In Tokyo, premium Chinese tea meets Japanese craftsmanship

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Meng Fanlin makes tea at Leafmania, a shop and gallery specializing in Chinese tea in Tokyo’s Iriya district. The Yomiuri Shimbun

The understated, modern facade of Leafmania makes it stand out in Tokyo’s Iriya district – one of the capital’s old shitamachi neighbourhoods.

With no clear signage, passersby may struggle to find the name of the shop and gallery, which is displayed in small text in the corner of its window.

Inside, you will find a space with antique wooden furniture and a counter in the back lined with cups and teapots, among other ceramics. The shop’s simple, cozy atmosphere, which establishments in the neighbourhood are known for, owes a lot to the personality and enthusiasm of owner Meng Fanlin.

Leafmania opened in May, specialising in Phoenix Dancong – a particular type of Chinese tea – and exhibiting ceramic items by artisans in which to enjoy premium teas.

One of a kind

Phoenix Dancong is a kind of Chinese tea produced from tea leaves that grow on trees 100 to 600 years old in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, Meng said. Unlike commercial teas, which are typically grown on farms, Phoenix Dancong teas are grown in a more natural environment, often without fertilizers. Since leaves from a single tree are used to make each kind of Phoenix Dancong, quantities are limited.

“I make Phoenix Dancong in the Chinese tea-making style, called gong fu cha,” said Meng during a recent interview with the Japan News, pouring hot water into small teacups to warm them. He then put 5g of a Phoenix Dancong tea called Huang Zhi Xiang and hot water into a teapot. After discarding the first brew – which is meant to open the tea leaves up – Meng poured fresh hot water into the pot and then served the tea.

Huang Zhi Xiang, which translates as gardenia fragrance, has a sweet aroma like the white flower and a clean aftertaste. “Chinese tea leaf names are often associated with flowers since many of them have a scent similar to that of flowers,” Meng said.

Phoenix Dancong tea Zhi Lan Xiang, which smells of orchids, and Rou Gui Xiang, which has a cinnamon aroma, are among the teas served at Leafmania. “I serve six kinds of Phoenix Dancong, and the lineup changes every month,” he said.

Hailing from Heilongjiang province, China, Meng developed a taste for Chinese tea while working at a trading firm in Beijing. His then boss would treat him to premium teas during work breaks. Meng also began visiting tea farmers producing teas in his spare time.

Meng spent three years at the trading firm before moving to Tokyo to enroll in a master of business administration course at Waseda University. As an undergraduate, he had studied Japanese and led Chinese students at the Japan-China Student Conference in 2010-2011.

After completing the MBA, he wondered what he should do next. He was determined to do “something involving tea here in Japan, even if it’s small in scale”.

Japanese craftmanship

Last year, he launched an online shop handling teaware made by Japanese artisans, during a period when “interest in ceramics and Chinese tea was growing in Japan”, according to Meng.

He began searching for a location where he could open a brick-and-mortar store after receiving positive responses online. He found a site in a traditional neighbourhood near Iriya subway station.

White walls and antique furniture, including large cupboards for which he created room by knocking out part of the wall, give the space an intimate atmosphere that is complemented by a framed piece of calligraphy by his wife, bearing a line from Ming Dynasty scholar Hong Zicheng’s Caigentan: “The true flavour of food is plain.”

So, why does he recommend pieces by Japanese artisans to enjoy premium Chinese tea?

“There are of course many good Chinese artisans, but pieces by Japanese potters are often free from the constraints of Chinese teaware traditions, and are excellent in terms of technique, sense and aesthetics, because of the long heritage,” Meng said.

“I remember that I was taken aback when I poured tea from a teapot made by a Japanese potter,” Meng said. “Tea poured from the spout perfectly without dripping. Japanese pieces look great and make people who use them feel good.”

On Mondays, when his shop is closed, Meng travels around the country to visit potters at their studios to learn about not only their craft but also the philosophy behind their works.

In July, Leafmania was holding a solo exhibition featuring pieces by Chie Kobayashi, who is known for using white porcelain. Meng organises such shows several times a year, typically focusing on one artisan at a time.

During September 14-22, Leafmania will feature the works of Suen Baokun, a Chinese potter from Jingdezhen. “I hope I can show a new wave of Chinese teaware through the works of Suen, a young artisan who is influenced by Japanese craftsmanship,” Meng said.

Always looking for new ways to enjoy his favourite teas, Meng started organising an evening event he has dubbed “Night Tea Bar”. The store usually closes at 8 pm, but he sometimes opens the doors again from 9:30pm to 11 pm – an idea he came up with after being inspired by “Shinya Shokudo” (Midnight Diner), a manga and drama depicting stories and relationships of the proprietor of a tiny late-night diner.

“The neighbourhood becomes quieter in the evening. And I found when I lit a lamp during the construction of the shop, the light reflected beautifully against the ceiling, which is lined with handmade Chinese paper. The beauty of the paper was so clear under the dim light,” he recalled.

“The tea I serve has a delicate flavour and people tend to be more relaxed in the evening,” he said. “So I think people can better appreciate the flavor of the tea that I serve in the evening.”

Meng is determined to continue promoting the appeal of premium teas.

“Nowadays, coffee is a feature of life. You can buy and drink it everywhere – drip-brewed, canned or bottled … however you want it,” Meng said.

“I want Chinese tea to be appreciated in the same way in the future.” Japan news