• Enjoying tea time along the Kamo River - An interview with Mantaro & Kei Kojima of Ikehan in Kyoto's Kiyomizu-Gojo district (1st half)


    To the west of the Kamo River—often considered a symbol of Kyoto—lies a smaller river known as the Takase River. First excavated during the Edo period in order to help facilitate the transport of goods through the city, it remains an important part of the local landscape despite no longer serving its original purpose. Today, most people know it as the small stream that runs alongside Kiyamachi Street in the city’s Ponto-cho entertainment district. If you head south down Kiyamachi Street, you can walk for nearly 20 minutes while taking in all sorts of shops, both new and old alike. Once you cross Gojo Street, you will see the tea caddy shop Kaikado, as well as the famous public bathhouse Sauna no Umeyu, and also a rather stylish restaurant that serves Middle Eastern cuisine. However, these attractions are just a few of the many changes that have kept the Kiyomizu-Gojo area vibrant and interesting in recent years.

    It is in this neighborhood that you will find the tearoom Ikehan, which has been recommended to me by countless tea enthusiasts. Although I knew at the time that the shop was by reservation only, it was three summers ago now that I first took a stroll through the area in order to get a glimpse of the place for myself. I had only seen some photos of the shop online, but once a squarish, black wooden building located between the Kamo and Takase rivers came into view, I prematurely concluded that I had reached my destination. There were large, majestic trees growing next to it and just as I was impressed by the tearoom’s splendor, I realized that I was actually looking at Enoki Daimyojin shrine instead.

    Fast forward to last June, when I just so happened to find myself in Kyoto while the bamboo artist Toru Hatsuta was holding an exhibition at Ikehan, and this time I was able to find the shop’s proper location without incident. I perused the gallery upstairs and enjoyed a cup of tea on the house’s first floor. While I was there, I managed to spend a brief, but enjoyable time with the shop’s owners, Mantaro Kojima and his wife, Kei, who made the tea for us.

    Finally, late last year, I was able to visit the shop once more and properly sit down with the young couple for a feature in CHAGOCORO.

    Ikehan lies along the Kamo River. Though just a short distance from the busy downtown district of Shijo Kawaramachi, the area offers a more relaxed slice of everyday life in Kyoto.
    The bamboo wall indicates you have come to the right place, while the indigo-colored shop curtain sways gently in the wind.

    Those who have never visited Ikehan before are likely unsure of what to expect (much like myself, who even mistook the shop’s location at first). While I imagine that is probably true about the pastime of enjoying tea in general, my initial feelings before entering Ikehan were like when you know you are interested in something, but are somehow reluctant to take that initial step.

    While there is no substitute for seeing something in person, hopefully, this article will at least give you an inkling of the atmosphere of this tranquil little tea space.

    90 minutes in the blink of an eye
    Immersing myself in the world of tea with the “Chaseki Course”

    As I mentioned, seating at Ikehan is by reservation only, but I imagine most people are curious about how such a tearoom operates.

    The shop takes reservations by email on the first day of every month for seats over the course of the following month (please refer to the shop details below for more information). The luxurious “Chaseki Course” (6,000 yen per person) lets a group of one to four people rent out the two-story house exclusively for a short period of time, and features three kinds of tea along with two types of accompanying sweets. You can also choose from a 7,000 yen per person “Tenshin Course” which includes some Chinese-style dumplings as well.

    That is the basic system for visiting the tearoom. I selected the “Chaseki Course” for my experience, which I’ll try to describe below.

    Once I take my seat, I am presented with 24 different varieties of tea leaves arranged in front of me.

    “There are some tea leaves that actually change with the seasons, but I like to explain the leaves to people while they are actually looking at them and then let them choose their three favorites,” says Kei as she presents the tea leaves to me.

    Much to my relief, she continues, “We have many different kinds of tea available, so I’ll explain them one by one.”

    “First off, I start by asking people if they prefer Japanese, Taiwanese, or Chinese tea, or if they want to try a combination of them. I also ask about their individual preferences, such as if they would like to compare three completely different kinds of tea with their own unique flavors and characteristics, or if they want to savor the minute differences between similar teas that can arise from their variety or origin.”

    She presents me with 12 types of Japanese tea and 12 teas from Taiwan and China. Spread out evenly before me is a wide variety of tea leaves, consisting of green, black, oolong, white, yellow, and dark teas. Kei speaks to the reason for offering such a rich variety as follows.

    “Whether it’s Japanese green tea, Indian black tea, Fujian oolong tea, or pu’er tea from Yunnan, they all originally come from the same tea plant. However, I feel many shops that serve such teas tend to be overly strict about separating them into different classifications. For example, if people hear that a shop specializes in Japanese teas, they probably have an image of a Japanese-style atmosphere that helps draw out the tea’s sweetness. Or if they wish to drink oolong tea, they may feel the need to visit a dedicated tearoom or Chinese tea shop in a place like Chinatown in order to do so. Similarly, for black tea, they tend to have a more Western image in mind, such as an afternoon tea service. I believe this is natural since, historically speaking, tea has always been a reflection of the culture where it is produced and consumed, but I also feel like that kind of strict categorization, one that takes place on an almost subconscious level, is particularly prevalent in Japan. As a result, there are very few shops here where you can enjoy various teas without being forced to acknowledge such distinctions. This is despite the fact that Japanese tea goes well beyond just sencha, as there is also pan-roasted green tea originally from China, and there has been a recent increase in fermented teas, including white, oolong, and black teas. Although they are still relatively small-scale operations, there are many dedicated tea farmers here who are very meticulous about their crops. Similarly, I feel like Japanese people tend to mainly associate oolong tea with Taiwan and China, but those regions produce many delicious green and black teas as well. Therefore, it is my hope that people learn about teas from different regions and enjoy them for what they are, rather than simply focusing on where they came from.”

