Poring over all tea’s attractions

by Yoko Hani

Kenji Takano’s tea room fills the light and spacious basement of a building in Jinbocho — an area that’s best-known for its shops crammed with old books, prints and posters, and for the number of small publishing companies based there.

But a light and spacious basement?

Well, yes — thanks to the glass wall alongside the staircase leading to the entrance of Tea House Takano, which channels light into the 60-seat room and turns the dark color of the 57-year-old master’s brews a glowing shade of red.

“Although my place is below street level, I don’t want customers to feel as if they’re in some deep, dark place,” Takano says, beaming.

But as befits one of the oldest establishments in Tokyo specializing in black tea, Takano insists “it should be something very different from the posh new cafes you find in other central areas such as Marunouchi. Really, it’s just a simple place to come and enjoy genuine tea inexpensively.”

Nonetheless, aficionados in this country say few can really compete with Takano in serving a good cup of tea. Skeptics, however, may wonder what all the fuss is about. How can one person’s cuppa be very much different from another’s?

“They can be very different,” Takano declares firmly. “To enjoy good tea it helps to know about the different varieties of leaves and the proper ways to get the best taste out of them. I carefully adjust the quantity and the brewing time to best enhance the character of each variety.”

At Tea House Takano, customers can usually choose from about 15 varieties of tea from India and Sri Lanka that have passed Takano’s personal tasting test. “I examine a sample of tea with my eyes and fingers first,” he explains. “Then I sniff it. Only after that do I pour boiled water onto 3 grams of leaves in a cup. Finally, I hold the tea in my mouth, check it and spit it out. It is a very delicate and difficult job.”

Nowadays, of course, English-style tearooms are just part of the townscape right across the country. But back in 1974, when Takano opened his modest salon, it was a very different Japan.

“There were many coffee shops, but almost nowhere dedicated to serving tea,” Takano recalls. “You may not believe this, but at the time, customers used to arrive and order Coca-Cola and a hot dog. Seriously. And when I showed them the menu of the varieties of tea, they realized they had no idea what to do . . . so then they’d say: ‘Well, I’ll have a cup of coffee.’ “

Since those days, of course, word of the pleasures of drinking black tea has spread far and wide, ensuring that the seats in Takano’s tea house are often all taken.

Indeed, black tea has boomed so much that government statistics show that imports have doubled in the past 20 years, from 7,600 tons in 1980 to 15,200 tons in 2001.

Takano points to the Japanese love of drinking bottled or canned tea. If people experienced the pleasure of making and drinking good tea, he believes, relishing its many varieties from growers in different lands, black tea would become part of everyday life in the same way as green tea.

It’s this passion for tea that keeps Takano going — and it’s a passion he’s more than happy to share.