Your notifications pile up, one after another. Your timeline sluggishly updates itself.
The seasons and colors of the trees along the streets change before you have a chance to experience their sensations.
The frustration of feeling rushed through life.
In the midst of it all, we seek to find moments to take a breath and slow down.
Positive Scenes for Escape is a feature series where we focus on products, events, and people who melt the hectic pace of life to create positive moments in our everyday lives.
Today we welcome Naoki Tenmyou, the manager of Kannok, a shisha cafe located in a corner of Jiyugaoka, Tokyo. Naoki’s shisha is of unparalleled quality, and many of the store’s fans travel from afar to have a taste of the unique experience he provides. Naoki’s original recipes are the result of endless experiments, where only 20 percent make the final cut.
We visited Kannok to experience this creative shisha experience.
With shisha flavors “craft cola,” a secret mix that combines a unique bitterness and sweetness, and Taiwanese Dong Ding Tea to accompany us, we talked about how Naoki discovered shisha and where his passion comes from.
December 12, 2015: the fateful day
── When did you first discover shisha?
The first time I smoked shisha was here at Kannok.
── Is that right?
It was December 12, 2015. I remember it clearly. I was in my third year at university hanging out with four of my friends in Jiyugaoka and they brought me here. I had a sweet melon-like flavored shisha and I remember thinking how great it tasted.
After that I went to various shisha shops. At first I visited about one shop a month, but before I realized, I started going about five times a week.
── You really got hooked.
I was fascinated by how interesting and deep the world of shisha was. It was interesting to find that the flavors are so different depending on the person preparing it.
── Have you always been someone who tends to dive deep when you get hooked on something?
I think so. In elementary and middle school I was obsessed with judo. I achieved shodan and went on to compete in a top tournament in Tokyo. I had to quit after I was injured, but then I got into music and immersed myself in my band.
── Recently, your interest is shisha. Perhaps shisha was a good match for your passionate personality?
I think so. I was also really stressed out because I was at a point where I had to start job searching. Shisha provided me with a way to unwind and relax. I found a way to spend my time slowly and it was a new experience for me. The atmosphere of the stores felt like home and the comfort of being there and talking about trivial things with the store owners and other customers was very appealing.
Working in advertising, and a counter offer from Kannok
── Did you find a job after university?
Yes. I found a job with an advertising agency. I was able to use my skills in debating and analysis that I acquired in school, so the job was rewarding. However, the lifestyle didn’t suit me and I quit within a year. After that I worked part0time or was a NEET (not in education, employment, or training).
── And then you found a job at Kannok?
Yes. After I became passionate about shisha, I spent a lot of time at Kannok and became good friends with the owner. There was a group of us that would go camping together, and while everyone else was eating barbeque, I would make shisha and serve it to everyone. The owner saw that and offered me a job at this shop.
── Like a counter offer?
Yes. I tried making shisha myself before going on the camping trip and I found that it’s quite possible to make shisha on your own. I thought it would be fun to make it while camping too. I have been working with shisha for two and a half years now, and it is my fifth year as a working citizen.
── So you began studying professionally after you started working at Kannok?
Yes. I had to learn a lot by just experimenting and learning myself. I had a personal goal of making shisha the way the former Kannok manager used to make when I came often as a customer. Also, the shisha shop KIMET in Asakusa is said to be the best in the world, so I looked up to the manager of that shop as well. The shisha these two created were my ideal so I strived to recreate it.
Shisha tip: “smoke like you’re drinking milkshake”
Let me check the heat a bit. Here, now the cola taste should be stronger.
── Wow, that really changed the taste!
Also, try breathing out right after you breathe in.
── That tastes really good. Do you always show people how to smoke shisha like this?
Yes. I have my methods. Most shisha places believe that customers should smoke freely so they don’t really explain how to smoke. I agree that customers should be given freedom, but it’s also true that a lot of customers really don’t know how to do it right. I want to help them discover the deep world of shisha that may be hard to reach by smoking freestyle.
── That’s true. I was not giving much thought to how I was smoking before.
That’s why I like to give at least the basic tips on how to do it correctly. If you learn the basics, you will enjoy shisha more.
── Can you give me the basic tips now?
Of course. There are three basic tricks. The first is to breathe in softly, almost as if you are petting a kitten. If you add too much stress or air on the flavors, it can burn them. The next is to breathe in so the water makes a boiling sound. This is like drinking a milkshake. Finally, breathe out as soon as you breathe in. If your body is not used to the smoke, it can make you feel nauseous. It’s good to first focus on these three tips. Of course there are a lot of individual ways to enjoy shisha, but knowing the basics is a good way to start.
── The flavor is changing again. It’s so interesting, but how do you create these flavors?
I am very loyal to the requests of the customers. I ask them to describe their desired flavor. If they say “Something fruity,” I ask, “What kind of fruit? Do you want a sweet tropical fruit flavor or a sour berry flavor? Or perhaps something more like a banana?” I get as much detail as possible.