    Her explanation makes perfect sense when I see the varieties laid out equally in front of me. It does make it hard to choose, although that is definitely a good problem to have. Upon telling Kei of my dilemma, she sets out to describe each of the tea leaves in turn. Listening to her explanations, I find myself amazed by the sheer variety of tea that exists in the world.

    I selected these three flavors. From right to left: a Yuyadani Valley zairai (meaning “native,” it denotes an old tea tree of no particular tea cultivar) wild white tea from Kyoto, a hand-rolled sencha from old trees also from Kyoto, and a Kanaya Midori mature black tea from Kumamoto. Although I felt the allure of teas from Taiwan and China, I found myself especially interested in the Japanese tea leaves.

    Once I make my decision, Mantaro sets out the tea utensils and begins brewing my first cup. The first two teas are brewed for you on the first floor, and then you can take your third tea up to the second floor and brew it yourself while taking in the tranquil surroundings.

    The first tea poured for me is a zairai sencha hand-rolled from old trees grown in the Yuyadani Valley located in Ujitawara, Kyoto. The Yuyadani Valley region is where Soen Nagatani, the person who is said to have originated the method for making steamed green tea, was born and also grew his tea. Even today, there are tea plants growing in fields that have existed since the Edo period.

    “This is a steamed Japanese green tea. It is lightly steamed, meaning the tea leaves retain their shape and you can get about five cups’ worth from them,” explains Mantaro as he deftly finishes brewing my tea.

    As I take in the atmosphere, I feel as if I could easily forget that I’m here to conduct an interview and simply enjoy the moment without exchanging so much as a word. Still, I am interested in the teapots, cups, and other assorted utensils he is using, so I find myself asking more questions.

    “The pot is made by Yutaro Yamada in Tokoname. This chakai (tea pitcher) is actually quite old, while the teacup was made in Dehua, China, a province whose porcelain rivals that of Jingdezhen.”

    I run my fingers over the various utensils while taking in the tea’s temperature, flavor, and aroma. My second tea, the hand-rolled sencha made from older trees, gives off a rich, sweet scent that is confirmed by my very first sip. Given that it is a zairai (native) variety, you get a deep, natural sweetness that is quite unlike that of tea plants that have been augmented by fertilizer. Even after I drink the last drop of my tea, there is a sweet, roasted aroma that lingers behind in the cup.

    My second tea, the Yuyadani zairai wild white tea, is also a tea from the Yuyadani Valley in Uji.

    Time seems to flow freely as I move on to my second cup. This white tea made from the first crop of Spring 2022 was left to mature for more than a year, allowing its greenness to mellow somewhat so that you can enjoy an intoxicating whiff of its delicate aroma. I continue my conversation with Mantaro on topics such as whether he is a regular tea drinker himself, and about where he has gone on vacation recently. I get the feeling that the content of such topics is very likely to change depending on who is asking him and when they are doing so. Indeed, it truly feels like a proper tea time that is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences embodied by the old Japanese saying that says we should treasure every moment, because it will never come again.

    Overall, I’d say the shop’s atmosphere could be described as tranquil or perhaps even solemn. One thing it is not, however, is rigid or overly formal. Mantaro looks calm, almost happy, as he works with the utensils laid out in front of him. In fact, even the sounds of him brewing the tea juxtaposed with those of people going about their lives in the background make it feel like everything is exactly how it is meant to be.

    Mantaro Kojima

    For my third tea, I move upstairs to the second floor and am given a Kanaya Midori mature black tea. In what could easily be considered the climax of the Ikehan experience, I ascend to the second floor to sit in front of the expansive picture window overlooking the Kamo River. The awe-inspiring surroundings force me to remember that I am here not just to enjoy some delicious tea but for a proper magazine feature as well, for I feel that if I didn’t, I might find myself slipping into a state of uninhibited relaxation and serenity…

    In the second half of this feature, I speak with Mantaro and Kei about their respective backgrounds as well as the city of Kyoto itself.

    Mantaro Kojima
    He was born into the family behind Ikerindoh Hanhichi and Kanjoen Ikemon, who operated a Seto ceramic ware kiln in Aichi prefecture. Upon entering university, he moved to Kyoto and opened the Kamohan hotel on the Kamo River in 2013. He then opened the tearoom Ikehan right next door in 2020.

    Kei Kojima
    Originally born in Tokyo, she was raised in Shizuoka. She later lived in Taiwan for approximately five years, immersed in the local tea culture and gaining experience working at a local tea house. In 2021, she married Mantaro Kojima, and they now serve tea together at Ikehan.

    Tearoom Ikehan
    143-11 Toichicho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
    Open Saturday through Tuesday
    Spring/Summer (Mar – Oct) 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (last entry)
    Autumn/Winter (Nov – Feb) 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. (last entry)
    Please go to ikehan.jp/yoyaku for more details regarding reservations.
    The shop’s opening hours are subject to change due to special exhibitions or other events, so please check the shop’s Instagram page for the latest information.

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