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Reading relaxation in tea leaves

by David Chester

Tokyo is a city of surprises. Take a walk down any side street, and you can be sure you’ll find an interesting shop or restaurant. Such is the case with Mother Leaf, a pleasant discovery moments away from the Kabuki-za in Ginza.

Akiyo Sawayanagi, manager of the first Mother Leaf, a new kissaten chain that features organic teas in a low-key, smoke-free setting.

With its forest-green awning and distinctive T logo, Mother Leaf makes it abundantly clear that its offerings are all natural and tea-related. That’s right: no coffee here, only aromatic teas brewed from five varieties of Sri Lankan tea leaves. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and garam masala teas are a few of Mother Leaf’s selections that revive, refresh and relax.

The choice of moniker may sound like it was dreamed up at a Japanese advertising agency, but the fact is a mother leaf is a leaf cutting used for leaf propagation. Yes, even leaves have mothers!

So, the name is legitimate, but how about the source? The same company that dares to challenge McDonalds: Japan’s MOS Burger. Masako Saito, assistant manager for MOS public relations, points out that MOS, far from being just another fast-food outlet, has always had a vested interest in the health of its customers. Only organic vegetables are used in MOS Burger meals, says Saito, and it was a natural move to create a new store concept that also embraced a natural beverage: tea.

Certain that a java-jaded public would agree, MOS introduced the first Mother Leaf in Ginza in March 1999. With a setting as simple and elegant as the product it serves, Mother Leaf quickly became popular with nearby office workers in search of something new. Branches in Shimokitazawa and Hikarigaoka soon followed.

One of the new store concepts that apparently appeals to the customers is Mother Leaf’s total nonsmoking environment (which MOS intends to slowly introduce to its fast-food outlets). Although still rare in Japan, it was a must for Mother Leaf. As Saito points out, how else could you enjoy the sweet fragrance of the teas?

Indeed, the delicate aromas only add to an atmosphere that beckons one to slow down. The fresh flowers, forest colors and soft pop BGM soothe the eye and ear. For this, as well as the menu selections, we can thank Takeshi Isobuchi. A noted tea researcher and essayist, Isobuchi gives bimonthly seminars at Mother Leaf for those who want to know the secrets of preparing the perfect cup of tea.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but the majority of the secret seekers (not to mention regular customers) are women. As has been pointed out by beverage industry experts in Japan, men tend to gravitate toward coffee, women toward tea. But according to Isobuchi, that’s just because it’s marketed that way. Advertisers, he says, send out the message that coffee is for strong and busy people, whereas tea soothes the mind.

Anyone familiar with Japanese television can verify coffee commercials often feature hard-working or powerful men inhaling some dramatically named canned coffee, accompanied by loud, gurgling sounds and over-the-top facial expressions. Women, on the other hand, are usually seen in peaceful environments, daintily sipping their flavored (or nonsugar) teas.

Despite the hard-sell campaigns, tea is not just for women. Businessmen do drop in, Saito admits, as does the occasional retired gentleman. See guys? You can drink tea, too!

Mother Leaf recognizes that tea is definitely its special point one. But special point two also has its appeal: American waffles. Fresh and light, the waffles (with jam, cinnamon, chocolate syrup or ice cream, for starters) are paired with appropriate teas. This also applies to the selection of wagashi and scones.

Whereas a fine French restaurant will suggest a special wine to go with, say, a fish dish, explains Saito, “we feel that some teas go better with certain desserts.” Tea suggestions are written below each dessert choice, while the well-versed staff, who study for several months with Isobuchi, can also provide guidance for those in a quandary.

While the (crowded) 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. lunchtime features a daily special or curry plate, the quality and variety of its teas are obviously Mother Leaf’s pride and joy. Although some mothers may be strict about how long one can enjoy tea and cakes, Saito says Mother Leaf encourages everyone to start their tea time at 2 p.m. and enjoy it until the shop closes. As usual, late afternoon is prime time for sitting at the table of your choice, savoring the pleasures a good cup of tea can bring as you ponder your future.

So the next time you’re not sure how best to put a few free hours to good use, take a chance and walk down a side street. Mother Leaf might just be there.