A Tea Shop with Historic Flavor
Through the story of a neighborhood teashop we can see the changing role of business associations in a Tokyo community.
Seifuen is a small teashop directly in front of Nishiogikubo Station, selling its own brands of tea, as well as teapots, tea utensils, and a few other dry goods one often finds in teashops, a tradition that goes back to olden times when tea, kelp, beans, bonito flakes, and other dry goods were all sold in the same shops on a seasonal basis. According to Mr. Takahashi, Seifuen was opened in 1937 by his father, who had been in the tea business in Shizuoka. Seventy percent of Seifuen’s tea still comes from Shizuoka and is known for its grassy astringent taste (shibumi). Traditional teashops blend their own teas, and each has a distinct flavor profile. “The taste of the tea depends on the preferences of the shopkeeper,” Takahashi explained. Customers who like it will keep coming. Stronger tasting blends from Shizuoka became popular in Tokyo because of the poor water quality in the city center, he explained. “Nowadays many teas are often steamed for a long time, reducing this strong astringent taste,” but Takashi still sticks with his preferences. “For me, when a tea is steamed too long it loses its clean, refreshing flavor.”
Seifuen’s history is part of the history of the merchants association (shotengai) at the North End of the station, and the name of the shop is still visible on the Taiko drum that has been used for the temple festival at Ogikubo’s Hachiman Shrine since the prewar period. Beyond the temple festival, which they still organize, the local merchants association had many functions in the past, including promoting business ties, providing credit, holding sales, and even organizing trips for members. Takahashi remembers participating in group bus trips together with other merchants and their families. This ended in the 1980s. Disneyland may have ended it, he surmised, as families started taking vacations on their own. Nowadays the merchants associations are a shadow of their former selves, with far fewer activities. Many chain stores have entered the area around the station and do not even participate in the merchant association at all (though franchisee owners still do). The annual temple festival is the last remaining activity, though still very popular with residents and merchants alike. (Farrer, June 6, 2015, edited March 15, 2017)