er Huan, meaning “girl’s ring,” it is a jasmine tea that is made by hand forming the buds into little silver rings. Nakano says, “Chinese tea places emphasis on the appearance of the tea leaves, whether they are dried or already used even.” Clearly, they are constantly thinking up inventive ways to market their products.

    “In China, there are the standard teas that everybody drinks, but there are also various trends that come and go, and given the scale of the market, teas can fall in and out of fashion rather quickly. Of course, everything I learned as a certified tea appraiser is important, but I feel that the rapid advancements in China’s tea scene make it so the things you learn in textbooks are unable to keep pace with the changes. I feel like nothing beats actually being there.”

    Nakano says that although he tends to get bored quite easily, tea is one thing he never tires of. One tea that particularly impressed him recently was a black tea from Scotland. Somewhat surprised by his statement, I ask him if they actually grow tea in Scotland.

    “They are a country known for making whisky, so they have a profound respect for the land and nature. Add that to the fact that the UK features the third-highest tea consumption per capita in the world, and there is a strong desire among its people to drink homegrown tea. They have even formed an organization known as Tea Scotland, and put considerable effort into preventing the necessary heat for growing tea from escaping through the use of greenhouses, mulch, and other means, but they’re not really making any money from it. It’s more about their dream and passion for tea. You can feel the affection in their efforts. As a result, the first lot costs more than 20,000 yen per 100 grams. That doesn’t include taxes or shipping either. The pricing is already in the realm of something to be given as a special gift, but I felt like I had to buy some in order to share in that moment I was experiencing.”

    As I continue talking with Nakano, I realize just how many different aspects there are to tea. It’s good if the tea turns a profit, but it’s also okay if it doesn’t. I surmise that the countless variations of tea is one of the reasons why he never grows weary of it, but memorable encounters such as the ones he describes likely play no small part in maintaining his interest as well.

    In this photo, Nakano holds one of his favorite tea utensils. He likes to use the bowl from a famous gyudon (beef bowl) chain as a matcha bowl. “They really put a lot of thought into this bowl. The edge is about 5mm thick, allowing it to easily fit in your mouth when drinking the broth. It’s Arita ware porcelain with gosu, gold leaf, and red paint.”

    Lastly, he makes me a matcha latte. When compared to the teas I have tasted and the stories I have heard, a matcha latte may seem a bit mainstream, but its presence on the cafe’s menu serves as another “entry point” to 7T+.

    You can tell Nakano takes pride in his selection of teas, as you are able to choose from a variety of different Uji-produced matcha teas, including Okumidori, Houshun, Kirari 31, Ujihikari, and Asahi. He also insists on only using organic Italian oat milk for my latte made with Houshun and Ujihikari teas. The former is somewhat more refreshing and is a much more drinkable tea, while the latter is more astringent and feels like an “authentic” matcha.

    “I was quite surprised to find that matcha fans from Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries researched all kinds of details regarding the teas, such as the varieties, areas of production, and harvesting methods. It’s safe to say that most Japanese people don’t know those things, but there are Uji matcha farmers that are actually pretty famous overseas.”

    The rebirth of culture from an overview of tea

    “I have sampled a wide variety of Chinese teas, and I have also lived near Asamiya. Plus, I am now located in Kyoto, which is kind of the center of tea culture here. My experience working as a potter also taught me the importance of people who produce things. As a result—and I realize this is me singing my own praises a bit—I think I’m in a rather unique position where I can see a pretty clear picture of the overall Japanese tea scene. Kyoto is located between Kyushu, Shikoku, Shizuoka, and numerous other cities, and is frequently visited by tea masters from China and Taiwan as well. It is a city with a Tokyo-like level of population density when it comes to people who are knowledgeable about tea. I am not from Kyoto originally, but by opening this shop, I hope to revitalize and expand the reach of Japan’s tea culture from here.”

    Over the course of our conversation, Nakano was quite open about those thoughts that he usually keeps to himself. While working to achieve his goals, he says he must always remember that “First, we need to create additional spaces where people can enjoy drinking tea, so that they form more of an attachment to it.” We were so engrossed in our discussion that we spoke well past the shop’s closing time, but for the time I spent there, I was able to get a definite feel for the tea experience that Nakano cherishes so deeply.

    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