Now and then I see Mr Ogawa as he walks home from his store in the city. Mr Ogawa walks by way of the waterfront, following a line of Norfolk pines planted uniformly between opposing lanes of traffic. The pines’ knobbly roots have heaved up the road so that it undulates like corrugated iron. The weather and the sea change but Mr Ogawa looks almost exactly the same as he did ten, twelve years ago. Apart from the grey hair, shorn close. When Mr Ogawa first arrived in New Zealand he spoke English as if he were trying to force it through a sieve. “Tan. You. Veh-ree. Much.” These days Mr Ogawa’s ‘thank you’s’ have more flow to them, although I have never heard him say ‘Thanks’ like a Kiwi.
Raku, besides being the name given one of my favourite stores, is a style of pottery and also a word that means fun and joy. I have admired the merchandise at Raku ever since the store opened it’s portal to Japan; to it’s ceramics, good luck cats, paper, fabric, furniture and more.
At Raku Kent Ogawa performs an economical bow as he presents each customer with their purchase. Purchases are ceremoniously and beautifully wrapped in tissue paper before being placed in a paper carry-bag. (Raku was one of the first stores in Napier to use environmentally friendly packaging.) To each paper carry-bag an origami crane is added. There is no hurry. This uniquely Japanese way of treating the customer is a large part of Raku’s charm.
When Aki and Kent Ogawa first opened their store baby-sounds could sometimes be heard coming from the staff-only domain. Instead of a heavy door between the private and public areas, two panels of Japanese fabric hung from a bamboo rod above the door jamb. Aki Ogawa, Kent’s wife, was more hands-on in the store then. Now their little boy is a young man and these days the sound of soft jazz is more likely to escape from behind the curtain.
Japanese ceramics can be divided into two main styles: decorative porcelain and rustic pottery. Raku has both. Little wonky teapots, shapely cast iron teapots, humble pottery, domestic porcelain, quaint cups, bowls and chasens. Visitors will find exquisite fabrics to finger, kimono to admire, un-creased origami paper to … oops … as well as pungent incense and candles. ‘Outside of my price range’ I told myself time and time again. Eventually though, I took away a teapot and then a cup to keep the teapot company. I went through a hair accessory stage, purchased various cards, incense, tea, tea caddies, a bowl or two, a wooden spoon, a table runner, a wall-hanging … I think that’s about it. Many of my purchases were intended as gifts.
It was at Raku I first discovered a green tea I genuinely liked: genmaicha. Genmaicha is a mix of puffed, toasted rice and sencha. Pre-genmaicha I only knew green tea by the cheap tea bag method. I could not understand why anyone would want to drink such a thing! The brew was thin and bitter and too like vegetable water for me. So my introduction to green tea was a disaster. I loathed green tea until I tried Raku’s loose leaf genmaicha. When steeped genmaicha’s toasty fragrance will fill the room and the liquor tastes of toast and nuts and wild sow thistle.
Kent Ogawa does not sell much tea because, as he explains, it is difficult to keep the tea fresh. Everything at Raku is designed and sourced from Japan so the tea would have to sell within a few months of arrival to remain at it’s best. The freshness of tea is important to Japanese tastes.
Shaded teas, powdered teas, leaf teas and twig teas, Japanese tea is more than matcha.
Tencha is the name given the leaf used in the production of matcha. In the weeks before harvest the tea bush is shaded. Matcha is made by grinding tencha to a powder.
Gyokuro (Jade Dew) is a treasured tea in Japan. Gyokuro is shaded before plucking and only the new leaf and bud are used. Like matcha gyokuro is high in theanine, the amino acid that promotes calm.
Sencha is also popular in Japan. Sencha is made from the 1st and 2nd pluck. Bitter when made incorrectly.
Bancha tea is usually produced from the 3rd pluck. It is stronger in flavour which allows it to be enjoyed with food.
Kukicha is another type of Japanese tea. Kukicha tea is made from the toasted leaves and twigs of sencha. The leaves and the stems are processed separately and cut into uniform size.
Hojicha, a tea I discovered at Raku, is a mix of roasted sencha and kukicha. Houji, or Hojicha, smells of toast and leather. This tea is best served in a rustic cup. Allow the brew to cool in the cup, two minutes, before first sip.
After the 2014 Christchurch earthquake many buildings located in New Zealand’s business districts had to be strengthened. While all this was going on offices and stores were forced to relocate – Raku was one of them. The new store, not far from the old one, is not as quaint as the former but it is safer.
Few boutique businesses have enjoyed the longevity of Raku. Most small operations open and then close within five or six years – or less. Yet Raku has survived, mainly due to it’s heart I think. The heart is distinctly Japanese at Raku. Attention to detail, especially to packaging; the way Mr Ogawa presents your purchase whether it be a cone of incense or a stylish bowl and everything is pleasing to the eye, contrary and tranquil. Perfect, except for one small detail, Mr Ogawa does not drink tea!