• Enjoying tea time along the Kamo River - An interview with Mantaro & Kei Kojima of Ikehan in Kyoto's Kiyomizu-Gojo district (2nd half)


    If you head west after crossing the Gojo Ohashi Bridge in Kyoto and walk along the Kamo River, you will come across the tearoom Ikehan. The shop is run by Mantaro Kojima and his wife Kei, and together, they serve a luxurious tea course to just a single group of customers at a time.

    The roughly 90-minute course starts with two different kinds of tea brewed for you at your table on the first floor of the house. I leisurely drink four to five cups of each one before heading upstairs and receiving my third and final tea for the day.

    Kei says, “We have created the second floor as a space where our guests are able to simply sit back and relax while drinking tea by themselves. First, we demonstrate how to make the initial cup, and then we let the customers take over from there. It is our wish that people be allowed to enjoy the tea at their leisure.”

    As Kei explains the system to me, I am brought to a room about ten tatami mats in size that features a large picture window overlooking the Kamo River. With the peaceful river flowing gently in the background, you can watch the minutes melt away as the sun passes through the sky above.

    The scenic view unfolds before you at the perfect height for sitting in seiza (a formal Japanese style of sitting in a kneeled position). From this viewpoint, you are able to witness a slice of everyday life in Kyoto, including cars passing by and people taking a stroll or jogging along the riverbank.
    True to the river’s namesake, a group of ducks are seen gliding across the water as it reflects the morning sun.

    Grown by a tea farmer in Kumamoto, Kanaya Midori mature black tea is an aged tea, with leaves as old as eight years from the time they were first processed. This black tea contains a rich sweetness that might even make you suspect that sugar was added to it, as the aging process gives the tea a mellow, well-rounded flavor. According to Kei, the tea features a rather unique aroma that is “reminiscent of Japanese plums.”

    As children, Mantaro and Kei were both raised in an environment where drinking tea was a regular part of their daily lives.

    Mantaro was born into the family behind the brands Ikerindoh Hanshichi and Kanjoen Ikemon, which operated a Seto ceramic ware kiln in Aichi prefecture. The name was abbreviated to “Ikehan,” and the first generation is said to have arisen in the mid-Edo period. He explains to me that his family was known for its blue and white porcelain toilets during the Meiji period, as well as flower vases that were shown at the Paris World Exposition. The kiln closed up shop during the Showa period, but Mantaro took over the Ikehan name for his business. Back then, Ikehan also produced various utensils to be used for tea ceremonies, of which he had various examples in his house and also in storage.

    “Naturally, I am still learning about tea to this day, but the basis of what I know comes from what I learned at home,” says Mantaro.

    “Japanese people have invented various tools to brew tea. Although with some of them, you might not know what their purpose is at first, such as a lid holder for the kettle when making matcha, or a robuchi (hearth frame). I feel like such items were a source of pride for the pottery makers in Seto, in that they could craft them using ceramics. Back when I was little, I wanted to learn how to use these tea utensils that my ancestors had created, so I would watch the adults use them and try to mimic their movements in order to get a feel for them myself. Thinking back on my time as a child, I feel like a tearoom was a special place that gave me an indescribable feeling of comfort.”

    Meanwhile, Kei was originally born in Tokyo and spent her formative years in Shizuoka. According to Mantaro, she grew up in a family that drank even more tea than his did.

    “We had a custom of drinking tea every morning, so the first thing I did upon waking up was to brew a pot of tea for the entire family. Once I moved out of the house and started living on my own, it was just something that felt natural to continue doing,” explains Kei.

    Later, from about the age of 27, she lived in Taipei, Taiwan, for five years.

    “I consider Taipei to be my home away from home. Over the course of those five years, I met all kinds of people and made many new discoveries, and they all had a profound effect on me. Of them, I feel like my introduction to Taiwanese tea was a major turning point in my life.
    Taiwan is, of course, famous for varieties such as high-mountain tea, Dong Ding oolong tea, and Dongfang Meiren tea, but they are all made in the same way as oolong tea. Yet, Taiwan also produces black, white, and green teas as well. One feature of Chinese and Taiwanese teas is that even though they come from the same tea plant, they can vary widely in terms of flavor and aroma.
    You can think of tea as having opposite and coexisting effects. For example, there is the ‘yin,’ such as expelling heat from the body, and also the ‘yang,’ which can also be used to warm the body instead. So, I enjoyed being able to choose what to drink depending on my body’s condition at the time. As a result, I started studying tea on my own so that I could select from the many teas out there that would match my mood or circumstances at any given moment.
    Once I gained a better understanding of tea leaves, I wanted to learn more about tea brewing techniques, where the tea plants were grown, and how different types of tea leaves interacted with the utensils. After a while, I found that I had gained an even deeper appreciation of tea than before.”

