Meet Mrs. Watanabe
When your company is 300 years old, keeping historic traditions alive is a critical part of the job. The Watanabe family is that keeper at Ippodo, and as the company’s Vice President, Mrs. Watanabe is Ippodo’s public face. Not only does she educate the public on Japanese tea traditions; she also selects seasonal flowers and sweets at our Kyoto café. Here’s a taste of how she does it in her own words, and what it all means for your cup of tea.
What do you do at Ippodo?
In Japan, tea isn’t just a beverage—it’s a ritual and cultural institution. So when guests come to our Kyoto store, we want them to enjoy the complete atmosphere that tea can provide. Everyone should feel welcome there. I am responsible for making that experience as welcoming as possible, which includes the beautiful floral arrangements we have inside and outside, as well as seasonal wagashi: traditional Japanese sweets ideal for pairing with tea.
Changing seasons are important to the Japanese mindset. We keep our floral displays and wagashi fresh to highlight these seasons at our cafe. For example, during spring I select Yamabuki for many arrangements, while in fall I like to arrange a bouquet of Toad Lily and Patrinia.
How do you keep connected to the past?
Tea is a generational business: we learn about it from our parents and teach it to our children. Only five people at Ippodo are responsible for screening every batch of tea that comes to our factory and blending batches to produce a specific house taste. Two of them are my husband and my son, and it falls to me to take care of their palates. Did you know that overly spicy or salty foods can alter your sense of taste? I make sure my family maintains a diet that won’t interfere with their tea tasting.
This is important to any tea business, but especially a Japanese one. Skillful blending of different cultivars and regions is a critical part of making quality Japanese tea. We aim to make tea that is rich and flavorful but won’t disturb your palate, and it should leave a clean, refreshing finish after you sip. Since every harvest is different, we’re constantly tasting and adjusting blends to maintain the house taste that we’re known for.
What’s in your cup right now?
I love showing people how to cold brew gyokuro. It’s so easy, and it makes a delicious full-bodied cup of iced tea with zero astringency. It’s especially good during times of the year when it’s hot and humid in Kyoto.