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One man’s cup of tea equals a career

Aficionado employed as 'nihoncha' instructor after becoming first French person to pass test

by Mami Maruko

“Irasshaimase, dozo! (Welcome to the shop. Please have a look around!)” The high-spirited, delightful voice of a tall Frenchman echoes in the Shinjuku branch of Maruyamaen, a long-established Japanese tea shop.

Weugue Florent, 29, a member of the sales staff of the shop located in the basement of Odakyu Ace near the west exit of Shinjuku Station, joined the shop in November after becoming the first French person ever to be certified as a “nihoncha” (Japanese tea) instructor by the Nihoncha Instructor Association in February 2009.

Florent uses his vast knowledge of nihoncha as an instructor to advise customers on precisely which types of tea to choose according to their preferences, making reference to its taste, where it’s grown, how it’s brewed and so on.

To win qualification as a nihoncha instructor, aspirants must pass a two-stage test that includes a written exam and the mastery of technical skills such as distinguishing between different types of tea leaves according to their appearance, texture and smell.

“The condition to pass the test is for one to have intermediate level of knowledge in nihoncha, skills in pouring nihoncha and instruction skills to teach about nihoncha at adult education centers and schools,” Florent says.

An “instructor” is the medium rank of tea experts certified by the Nihoncha Instructor Association, which began the certification in 2000. So far, 6,359 people have been qualified as beginner-level “nihoncha advisers,” while none have passed the more advanced-level test for “nihoncha master.”

According to the association, out of the 2,851 certified instructors, only two are from Europe — Florent and an other person from Russia. “Every year, around 800 people take the test, and only 25 percent to 30 percent pass. It is a highly competitive test even for Japanese, and I think it’s amazingly difficult for foreigners to pass,” a spokesman for the association said.

The Paris native arrived in Japan almost five years ago and now lives in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, with his Japanese wife whom he married two years ago.

Florent finds living in Japan both comfortable and convenient. “Everything goes smoothly over here,” he says, noting that one rarely wastes time at public offices when going through formalities. Although he notes that Japanese people seem to lack strong interest in politics compared with his home country, Florent says that basically he is completely at ease with the Japanese mentality.

“I don’t get homesick at all. On the other hand, I always miss Japan when I go home to Paris,” he says.

Florent first became interested in Japanese culture as a teenager through manga and “anime.” His interests extended to Japanese art and literature, which led him to enter the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) to study Japanese linguistics. Around the same time, he attended the Sorbonne to study art history, but before entering graduate school he decided to take a year off to go to Japan.

“Originally, I thought of staying just for a year,” says Florent, but after studying Japanese at a language school for a couple of months, he decided to remain in Japan and teach French at a language school. His teaching career lasted two years and then he got a job at a small Internet company that mainly made English and French Web sites for Japanese companies. While working there, he also did a part-time job once a week at a nihoncha cafe and started picking up the art of tea.

However, Florent didn’t find nihoncha tasty in his first encounters with the tea in Paris. He says he didn’t know the right steps to brew nihoncha in a “kyusu” teapot at the time, and he didn’t appreciate the taste so much either.

He later became enlightened in Japan when he first tasted a Kagoshima tea (which he thinks was the “Yutaka midori” variety) at an exhibit in Tokyo where popular products from Kagoshima were on sale. He says he was very much impressed with its unique flavor, as it was different from any nihoncha he had tasted before.

This experience became a trigger for him to start studying more about Japanese tea: about its history, the ceramics, the ceremony, and so forth. His curiosity piqued, he decided to get more proper, in-depth knowledge about nihoncha and decided to study for the nihoncha instructor qualification.

Florent says his studies for the qualification were not as difficult as one might imagine. “Nihoncha was something that I loved dearly, so I enjoyed it,” he says.

Florent, fluent in both writing and speaking Japanese, says he didn’t have any problems taking the correspondence course and learning with Japanese textbooks for the test, because he was used to reading Japanese at the INALCO classes, which emphasized reading and writing kanji rather than speaking Japanese.

He found studying for the chemical and medical side of the test difficult, however, because he doesn’t believe in the medical effects that nihoncha has on health. Nihoncha, he says, should be appreciated purely for its taste.

Now an expert, he enjoys pouring nihoncha at work and at home. He does it both professionally and beautifully, as he pours the very last droplet of nihoncha from the pot. “Nihoncha becomes ‘shibui’ (to have an astringent taste) from the second serving if there are any remains of tea in the kyusu,” says Florent, adding that the temperature of the water in which it is served changes the taste of the tea as well. “I serve my wife green tea, too, but she seems to like coffee more,” he says wryly.

“I like other kinds of tea, such as Chinese tea and Taiwanese tea, too, but nihoncha appeals to me most, as it has such a diversity compared to any other tea,” he says. For example, the variety of regions where the tea leaves are produced, the diverse ways in which they are grown and the tea manufacturing process “result in the profundity of its taste,” he says.

Florent says he would like to spread the charm of nihoncha more widely in Japan, and also introduce it to more people abroad. He currently writes a blog in French about nihoncha to spread the world of nihoncha in France, where it is yet not widely recognized. He says some of his readers have visited Maruyamaen on their trips to Japan after reading his blog. “I find that very exciting and rewarding,” he says.

Although his economic situation and time restrictions don’t allow him to learn “sado” (tea ceremony) or to realize his dream of visiting green tea fields all over the country, he is happy with what he has now. “It’s fascinating that my hobby is also my career,” Florent says.