2019 Spring - Michiko Ono

Channelling the essence of tea leaves
Michiko Ono

Due to growing health consciousness and the influence of the Japanese food boom, the world's interest in tea from that country has increased in recent years. According to Tokyo Customs, green tea export volume in 2017 grew by 13% from the previous year. The amount was about $178 Million (14.4 billion yen), up 24.3% from the year before.

Meanwhile, the world's biggest green tea exporter is China. Although Chinese green tea is inexpensive, Japanese tea is second in terms of export volume and is seeking to build on its brand power, high quality, and organic cultivation pedigree. Japanese tea ambassadors have been supporting this boom behind the scenes. This is done through the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, they provide education on Japanese tea through the country’s embassies, consulates and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
Ms. Ono, who lives in Calgary, has been active in the establishment of the Japanese tea ambassador system. Since she is deeply in love with Japanese tea, she is unstoppable once conversation about it begins.
We interviewed Ms. Ono, chronicling her early childhood to the present.

A love for tea a family affair
My family in Niigata City operated a farm specializing in rice and orchards. Rice and orchards take much time and labor, which is dependent on the environment and weather.
I grew up watching my parents toiling diligently with little rest. I remember the sundried new Koshihikari rice made at our farm; this natural rice was very delicious.
After raising her children, my mother started learning Urasenke’s tea ceremony as a hobby. When I visited my home, she sometimes took me to the tea ceremony class and demonstrated the ritual at home for me. At that time I had a limited understanding and interest in the tea ceremony, and I enjoyed the Japanese sweets more than ritual or lesson.
When I took my university entrance examination, Japan was in the midst of an economic down turn. At that time, I thought, "English and art are cool," so I majored in the department of English literature at Keio University. That studying had nothing to do with my current career. However, due to my childhood background, I was always deeply interested in agriculture, crops, food and nutrition. While a university student, I had a part-time job in my Tokyo aunt's soba restaurant and during that time I obtained a chef’s licence.
After graduating from university, I acquired a full-time administrative job at a local Nissan Motor Niigata Co. Ltd. in my hometown. At that time, there were many women around 25 years old resigning from the company after marrying. I couldn’t shake the feeling of job insecurity while employed there, I felt gloomy and started to dream about studying abroad. I left after three years.
My aunt who was a nursery school teacher in Tokyo said, "You should try a job involving people rather than office work. Why don’t you try working as a temporary staff member at my Nursery School until you study abroad?"
So, I went back to Tokyo again. My aunt's nursery school caters to children from 0 to 6 years old and employs a natural philosophy of using cloth diapers and allowing kids to go barefoot in winter. They also accept children with special needs.
I was single and had no experience in child rearing at that time. Considering parents’ expectations, I thought I should have greater skills to gain their trust. So I obtained national qualification - a nursery teacher licence. Working with professionals who look after various children including children with special needs, it was an eye-opening experience from which I learned a great deal.

Fulfillment of a dream leads to Canada
While working in the nursery school, I always dreamt of living in an English-speaking country and wanted to learn the language! In order to make that dream come true, I participated in an international exchange program sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that engaged in short-term training in China. This led to an internship program operated by private Tokyo-based organizations. This is a system to learn English abroad while teaching Japanese and Japanese culture.
Through this program I was sent to a small town named Rockyford in Alberta, where I stayed in a billet home for nine months while working as a Japanese teacher at a school. After this experience, I visited a language school in Calgary for several months.
My future husband was an English teacher there at that time. When I returned home, I started dating him long distance, and we were married in 2002. I acquired an immigrant visa in 2004 and moved to Canada.