    Kei Kojima

    While studying to learn more about tea, Kei also worked as a brewer at a tea house in Taiwan. It was there that she first met Mantaro, who was visiting the country on a tour of its tea-producing regions, and she served as his Chinese interpreter.

    “While I was living in Taiwan, I thought about opening up a tea shop in Tokyo, since it was a city I was familiar with. It was through meeting my husband, however, that I ended up moving to Kyoto instead, which I was completely clueless about. Because I knew next to nothing about the city, I simply figured I’d like to create a tea space that I personally found to be enjoyable. Although, once I had lived in Kyoto for several years, I gained an understanding of the city, and we’re fortunate that Ikehan has become a place that is visited by a wide variety of customers, so I feel like opening our shop in Kyoto was the right choice. People come to Kyoto from all over the country in order to enjoy tea, and the city features numerous tea shops that have somewhat unique business models too. I feel like that is one of the reasons that we were so readily accepted here.”

    Mantaro continues his wife’s thought.

    “I’m not originally from Kyoto either, but I went to university here and then moved away for work. Once I returned after a long absence, I became reacquainted with the city’s myriad charms. I have a different perspective now than I did while I was a student, and I find that I especially cherish this view of the Kamo River that I once took for granted when I lived here. I knew I had to open a shop along this beautiful river, and I wanted people from all walks of life to be able to spend a relaxing moment in our shop. Kyoto is a city where people are quite close to one another, so it’s easy to seek out advice and feel comfortable. It’s also a good place to network with other like-minded individuals.”

    The vase contains an arrangement of Japanese allspice, a plant also known as wintersweet that features waxy, sweet-smelling flowers that bloom in the winter. Mantaro picks some of the flowers, places them in our teacups, and then pours hot water over them.

    Mantaro pours me a cup of tea made with flowers from a Japanese allspice tree. I find that simply pouring hot water over the mixture gives off an unexpected color and surprisingly sweet aroma. “The buds tend to give off a stronger scent. Although the petals have already opened on this one, it still has a rather powerful aroma,” remarks Mantaro. Picking up that thought, Kei adds, “Not too long ago, people also used osmanthus flowers, and they would use peach blossoms in spring. People are delighted that flowers can give off such a fragrant aroma just by adding hot water to them.”

    It is enough to make you slightly overwhelmed by the aesthetics of it all. When I tell him as much, Mantaro simply replies, “What we do is not necessarily based on the concept of aesthetics.”

    “I believe the essence of our work is to help preserve things that we want to leave for the sake of future generations.”

    Kei adds, “One common Japanese aesthetic is that of wabi-sabi, but when I was younger, I didn’t really understand the beauty of that which was aged, decayed, or somehow damaged.”

    “My husband has collected antiques since he was a student, but I never thought of using pottery fragments or old fabric as part of the arrangement for a tea ceremony. I suppose I simply considered it more respectful to use new utensils instead. However, there can be a certain beauty in seeing tea stains on an old piece of cloth, or you may find yourself drawn to a teacup that has had its cracks filled in with gold. Similarly, it can be endearing to use an old iron kettle that has been properly restored. As I learned more about tea culture, I started to appreciate such charms even more. This includes things like wabi-sabi, but also the sense of sheer elegance that was displayed by the imperial court, and the various customs that are related to the changing of the seasons. I feel like all of those things are alive and well in Kyoto. Therefore, it is my hope that we can continue to hand them down to future generations.”

    Given Kyoto’s rich history and culture, it is easy to see the lessons these two have learned from the city since their youth, and how they have applied them to creating their own unique tea space here. As I head home, I begin making plans for next time—how I might try some Taiwanese tea, or maybe just relax and spend a leisurely time enjoying a cup of tea on the second floor—the thoughts of which already have me eagerly awaiting my return visit.

    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