Turning ochawari into the national drink! With 100 types of ochawari and the Japan Ochawari Association, what follows highball will be ochawari! [Japan Ochawari Association / Tomotaka Tajimi]

Highball (whiskey and soda split) is now a standard menu item at izakayas (Japanese style pubs).  The rise of highball began in 2008, and along with that, whiskey consumption also experienced a V-shaped recovery. Of course, there was a plateau caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but what followed the highball was the lemon sour. Lemon sour has been experiencing a surge in popularity since around 2016 due to the low sugar and Showa retro booms. And it is becoming a standard item too. And following the highball and lemon sour, there are those who are setting their sights on the tea split – ochawari (お茶割り) as the third wave.

Tomotaka Tajimi and his colleagues are known as the pioneers of ochawari.

Ochawari is a generic term for drinks in which alcoholic beverages are mixed with tea. And various types, such as oolong high and ryokucha wari, are drunk in various regions, albeit often as an old man’s drink.

In 2016, Tajimi-san and his team started a restaurant called Chawari, offering 100 different types of ochawari, and in 2021, they established a general incorporated association, the Japan Ochawari Association – Nihon Ochawari Kyoukai. We spoke with Tomotaka Tajimi, who is expanding the possibilities of tea and alcohol through ochawari.

Tomotaka Tajimi

Tomotaka Tajimi was born in 1990 and was raised in Tokyo. His first encounter with tea was drinking green tea at a neighborhood tea shop as a child. The daily drink at home during his childhood was genmaicha with matcha. After graduating from Keio University, he worked at a design company and an advertising company before opening the Chawari restaurant in Gakugei University in 2016 with 100 kinds of ochawari as its signature menu. In order to expand the consumption of ochawari to a national drink, he founded the Japan Ochawari Association and serves as its representative director.

Turning ochawari into the national drink.

Q: First, please tell us about the business you are working on.

Tajimi: I myself have two titles: the president of the Japan Ochawari Association and president of Sang-mêlé Co., which operates Chawari.

Tajimi-san, who we spoke to this time. (photo by Misako Yoshida)

The main business of Sang-mêlé is restaurant management. Right now we have two locations of Chawari in Meguro and Gakugei University in Tokyo, a tea shop Gohongi Chasho for B-to-B and B-to-C sales of tea leaves, and a hideaway restaurant wacasu in Gakugei University.

At Chawari you can enjoy 100 different types of ochawari along with a wide variety of dishes. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

Gobongi Chaho (1st floor) and wacasu (2nd floor) are located in the same building. At Gobongi Chaho, you can enjoy Japanese tea and sweets as shown in the photo. (photo by Sang-mêlé).

Chawari Meguro branch. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

The Japan Ochawari Association was launched in 2021.

Q: What is the purpose of the Japan Ochawari Association?

Tajimi: The purpose is to promote ochawari more widely and turn it into a national drink.

Japan Ochawari Association website. (photo by Japan Ochawari Association)

We have often received requests from restaurants to supervise and develop their ochawari menus. Rather than being supervised by one restaurant – Chawari, I wanted a different format that would allow us to promote ochawari more broadly.

Q: Why did you start to focus on ochawari?

Tajimi: Since we started the restaurant in 2014, two years later in 2016, we had increased our staff, and together with the chef who started the first restaurant, we opened a second restaurant within three years. We wanted to open a restaurant with a strong concept, and after thinking about it a lot, we decided on ochawari.

The popular trend at the time was lemon sours and highballs. We thought that what would come next in this trend would be pickled plum sour,  tomato high, or ochawari. 

Q: So what was the key factor in deciding to go with the ochawari concept?

Tajimi: I guess one influence is the family I grew up in. Since I was a child, I grew up drinking tea brewed in a teapot, so it was something I was very familiar with.

Tajimi-san told us that he remembers drinking tea at home during his childhood. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

The other thing is magazines. Magazines aimed at young women usually run a special feature on Japanese tea once every three to four years. I thought that the trend of everyone looking for the next alcohol and the trend of the tea boom that occurs regularly will collide around 2019.

A magazine featuring Chawari, which was shown to us during the interview (photo by Japan Ochwari Association)

Oddly enough, the tapioca boom arrived in 2018 prior to alcohol, which brought attention to tea and increased media coverage of ochawari around 2019. It felt like a good trend.

Q: There are 100 different ochawari at Chawari, what was the intention for this?

Tajimi: When we started Chawari, the benchmarks were lemon sour and highball.

