OHAKO & Time for Tea at the ICN gallery

I was very excited to attend my first every gallery opening last week. The ICN gallery in London (EC2A 4RH) opened with an exhibition of work by Japanese artists, called “OHAKO” (十八番).

“Ohako” is a Japanese term referring to one’s strongest talent or skill. The word “ohako” also means “box”. This exhibition invited about 30 Japanese artists of different genres – manga, photography, architecture, character design, product design, contemporary art – to create their own “ohako” of artwork using a Japanese tea box from Shizuoka. The exhibition aims to give London visitors a rare opportunity to experience the unique harmony of the Japanese arts using tradition and contemporary expression. All of the works were made especially for this exhibition.

The curator, Hisami Omori, couldn’t be there in person last week, as she was in Japan (she did watch via webcam though!). Here’s her message, taken from the ICN gallery’s information pack:

Shizuoka is located in central Japan, just west of Tokyo. It is blessed with an abundance of nature and a long history of traditional craft and Japanese tea culture. Shizuoka’s tea box industry has also been active, using cedar from the region and has supported the keeping, preservation and circulation of tea leaves for the tea making industry. But in recent years, the industry’s professionals with real craftsman’s skill have aged without successors and has suffered from a decrease in orders. Today there are only 2-3 active craftsmen left, which could mean that one day the tea box may disappear from the world.

Allowing the loss of a traditional industry also means a part of the culture is eliminated. With 70 percent of land in Japan a forest of cedar and cypress, the forest industry plays a vital role in many lives. Various measures have been undertaken by the government to combat common problems as depopulation, lower income due to imported wood, and forest-thinning in the mountainous areas of Japan.

ICN gallery believes that one way to address this problem is through creative expression. For this curated exhibition we have asked 30 Japanese artists from a variety of genres to create one-of-a-kind artworks using traditionally made tea boxes – creating a combination of tradition ad contemporary expression. The OHAKO (tea box) used in the show are constructed delicately by hand with wood panels made out of Japanese cedar and lined with precoated galvanized sheet and Mino Japanese paper on the edges. Unlike some gorgeous shiny tea boxes, this box has a down-to-earth feel of the common man.

To resolve all problems by art is very difficult, but ICN gallery with these artists will explore new possibilities of the cedar wood tea box and hope that this exhibition will bring about a new audience.

So, was it any good?

Yes. I think so.

The exhibition seemed to have something for everyone. The boxes varied so much, that I think it would have been difficult to like every single one. (I especially didn’t like the one with a spider in it!) But they were all intriguing in one way or another – some made you think, others made you smile. One, which I really liked, made me want to touch it, but unfortunately that wasn’t allowed.

"Painted Postcards on a trip of WATARIDORI painting - SPA ver." - Watadori Project

“Painted postcards on a trip of WATARIDORI painting – SPA ver.” – Wataridori Project
Hand-coloured postcards by Aso and Takeuchi a.k.a. “Wataridori Project” aim to create works by travelling throughout Japan searching for themes and exhibition spaces. The theme for these postcards is “Japanese Spa”. They are black and white photographs with oil paint.

Another favourite of mine was this sweet one:

"Sanctuary" - Osamu Watanabe

“Sanctuary” – Osamu Watanabe
Interpreting the tea box as a theatre stage. A world full of sweets spreads out inside the box.

Yum. 😉

I kept coming back to this next one, but I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it:

"Mesashihako (I want to see the same world as you see)" - Seijiro Niwa

“Mesashihako (I want to see the same world as you see)” – Seijiro Niwa
Featuring Licca-chan (the Japanese “Barbie”).

The piece which I spent the most time at was this one:

"12 months of cats" - Miki Kobayashi

“12 Months of Cats” – Miki Kobayashi
Plain “maneki neko” (fortune cats) reconstructed into 12 different characters based on each month of the year.

My friends and I couldn’t help but try to work out which cat was supposed to represent which month. We never did manage to work them all out though.

I won’t post pictures of all the boxes here, but if you’re interested in seeing a few more, please click here (or check out the exhibition yourself).

It was a fun night of peering into boxes, made more fun by the free beer, sake, and interesting nibbles. Gallery Manager Taki Togashi really was the “hostess with the mostess”, and the party continued into the night… (photos from the party can be seen on the ICN gallery’s Facebook page).

The lovely Taki Togashi, ICN Gallery Manager

Look at all the beautiful bottles of Kirin!

Following a night of too many Kirins, it seemed like a good idea to return to the ICN gallery the next night for their “Time for Tea” workshop event.


This free event was very enjoyable, and informative. Kume Hideyuki (Managing Director, ICN), with the aid of Pamela Jewel as interpreter, explained exactly how to prepare and drink delicious Shizuoka sencha (Japanese green tea).

Kume Hideyuki

Each pair of people started with a tea set like this:

Tea set

I was lucky enough to share mine with Spencer of Diverse Japan (a very useful site which is worth checking out, if you haven’t already!).

Spencer from Diverse Japan makes tea

Apparently, hard water (like we have in the UK) is not suitable for sencha, so we should boil soft water (such as Volvic bottled water) when making Japanese tea. It was explained that the temperature of the water is very important, and that the water should be cooled in a cooling pot for a couple of minutes, before being poured into the teapot.

Making tea

About 2 grams (1 teaspoon) of tea should be used per person. Unlike the British custom, there’s no “one for the pot” (although you can have more than 2 grams if you wish).


The first cup of tea was very sweet and pure. Up to three cups can be made with the same leaves, but each time it gets more bitter. In between cups, we were advised to eat Japanese sweets to cleanse our pallets.


The tea used during the workshop was the AOI brand, which is sold at the ICN gallery. It is their own original high quality brand. AOI tea comes from the Honyama area of Shizuoka, grown by the tea instructor and farmer Yoshio Moriuchi, whose family has grown tea for the imperial family since the Kamakura period (since 1185). The Moriuchi tea farm is still a family-run business and is certified as an “eco-farmer” in Japan (pesticide use is less than 50%, and more than 80% of the fertilizer is organic). Different from regular quality sencha, AOI tea has a clean, refreshing fragrance but full-bodied flavour.

AOI brand tea

It comes in loose-leaf and tea bag format.

Tea bag

Naturally, the loose leaf tea is better for this kind of brewing and preparation, but both the loose leaf and the tea bags are 100% Shizuoka tea, and really delicious.

Having lived in Shizuoka Prefecture for a year, I feel an affinity for the ICN gallery and their AOI tea. The staff are very friendly, the space is relaxing, and soon the cafe will be opening (serving AOI tea, of course). The gallery has a focus on Japanese artists at the moment, but in the future they will feature artists from other parts of Asia, too.

“OHAKO” is on at the ICN gallery until Wednesday 19th October. The gallery is open Monday – Saturday, 12:00 – 19:00.

The ICN gallery will also be involved in Asian Creative Culture, an event featuring an exhibition and live music, with artists from China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan. The exhibition will feature work from a variety of genres, including art, animation, game design, fashion, products, and interior design. Part 1 at the Red Gallery, is from 22-24 September (EC2A 3DT) and Part 2 is at Tent London from 22-25 September (E1 6QL).

3 thoughts on “OHAKO & Time for Tea at the ICN gallery

  1. Pingback: ICN Gallery Tea Workshop – How to Prepare Delicious Shizuoka Sencha « Diverse Japan

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