With that information, I compose a flavor that can only be enjoyed at this shop. For example, if someone says they want a “refreshing flavor,” I add a bit of my own imagination and make it like an apple tea flavor. I want to bring life into my creations. I sometimes tell the customers what inspired me. I might say something like “I made it taste like the apple tea soda at Disneyland.”
── So the shisha is a mix of the customer’s requests and your creativity.
One time I tried freezing the flavors before using it. After various experiments I found that freezing it brings out the sweetness. As it melts slowly, the flavors come out at a consistent pace. With the Taiwanese Dong Ding Tea shisha I served today, I put the tea in the water as well. I like to make the experience visually enjoyable as well.
── It is like creative cuisine that you enjoy with all five senses.
Depending on the flavor’s characteristics and combination, I also change the way I place the charcoal. Even after serving it to the customer, I make adjustments to maximize the changing flavors.
Physics, cocktails, and perfume. An adventure across genres
── One characteristic of shisha is that it changes flavors over time. You seem to be very particular about how you create that experience.
I think that shisha flavors are like hamburgers and steak. The more time you spend on trapping in the flavors, the better it tastes. I calculate it so that the flavor is not so strong at first and it gets stronger later on. As a result, I think about how to make shisha that creates an experience so customers can enjoy the journey of the changing flavors for longer.
── I see. Is that how the shisha experience you provide came to be known as “soaring”?
I think so. I try to create an experience where the enjoyment just keeps growing over time. I also have a friend who loves shisha and studies physics. He is researching how heat convection influences shisha so I apply what I learn from him to my work.
Other than that, I’ve been experimenting to resolve questions such as figuring out whether or not the basic process of “steaming” is really necessary, or how the flavor changes when flavors are cut or added, and how the amount of syrup affects the taste. I’ve been experimenting with these questions, comparing them, and applying them into my own methods.
── So, through repeated experimentation, you create your original shisha.
About 80 percent of my experiments end up as failures, but the remaining 20 percent bring results that I can serve to the customers. I work on new experiments after store hours. Sometimes, a new idea comes to mind. There are moments where my past experiences and knowledge connect in my mind.
── It sounds similar to a chef.
Mixing flavors is similar to cooking. Sometimes I can mix up to 13 different flavors. In order to create the desired flavor, it’s necessary to mix that many ingredients and I think it is the same for upper end restaurants. Their food can be very complex, like a soup can contain 20 to 30 different ingredients. I think it’s good to have that level of experimentation in the shisha world as well.
── I imagine one could be very particular about the tools you use for shisha.
Yes. Even the claytops used to put in the flavors have various types, like ones where the syrup is collected on the bottom and ones that don’t have that feature. I use different claytops depending on what I need. There are American flavors with more syrup and Middle Eastern flavors with less syrup. There really is no right answer to shisha, which is why I am always looking for new ideas.
── Do you find inspiration from genres outside of shisha?
I get a lot of inspiration outside the shisha world. For example, tea, cocktails, and cooking are rich in culture. Many predecessors in these genres have created sophisticated works and established methodologies, so I try to learn from them as well. Jiyugaoka is home to many famous sweets stores, so whenever I have time I like to visit them and taste their newest and most mysterious creations. Then there’s perfume.
── The aroma of perfume also changes with time.
The mixing of ingredients for perfume is also very precise so I learn a lot from it. There are perfumes that cost 30 thousand yen for 50 milliliters. From the moment I started learning about the complex world of perfume and how different it is from shisha, I was hooked. I am now inspired by perfumes and try to apply it to the way I make shisha. It helps me expand my originality and has taught me a lot.
A will like none other to move people’s hearts
── What motivates you to continue learning and experimenting? It’s obvious you are very passionate about it.
I had a lot of regrets after quitting my first job at the advertising agency in less than a year, so I developed a kind of ambitious spirit because of that. I believed that the first five years after graduation would have a big impact on my growth as a person, so I was determined to give my all to my next job. It motivated me to become one of the best shisha creators in Japan.
Also, as a shisha customer myself, I always had a strong desire to smoke delicious shisha so I want to be a place where people who have that same desire come.
── You said you want to be one of the best in Japan. Where do you think you stand now?
I am very grateful to say that we have received positive feedback such as, “There is shisha that can only be enjoyed at Kannok.” We also have a lot of regular customers, so I think I am slowly moving toward my goal.
There were some financial difficulties we faced because of the pandemic, but customers now come to our store within our limited business hours so things have stabilized a bit. Kannok is where I first experienced shisha, and I am confident that my will to provide the same amazing experience is stronger than anyone else’s.
── It seems that you find a lot of joy in bringing joy to other people.
I think so. I want my customers to experience something that is more valuable than the price they paid. Rather than just serving shisha, the reason why I look after their fire so frequently is because I want them to enjoy the best tasting shisha experience possible.
── We have heard that a lot of people come to Kannok to experience your shisha.
I believe that shisha customers are loyal to their servers, kind of like a bartender. I was also a customer that came to Kannok because of the person working here. If people come here now to have my shisha, that makes me very happy.
Photo: Umihiko Eto
Translation: Sophia Swanson