Ochawari available at Chawari. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

At the time, there was a tendency for each place to aim for the ultimate lemon sour. It cannot be called lemon sour without lemon and carbonation. Under these constraints, each place had to freeze lemons or squeeze them fresh to create the ultimate lemon sour.

The menu of Chawari with 100 different ochawari written on it. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

On the other hand, ochawari has a fairly broad meaning that includes both tea and alcohol. Therefore, we thought it would be good to express the breadth of it like in a whiskey bar with lots of different whiskeys.

We thought it was necessary to express the state of abundance. Ten kinds was probably not enough… One thousand kinds would be operationally too difficult… 

We thought, if we had 100 kinds, people would think we had a lot, and we could express that with 10 kinds of tea and 10 kinds of alcohol!. So the 10 x 10 formula was born.

Q: What criteria did you use to select the 10 teas and alcoholic beverages?

Tajimi: When we first started Chawari, I was not familiar with tea, so I asked a local tea shop in Gakugei University to help me decide which of the 10 kinds to carry at the restaurant. When we first opened Chawari in 2016, our understanding of tea was a bit rough. It was at the level where we thought that sencha was just sencha! (laughs).

But one thing that has not changed since those days is that ochawari is served by mixing tea and alcohol, so one of our criteria in deciding on each tea and alcohol is to make sure that when you compare 100 different ochawari drinks, you can clearly see the difference.

Tajimi-san removing leaves from branches collected to make winter tea from the native species of tea plants at Marumo Tea Garden, Mount Fuji, Shizuoka. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

Later, as we ran the business, the number of tea shops that became our friends increased, and our understanding improved. Now I can tell the difference between this kind of tea and that kind of tea.

Q: Was Chawari doing well from the beginning?

Tajimi: It was very difficult to get Chawari off the ground the first year we started it. There were many different ways to call it, such as oolong high and ochawari. And there were many restaurants that did not sell ochawari even if they had highballs or lemon sours. 

The value offered by Chawari is more fun than deliciousness.

Q: If you were to recommend ochawari to someone who drinks tea on a daily basis, which one would you like them to try?

Tajimi: For those who brew tea at home in a teapot on a daily basis, or those who like tea that they can drink up to the third infusion, a more casual ochawari, such as blue sanpincha or tea with milk foam on it, can be a new and enjoyable discovery.

As I tell my employees on a daily basis, the value we provide through Chawari is not just deliciousness, but fun. Deliciousness is very subjective. It depends on the person’s preferences. Of course, we make and serve tea that we think is delicious, but that is not the value that we essentially want to convey. At Chawari, we want people to enjoy tea as a drink that can be mixed in a variety of ways.

Blue sampincha ochawari is made with deep blue tea from butterfly peas. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

Japanese chai and cassis. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

Becoming the leader in the casual segment, which is a high-volume zone.

Q: What is the most important aspect of Chawar]?

Tajimi: There are many things, but one is that we would like Chawari to become the leader in the casual segment of tea consumers.

Tajimi-san brewing tea. (photo by Sang-mêlé)

Even when I had just started Chawari and had not yet done anything significant, I was already called a pioneer of ochawari. This led me to think that we should be in a position to lead. So I started to learn more about tea.

(photo by Misako Yoshida)

Both at the time we started Chawari and now, some places that offer ochawari casually use bottled tea, while others with an authentic atmosphere where you can sit in a perfect space and enjoy your tea until the third brew, offer ochawari in a more authentic way. However, there is a huge gap between casual and authentic, and the middle part in between is still very small.

I would like Chawari and the Japan Ochawari Association to be a driving force in increasing the casual consumption of tea, which I believe would be able to generate more tea consumption in general.

Q: How is the tea used in your ochawari extracted?

Tajimi: Each one is different.

(photo by Sang-mêlé)

However, we tell our staff that they need to be mindful of four key parameters: tea leaf amount, water amount, water temperature and the extraction time. Each tea has its own recipe, so as long as these four parameters are observed, there are basically no mistakes.

Q: Is Gohongi Chaho positioned as a tea shop for people to drink tea at home?

Tajimi: Yes, that is right. The reason we did not design Gohongi Chaho like a coffee shop or a bar is because we wanted to sell tea in a way that customers could recreate it at home, including the brewing process. We wanted to convey the message that actually, anyone can easily brew tea at home.

In terms of BtoB, we also wholesale tea leaves for ochawari to restaurants and bars. As for BtoC, we hope to become a reliable source for those who want to drink tea at home.

Aim for the highball! Turning ochawari into the national drink! The Japan Ochawari Association was created to achieve this goal.

Q: Do you pay attention to any benchmarks?

Tajimi: Highballs by far.

