Interview with Ippodo Tea Shop: Enriching  body and mind with tea
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Interview with Ippodo Tea Shop: Enriching body and mind with tea

Text: Minori Mukaida
Photo: Ariko Inaoka

Honke Owariya serves green tea from Ippodo Teahouse. Their tea is the first refreshment served to our patrons when they sit down at our restaurants. It’s a courtesy drink that allows them a moment to refresh themselves before their soba meal. This custom has been enjoyed by Kyoto locals and visitors alike for many years. We talk to Ippodo-san about our long collaboration, the history of Ippodo, and why he decided to market his tea overseas.

Once you pass through the noren curtains of the flagship store, employees greet you with a pleasant smile while efficiently doing their tasks. Located in an historic building, the traditional space with its old teapots and calligraphic tea menu nevertheless has a mysteriously modern atmosphere. Uniquely photogenic, it’s no wonder that locals and foreign travelers make the effort to visit.

When you look abroad, it feels that Ippodo is synonymous with Japanese tea. When did you begin cultivating tea enthusiasm overseas?

(Mr. Shoichi Watanabe, President of the company) “We began around 2005. Our employees study English enthusiastically so they can travel overseas for brewing classes when such instruction is requested.

(Takashi Watanabe, chairman) “We did something like a caravan. We pack our luggage carefully (we put our teapots in carry-on to make sure they do not break en route), and upon arriving, give our lectures, brew tea, and drink it with students, staying a few nights at four locations: Paris, Colmar, Cologne, and Rome. The challenge is deciding how to serve delicious tea to 200 participants. I’m always considering ways to improve the course, learning via trial and error all the time.

(Mr. Watanabe, Mrs. Watanabe) “I try to come up with ways to spark interest in tea, ways to explain what “tea” is without having to resort to talking about Japan– rather I talk about what tea means to the world.

(Mr. Shoichi) “In 2013, we opened a shop in New York City, and that has made our philosophy a bit easier to convey.”

Since the pandemic began, we’ve been exploring how Owariya can become synonymous with soba like Ippodo is with tea. It’s been a very difficult period for many businesses, and some are making transitions. How about Ippodo?

(Mr. Shoichi) “While we have been affected by the pandemic, I’ve been hearing from our patrons that tea remains a joy for them. Even though they could totally live without it, what those people are seeking is the enriching “time” spent with a cup of tea. Annually, I take the opportunity to convey company policy, and this year I decided I’d like to contribute a more fulfilling life for the body and mind of our customers. We believe we can enrich lives with our tea, strengthening body and mind. Of course, we can’t help everyone and circumstances are unique throughout the world, but for people who would like a bit of color and dimension in their daily life, I really do believe our tea can gift them this small but important pleasure.

(Ariko Inaoka) “Kyoto is a city where you live with with a conscious connection not only to yourself, but to your community and ancestors as well. That’s what I find so attractive about this city. What does Ippodo think?”

(Mr. Shoichi) “If you want to last a long time in business, you cannot think only about yourself. You have to consider your producers, community, and clients.”

(Chairman) “I pray at the family altar every morning and evening. By the altar, there is a calendar book notated with the dates when our ancestors passed away (this is a common Buddhist practice). We have yet another book with the names and dates of deaths of people who have supported us. The support of so many over the years is like a foundation for us, and to these individuals we are extraordinarily grateful.

Everyone who contributed to this conversation:
Mr. Takashi Watanabe, Chairman of the Board of Directors
Representative Director Masakazu Watanabe
Managing Director Miyako Watanabe
取Director Yoshiko Watanabe