I had the honor of interviewing Ian Chun, the owner of Japanese online tea shop and community, Yunomi.life. As most of Tea Chronicles readers already know, Yunomi.life has been our tea sponsor for our tea event held in October 2015 – Talkative Tea Party, when we had a chance to try some of the best Japanese teas. With hundreds of different teas, Japanese tea shop Yunomi.life is a shop not to be missed by any Japanese tea lover. Interview with mister Chun is one of the first interviews that I am about to publish, in which I asked our dear tea shop owners and specialists to open a magical world of tea for us.
Tea Chronicles: Let’s start with one really simple question. Do you drink tea?
Ian Chun: Absolutely! Every single day, and often without even thinking about it. In the summer, at home I keep a liter of mugicha or barley tea in the refrigerator. At work we are tasting teas frequently. I believe drinking tea can be meditative when you drink alone, and a way to bond with friends when you drink together. However, I am so busy running the business that I often don’t have the time to truly enjoy the tea I have. One day when the business is successful perhaps…
Tea Chronicles: We all saw movies with actors drinking matcha from a bowl. This might be the very first picture when someone says „tea“ and „Japan“. How important is tea in Japan in everyday life?
Ian Chun: Tea is an integral part of everyday life in Japan. You will receive hojicha tea at any Japanese restaurant you visit. Cheap gyudon or cheap tempura fast food serve free mugicha, and you can buy decent tea in plastic bottles in every vending machine on every corner. When you visit someone’s house, it is polite to serve you sencha tea.
The ironic thing is that Japanese tea is so common in Japan, that you might say it has lost its value. It is something you serve as part of your hospitality as a host (whether at a restaurant or at home). Imported black tea may be sold on a restaurant menu along with coffee, but you almost never see Japanese green tea despite how common it is in everyday life.
Tea Chronicles: Very fast Yunomi.life became the ultimate online place for buying Japanese teas. Why did you start Yunomi.life?
A: Yunomi has several meanings: it means “tea drinking”, it is the word for a kind of tea cup, and as our brand name, we picked it because it sounds like “You know me”—while our customers may simply want good tea, we want our customers to learn, to know about the people behind their tea.
I started Yunomi actually not because I wanted to sell good tea, and this is the reason why Yunomi has such a unique (and challenging) business model. I wanted to help the people. Originally, I was hired by a Kyoto farm, Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, to develop their international business using e-commerce. Other tea farmers came to me for similar help, and I decided that it was more efficient to group them together in one website.
So imitating Amazon’s marketplace model, we started to allow trustworthy suppliers to sell their teas on Yunomi. At this point though, we now have over 70 tea farms and tea factories, and we need to adjust our model to help customers find teas they might like. We will be introducing more tasting sets in the coming months, and will be carefully selecting teas to be part of a Yunomi White Collection for excellent teas, and a Black Collection for carefully crafted / limited edition teas.
We aren’t abandoning the marketplace model though. You might think of it like a store with a few select teas in front, and a huge warehouse in the back.
Tea Chronicles: Yunomi.life offers few hundreds of Japanese teas. Some might have thought that Japanese people drink only green tea. What kind of teas do people in Japan drink? How many types of sencha exist?
Ian Chun: In Japan, people drink many different types of teas. Japanese green tea, oolong tea from Taiwan and China, black tea from Sri Lanka and India, rooibos tea from South Africa, and a wide variety of Western and Asian herbals. I do see a lack of Chinese green teas though and not that much puerh style teas.
There are two basic definitions of sencha. The wide definition is tea leaf that is steamed, rolled and dried. The narrow definition of sencha would be in contrast to the subtypes. Aracha is leaf processed till drying, but not refined (the stems filtered from aracha become kukicha, leaf tips become mecha, and fannings become konacha). So if it is still in aracha state, then it is not sencha in the narrow definition. Same with shading—if you shade it for about 3 weeks and fertilize the tea plants well, you get a sencha with very strong umami, and we call that gyokuro. If we don’t shade as much, then the umami is not quite as strong, and we call it kabusecha.
So, here is the dilemma, if you shade for 3 days to give the leaf a little bit more umami, is it a sencha or a kabusecha? Or, if you take an unshaded sencha, and blend it with a kabusecha, which is it? If you take a kabusecha and a gyokuro and blend it together, you can lower the umami level, but increase volume…is it then a kabusecha or gyokuro? Actually, there is no answer…it depends on the seller.
Now when you begin talking about differences between sencha that arise from the cultivar, the cultivation techniques used, the terrain of the fields, etc., then things can get very complicated.
Tea Chronicles: We live in a modern world. Japan is trendy and modern, full of skyscrapers and innovative technology. Tea farms are the complete opposite. How popular is the idea of becoming a tea farmer in Japan among younger population?
Ian Chun: In general, farming is not very popular as a job, and this is one major reason why the population of tea farmers is shrinking. In year 2000, there were 53,687 registered tea farms in Japan, and 20,144 in 2015. Farming is hard work, and not so stable as a source of income, so it is common for children of farmers to seek other type of work in the city. That combined with the shrinking of the tea industry in Japan, means that tea farming is not so popular as a real job. However, in terms of a trend or aspiration, a romanticized ideal, I think it is getting more popular. People look at farming as a kind of origin, not simply of their food, but of a simpler lifestyle from the past in a way. We take that point of view at Yunomi as well.
Tea Chronicles: As the last question, could you give suggestions on how to choose a good Japanese tea? What is important to keep in mind when buying tea?
Ian Chun: I think a good tea is a tea that you personally enjoy. This is my own opinion since I run a marketplace not a tea company where I tell my customers “this is the best tea”. (And that will change as I begin to create the collections I mentioned above.)
I think it is important to learn about steeping tea first…with any green tea. Know what happens when you adjust the parameters of tea amount, time, water amount and water temperature (and if you want to go further, of water type as well). Green tea will produce subtly different flavors using different parameters for steeping. You can steep the same leaves in cold water for a sweet flavor, and in boiling water for a bitter flavor.
From there, you can experiment with different types of green teas and from different seasons. In general, the more umami it has, the higher priced it will be (gyokuro is expensive, bancha is cheap). Spring harvests of smaller more delicate leaves are more expensive than autumn harvests of large leaves (bancha). Whether that makes it better is up to your own personal preference though.