A challenge adapting to life in Canada
Immediately after immigrating, I was able to work as a consultant and administrator at a language school in Calgary, and began my married life in Canada smoothly.
However, being surrounded by Canadian colleagues, I began to struggle and hit a language wall. I was afraid that they didn’t understand my English and started to lose confidence. Even as I overcame those language barriers, feelings of discrimination and living in different cultures remained, and I felt progress in adapting stall. I couldn’t see hope in my future and had no confidence in living in Canada. In addition, looking at female colleagues who were working full-time and busy raising children, I questioned if I could ever really adapt to life here.
Originally, I was confident about my adaptability to a new environment, but I realized that there is a big psychological difference between study abroad and actually living in Canada. I became overly sensitive to my situation and emotionally vulnerable. I believe I had an adaptation disorder at that time. I felt trapped in a very dark emotional pit.
At that time it was too painful to communicate with people, and I was afraid of speaking my imperfect English. From that fear, words didn’t come out as they should have. Due to stress of speaking English at my office, I would cry upon returning home.
My husband couldn’t bear seeing me in that state and hated to witness my suffering, so he took me to a family doctor who referred us to a psychiatric counselor. This person had considerable experience with immigrant patients suffering from an adaptation disorder. He explained to us how immigrants became more familiar with Canada, taught us how to relax and do simple daily stretching and breathing. While continuing full-time work, this counseling helped me to recover in about 10 months.
I think there are other people suffering from changes in the environment just as I had. It’s a good idea to consult experts as it’s a condition common to immigrants struggling with a new environment.
Fortunately, while regaining my energy, I had the opportunity to drink Yame green tea. When I tasted that delicious tea, I felt it sweep through my body the cells of my and I recall a sensation of being healed. Then I was fascinated by the taste of Japanese tea and the wider world of this beverage. Now I can’t think of a life without it.
Regenerating with Japanese tea is combined with entrepreneurship
When I’m interested in something, I want to learn more about it. Although I was born and grew up in Japan, I was stunned that I knew so little about Japanese tea. I went back to Japan and gained qualification as a Japanese tea instructor. At that time, I introduced Japanese tea as an expert, rather than spreading the word of its deliciousness. At first I introduced green tea which was sold at local tea stores . It was not very tasty.
In the meantime, the Canadian tea industry launched a tea sommelier licence. I also acquired a Canadian certified tea qualification to help explain Japanese tea in English. In addition, I thought that if I learned the science of tea it would further increase my interest in it, and I am currently majoring in natural science at the University of Calgary. I am learning scientific aspects of ingredients soluble in hot water, its health benefits and how tea functions as a food ingredient. The science of tea is truly fascinating. And because it was difficult to import Japanese tea without a corporation, I launched Matsu Kaze Inc. (Matsu Kaze Tea).
Knowing Japanese tea farmers and gardens through an introduction by the NPO corporation, I’ve visited the fields of an excellent farmer leading the industry. There, I learned cultivation methods and tea processing. Coming from an agricultural family background, I totally understand farmers' hardships and the problems of a lack of a successor. The challenge facing the industry is to sustain its farming by harnessing the passion of Japanese tea farmers who want to provide their delicious product to as many people as possible. I’m more than willing to help reach that goal from Canada. It’s an infectious passion.
The meticulous care in picking tea leaves should be the same care used in moving this industry forward.
Today, we also sell Japanese tea and tea ware online. But our main priority is providing educational guidance on wholesale business to restaurants and cafes and knowledge of Japanese tea. If you’re interested in Japanese tea tasting and learning how to steep Japanese tea, we will visit and conduct lessons.
I would like to enjoy and share the health and healing properties of Japanese tea, with the technology that helps deliver its deliciousness. It is a relationship rooted in a region of my country through traditional Japanese culture and the heritage of Japanese tea derived from the tea ceremony. Some day I will invite Japanese tea farmers to Canada and I dream of seeing more Canadians enjoying this wonderful elixir.
I’m more determined than ever to Share this passion.

Michiko Ono

Born and raised in Niigata City in Niigata Prefecture. Graduated from Keio University majoring in English literature. Moved to Canada in 2004. Established Matsu Kaze Inc. in 2011. Obtained the qualifications of Japanese tea instructor (Japan) and tea sommelier (Canada). Japan Tea Goodwill Ambassador for the fourth term, commissioned by the Japan Tea Export Council. Members of the Japan Tea Instructor Association and members of the Tea Association of Canada, who are in charge of qualifications of tea specialists. To better understand the ingredients of Japanese tea and its science, majoring in natural science at the University of Calgary. Studying under Mrs. Takako Yokoyama, the tea ceremony Omote-senke.

2019 Spring

  • Michihiro NagaseThe sky’s the limit: teen dream of being pilot took flight
  • Michiko OnoChannelling the essence of tea leaves
  • Kiyoshi TakasugiTackling hardship leads to fulfillment

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    前号(2019年4月号)      Japanab Home      次号(2019年7月号)

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