In conversation with Mr. Kiya
When I first meet Mr. Kiya, it is around mid-day on a sunny November day, and Kiya-san is already waiting at the entrance of his immaculate tea house perched on the hillside of Hoshino village.
There is nothing plush or fancy in terms of the decor inside this intimate tea house. Rather it is one that has been carefully designed and fine-tuned over the course of three years by Kiya-san. Building on the guiding principles of Japanese artistic beauty - Wabi and Sabi, every inch of the tea room has a sense of calmness and formality at the same time.
Hoshino village is situated inside the city of Yame, in the middle of Kyushu island. Kyushu island in Japan is one of the renowned regions for making high-quality Sencha and Gyokuro green tea. Within Kyushu, Yame city has consistently ranked as a top Gyokuro producing area - its production volume is nowhere near the levels of Shizuoka or Kyoto, but the average price of Aracha (unrefined green tea) from this region is among the highest in Japan.
Kiya-san guides me to the beautifully crafted wooden counter seat overlooking the streams. The scenery is just serene but I can’t help worrying about how remote this location is to the typical tourist destinations, and the risks he is taking to open a tea house here. The place hasn’t been without incident either. As recently as 2012, the record rainfall in Kyushu saw local river overflow, damaging significant livelihoods in this area. “At one point, the water levels rose up to where we are standing here today. It’s a miracle that the tea house wasn’t washed away like many other properties nearby. So, I regard this miracle as signifying my duty to continue this tea house.”
He traces the starting point to his passion for tea and his desire to continuously innovate. “I think am in a uniquely privileged position where I can oversee the growing of tea locally and share tea with customers at the same time.” I watch him start the fire on the traditional Cha-Gama (cast iron pot for boiling water). “As CEO of a tea company, I am probably the only person who prepares teas in front of customers on a daily basis.” he jokes. It is probably true. Aside from running tea tasting courses, Kiya-san is heavily involved in the business of his local tea company - Kiya-Hoyuen, as well as collaborations with chefs and traditional Japanese Wagashi pastry chefs. He explains his philosophy is that having constant feedback from customers enables him to refine his tea as well.
A three-course tea menu is neatly handed to me over the counter. The starter is a cold infusion of Houyu Sencha, a blend specially created by Kiya-san using locally produced Sencha. It has a well balanced taste profile and the natural sweetness and umami of Sencha from this region comes through the chilled liquor effortlessly. Served in a specially designed pinot noir glass, the pristine clear green colour is instantly instagram-able.
The Yame region is surrounded by mountains on two sides and two main rivers stream through the town, creating soft water and soil that are suitable for growing high quality green tea. Combining this amazing terroir with the cultivar, Saemidori - a soft, sweet character cultivar makes the Gyokuro and Sencha from this area uniquely soft and rich in umami character compared to other Japanese green teas. However, the Yabukita cultivar is still dominant in the region because the Saemidori cultivar does not withstand frost, cold weather as well as the popular Yabukita cultivar, and Yabukita can re-grow even after a spring frost.
As we chat, Mr. Kiya is meticulously preparing my main course - Gyokuro. The tea connoisseurs among the readers will know how much focus is needed to prepare a proper Gyokuro, and it is clear that his skills shine through here. He relies on his palm to sense the right water temperature for infusion or even glancing at the watch. In the cup, the first infusion of this traditional Gyokuro has a clear almost transparent colour. “This is as concentrated as you can get from Gyokuro. The clear colour is because it is rich in amino acids, particularly theanine.”
A sip packs the punch of intense umami that in this concentrated form tastes savoury rather than sweet. A good tea is of course worth multiple infusions, and this Gyokuro is no exception. As we go through second and third infusions, the Gyokuro changes from the initial unique shaded-tea aroma (Nori-like) to smooth vegetal, closer to what you would expect from a Sencha.
To finish, he prepares a heart warming Hoji-cha that is full of roasted aroma and is also enhanced by being served in a unique porcelain cup specifically designed to maximise the aroma.
It’s incredible how fast time passes when chatting with Kiya-san. Our three-course tea tasting overran and became a 3hr-plus conversation about tea, culture, craft, pairings and so much more… He is truly knowledgeable and there was so much to learn from.
On my way out of the tea house, he pointed to the back yard. He proudly says that construction is under way to make way for cycling stands. “We get cyclists climbing through these mountains. Sometimes they stop by at the tea house, and this area will be for them.” As tea house experiences go, this is probably one of most exclusive in terms of hospitality that I have ever experienced and one that I will remember for a long time.
Mr. Kiya Yasuhiko is the owner and CEO of Kiya-Hoyuen and Seisu-An (Tea House).