The website of the Japan Karaage Association, used as a reference by the Japan Ochawari Association. (photo by the Global Japanese Tea Association)

However, as the Japan Ochawari Association, we use the Japan Karaage Association as a reference for how the association should operate. The Japan Karaage Association defines karaage as a national food, and holds events such as karaage festivals and karaage carnivals to communicate the appeal of karaage. They also disseminate information on the web, and train people who can convey its deliciousness to others (karaagenists, who have passed karaage certification exams). With this in mind, they are quite large and widely active, including collaborating with Lawson’s L Chiki. Our current goal is to become an association just like that.

Q: In terms of the future vision, what is the current position of the ochawari?

Tajimi: I do not think we are quite there yet.

(photo by Misako Yoshida)

Frankly, tea has too many parameters in brewing. So I think that the task of preparing the high quality of ochawari made by izakaya waiters, who do not know much about tea and do not usually make and drink their own tea, nationwide is quite a challenge. In fact, from that point of view, I even think that it would be better to make ochawari with bottled tea more popular.

This year, I intend to focus first on expanding awareness of ochawari in the first place. If we do not expand awareness, we will not be able to expand consumption.

Q: You mentioned that you started the Japan Ochawari Association to promote ochawari. Has it become easier to promote it?

Tajimi: I think we are seeing a good trend.

Q: Are you getting more requests for consultations on developing ochawari recipes?

Tajimi: I feel it is increasing, but not at a steady rate (laughs).

(photo by Misako Yoshida)

However, about four years ago, there were no people who were interested in ochawari, but recently I have the feeling that more and more people are asking about it through the inquiry form.

Q: What is the mission of the Japan Ochawari Association?

Tajimi: It is turning ochawari into the national drink. I want ochawari to become like highball. To that end, I believe it is my mission to spread the word about ochawari.

(photo by Misako Yoshida)

Although highballs are conceptually the same product, they are served across different levels of food establishments such as in bars as well as sushi restaurants. I would like ochawari to be just like that.

I would like to spread the so-called cool ochawari throughout Japan. However, I believe that it will be difficult for a single sake brewery or brewing company to make it as popular as highball. Therefore, I hope that we can work together with the many players involved to create and spread the culture of ochawari. I would like to make the Japan Ochawari Association work this way as well.

Making Japanese tea into something you can easily enjoy.

Q: What does Japanese tea mean to you?

Tajimi: It is something I would like to have closer to me in my daily life.

Something called traditional Japanese culture like Japanese tea has a surprisingly short history. But it is often perceived as something with a long history, and is given an image that is somewhat different from reality. In some cases, that image is working in a positive way.

For example, people go to temples on New Year’s to pray for good health and fortune. This custom was first introduced in the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912). Although it was originally started as a policy of railroad companies, it has now taken root as the Japanese custom, and people feel the beginning of the New Year by paying a New Year’s visit to a shrine.

From that perspective, Japanese tea has an image of looking kind of difficult. On the other hand, there is also an image of it being free, like a tea service at a rest stop. I think this is a pity. It would be interesting to hear stories about how people originally made and drank bancha from tea plants growing in the area. But many people are unaware of such things.

I feel that too many people have the image that tea is traditional Japanese culture, but I would like to see tea positioned as something that is more in line with modern Japanese life.

Q: What are some of the difficulties in working with Japanese tea?

Tajimi: Japanese tea is too often considered a hassle. I would like to make it a little easier.

There are a number of people who grind coffee beans at home and are dedicated to it, right? I would like to increase the number of people who enjoy Japanese tea in that way. However, I also think that Japanese tea is more difficult to brew than coffee because there are more things that can go wrong. Especially when it comes to Japanese green tea, there are too many troublesome things in the brewing process.

(photo by Misako Yoshida)

As a recent example, a customer who tasted and purchased tea at Gohongi Chasho said that the one he tasted there and the one he brewed at home were completely different. When I asked him the details of the brewing, it became clear that the tea leaves were not able to open.

The customer said that you can brew coffee just by pouring hot water over, and I thought that was certainly true. It is a characteristic of Japanese tea that the taste changes considerably depending on the water temperature, amount and brewing time. We cannot change that, but I want to make tea something that people can enjoy more easily.

Q: What do you think the future of the tea industry will be like? What do you want it to look like?

Tajimi: Frankly speaking, if it continues to be treated as a difficult thing, consumption will simply decline. I think this situation that cannot be overcome has continued for several decades, so I think that the situation of declining consumption will continue to be an issue.

I think a new aspect of consumption at bars is emerging, so it would be great to increase the consumption of Japanese tea at bars.