"A place where tradition and innovation meets, where discovery crosses paths with chance encounters"
The Japanese often take provincial skills - masonry, metal-smithing, paper-making, coffee making - to a new, kinda crazy, lived practice level. It seems like everything should be done "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" style in in this country, as though no skill is not deserving of years of intense, focused dedication. So it is equally, if not more so, exciting to see new interpretations of a Japanese tradition already soaked in rituals and formalities being reconsidered and added to by present day Japanese. Magic happens when you break the mold to make a place for yourself, not to be counter-history but to line up in the lineage of your birthright.
It was totally by chance that we ended up at Sakurai during our trip to Japan in June 2016.
The day was filled with haphazard planning and I stumbled upon another website recommending this shop while sitting in the Tokyo's Muji superstore waiting for my travel companions to finish their Muji conversion experience.
Long story short:
If I was in pursuit of opening a contemporary Japanese Tea house, I would immediately stop everything I was doing, learn Japanese, and work for the rest of my life at the Sakurai Abucha Institute.
Nestled away in the affluent hills of Roppongi in Tokyo, the Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience (otherwise known as Sakurai Abucha Institute) is an experience one should not miss if you're in Tokyo. If you have not experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, this is a perfect primer to a more historically representative ceremony. It'll help you enter an otherwise potentially difficult frame of mind by preparing your sensory experience so that you'll be able to appreciate the richness of history and focus on your breathing when you partake in a more traditional ceremony. And if you have prior experience of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, Sakurai will take you to a whole new understanding of the potential a beautifully prepared cup of tea can bring. Needless to say, I was deeply moved by this austere experience as it has completely changed my perceptions on the possibilities of contemporary Japanese tea.
Sakurai is the "tea branch" of designer Shinichiro Ogata's larger project of encapsulating Japanese tradition into the daily, quote, "over the last ten years, I have devoted myself to bringing to today's generation my vision of a contemporary Japanese lifestyle and making one's life richer. I have encountered many handcrafters and ancestral practices based on our tradition, as well as many food lovers who made me what I am today." One of the books, titled Jiki-fu, Ogata designed captures his aesthetic very well, I would definitely recommend checking out each website as it does some justice in capturing they philosophy that Ogata translates to physical space.
All of this came into physical fruition with the original Higashiya shop opening in 2003. Higashiya focused on bringing traditional Japanese confectionary - or wagashi - back to the everyday. Ogata then goes on to opens Sakurai along with Yakumo Saryo (a full concept restaurant with tea salon from where the first quote of this post is pulled from). Every single element in each of these locations are fully considered. From the visual presence of the storefront, to the details in the packaging of items for sale (which, of course, is a whole line that Ogata developed), to the separate but related logos, to the lighting in the stores, the tea utensils - everything is on the path towards mastery.
We spent roughly one and a half hours at Sakurai and barely spoke to one another. I had Gyokuro, my travel companions had a Sencha and a Matcha, each tea course come with a wagashi (I will talk a bit more about these teas in a later post). It felt greedy and sacrilegious when we shared, but we did it anyways. The wagashi was beautiful and the tea handled in methodic courses. I experienced flavors from green tea that tasted like fresh seafood - umami and vegetal, drastically transformed with every infusion. Sakurai took apart the architectural structure and formality of steps between tea maker and tea drinker that you would normally see in a traditional tea ceremony set up. In its place they filled that empty space with imbued stoicism that leads to awe from focused simplicity on tea.
Knowledge and techniques cultivated over time
I have always felt a strong attraction to such things
Whenever I sense them fading,
I am overcome with impatience and sadness
It makes me feel as though a part of my body
Is being ripped away
To cherish tradition
Is to think of someone in the faraway past, someone who shaped me into who I am
Day after day
In the words we speak, in the food we eat, in the tableware we use,
There are many faceless people allowing me to be who I am
Within the vast flow, I too am merely a speck
The joy and sadness of this knowledge inspire me to create
By cherishing tradition, we give birth to a new era
Thinking of someone in the faraway future,
I am motivated to create something that can only be made at this moment
From Japan, brimming with tradition, to the world