Growing up in Niigata, Japan, tea played an important role in Michiko Ono’s family. Their home had a traditional Japanese guest room with the traditional tea cabinet where her grandfather, who loved Japanese tea, had teatime with his friends. Her mother practiced the tea ceremony, so as a child, Ono was surrounded by Japanese tea culture.
After studying English literature at university, and achieving her nursery school certification, Ono worked with Nissan and as a teacher for little children, however wanting to continue studying English, she grasped the opportunity to participate in an exchange program to teach Japanese language and culture to Canada.
On returning to Japan, she took a position managing the ESL school, but she had met her now husband in Alberta, and after travelling back and forth for a few years to continue their relationship, she eventually moved to Calgary and assisted with student counseling at the ESL school.
Such a huge change was difficult, and it was tough for Ono to adjust to a new life here; she missed Japan, and one day in 2011, after drinking a cup of Japanese green tea, she was reminded how flavourful it was. “At that moment I realized tea is important for my life and my future, and I realized that I didn't know enough about it, so I took courses in both Japan and Canada to learn about teas,” she says. She is now a certified Nihoncha (Japanese Tea) instructor and tea sommelier with both the Japanese and Canadian tea associations, a tea ceremony practitioner for the Omote-Senke tea school, and has been a Japan Tea Good Will Ambassador for Canada for the Nihoncha instructor association and the Japan Tea Export Council in Tokyo since 2016.
She visited family in Japan, and a friend connected her to two tea farmers, sparking the idea of introducing the remarkable tea culture and tea products to Canada. “The opportunity to taste authentic, real Japanese green tea is quite a challenge because of the hard water here,” she laughs. “But we took tap water from Calgary to Japan and tested it with an expert. It was a little bit of an experiment and the Japanese tea farmers now totally understand the characteristic differences in the water between Japan and Calgary.”
Collaborating with chefs and baristas, Ono’s fine tea and teaware import business, Matsu Kaze Tea, has blossomed with restaurants all over the province now offering the teas. During the pandemic, she started an online store too, which has grown a lot and they now ship tea across North America. “It’s been quite successful, and I'm really happy with the online business,” she says. “A lot of people reach out to us to learn about Japanese tea and authentic tea wear, so we’re launching online education to learn the basics of the steeping method and also tea culture. Now new restaurants are opening in Alberta, and positive energy is coming back, we can move forward.”
What bottle does Ono have tucked away for a special occasion?
On the table is a box containing a bottle of aged daiginjo sake from Kikuhime, in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture, sealed in 1997. Kikuhime, (meaning ‘Chrysanthemum Princess’) brews quality sake using only yamada nishiki, the most highly prized sake rice.
Ono explains, “When I visited in Japan with my husband for a business trip in 2017, we went to Kanazawa city, Ishikawa Prefecture. We looked for some local souvenirs and saw this special vintage sake from the region at a gift shop – it was 20 years-old at that time. We’d never heard of aging sake before, so we were very curious. We’ve kept it unopened, so it is 26 years old now. We’re not sure if we have stored it properly, but we hope it’s still good.”
And when will she open the bottle? “That's a very good question,” she smiles. “This sake is one of a kind and we’re looking forward to trying it. We forgot about it, so we are thinking probably another four years to get to 30 years old. It’s an interesting surprise. Now I’ve also learned that tea producers are finding ways to keep green tea for aging for a few years.”