How Nakamuras spun gold from matcha tea, now in Hong Kong

Family behind famous matcha tea cafe chain in Kyoto, Japan, talk about opening their first overseas branch and how the torch is passed to a new generation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 June, 2015, 3:50pm

High up in The One in Tsim Sha Tsui, there's a massive queue at the entrance to Nakamura Tokichi, the famous matcha tea cafe from Kyoto. Judging by the turnout only days after the opening, it will be a while yet before the excitement dies down for all things matcha - from soba noodles to chiffon cake, tea jelly and ice cream.

The Nakamura family goes back seven generations and the sixth generation is currently heading the business. Traditionally, the eldest son of each generation takes the reins - and even has to legally change his name to Tokichi Nakamura, after the founder who established the shop in 1854.

Since then the business has spread to six shops in Kyoto, and now the outlet in Hong Kong - the first outside Japan's ancient capital.

It's not hard to tell the generations apart. The current Tokichi Nakamura is 63, and a day before the official opening he wore a light grey suit, a white shirt with tiny light-blue polka dots, tie and stylish purple shoes. Meanwhile, his eldest son,  Shogo, 34, is comfortable in a black T-shirt and jeans.

"We could open shops in Japan any time," the elder Nakamura says. "We started looking at expanding overseas three years ago, to Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. We did some market research and then got a Hong Kong partner and opened here."

Shogo and his younger brother Shingo, 32, will be based in Hong Kong, while their father will visit twice a month to check up on things. They are pleasantly surprised by buzz that the opening has generated, although they are quickly selling out of items that are flown in fresh every day from Kyoto.

Nevertheless, it's a steep learning curve for the two brothers, particularly Shogo, who will inherit the business one day. Their father's learning curve began on the eve of his 40th birthday.

On the eve of my 40th birthday, my father gave me the company chops, declaring I was director then and there. I realised that I couldn't leave
Tokichi Nakamura

"When I was young, I saw matcha tea everywhere, so I didn't think it was something I specifically had to learn, my environment was just like this. I didn't know I would have the responsibility to pass the business on to the next generation," he says.

"I didn't have a good relationship with my father - we always had arguments and I didn't want to work with him," Nakamura senior admits. After he graduated, he worked outside the family business, at a trading company, and then, in 1975, became a shop manager of a Lawson [convenience store] franchise for three years. It was when he turned 27 that he returned to the family business of selling matcha tea.

"On the eve of my 40th birthday, my father gave me the company chops, declaring I was director then and there. I realised that I couldn't leave - I must look after the company."

Nakamura focused on how he could improve the business, as his father gave him no advice.

"He felt that 40 was a good age because you are not too stubborn and have a fresh mind, but at the same time, if you fail, there is still time to start again," he says.

Nakamura observed the shop had few customers for its tea, so he wondered how he could draw a bigger, younger crowd. His matcha-flavoured soft ice cream, one of the first in Japan, soon provided the answer.

From there, he began developing other desserts, such as the signature matcha green tea jelly accompanied with red bean paste and a glutinous rice ball, and the parfait - several layers of green tea mousse, red bean paste, beans and cake in a tall conical glass, that is already the best-selling item in the Hong Kong shop.

One corner of the spacious, high-ceilinged dining area is even set up for 45-minute traditional tea ceremonies whenever the kimono-clad hostess is in Hong Kong.

Asked about passing the family concern to Shogo, Nakamura flashes a knowing smile. He says his son grew up as he did, surrounded by the tea business, and believes he can guide him as he looks after the Hong Kong outlet.