Tea is inextricably woven into Japanese culture. It’s part of religion, art, and the rhythms of daily life. It’s enjoyed on the tops of mountains and on subway station platforms; it’s offered in meetings and at lodgings, and is sometimes served instead of water at restaurants. Its preparation ranges from dissolving a packet of powder in a bit of hot water from an electric kettle to an elaborate ceremony with specialist tools, exacting movements, and exquisite vessels. It’s even sometimes used as a pickup line: “Ocha nomu?” or “Shall we drink tea?” Use this map to explore just a few faces of tea in the nation’s capital.Read More
Teatime in Tokyo
Tea has been important enough historically to find itself into place names, and Tokyo Saryo is located in Sangenjaya, which translates to “three tea houses.” Unassuming from the outside, the inside is gleaming and lab-like, with cool electronic music playing overhead. Tokyo Saryo claims to be the first to offer “hand-drip” tea preparation, using ceramic filters, glass beakers, and precisely heated water. Choose from one type of tea with a sweet, or two types for a side-by-side comparison, also with a small sweet. The third infusion of tea is prepared as genmaicha, with toasted brown rice added to the tea leaves to lend an earthy depth.
Built by the son-in-law of novelist Natsume Soseki in 1954, this graceful teahouse is situated in an old mulberry wood building in the leafy Jiyugaoka neighborhood. Visitors sit on tatami mats at low tables among antiques and bric-a-brac while looking out at the pretty pocket garden. The house is run by friendly aunties who serve bowls of frothy green tea and glasses of cool strawberry milk accompanied by a tiny slice of cake or a monaka, azuki bean paste encased in a crisp mochi wafer.
This gentle modern tearoom in the backstreets of Omotesando/Harajuku has a thick tea menu detailing origin and tasting notes of a few dozen varieties. Their sweets menu is especially impressive, with generous portions of treats like seasonal parfaits, tea-laced puddings, matcha cheesecake, and kokuto (brown sugar) ice cream. Tea sommeliers prepare three infusions of your choice to drink, timing the desserts so that you can enjoy the contrast of sweet and bitter. Tea seminars are offered here periodically on topics such as making iced tea, blending herbs with tea, and preparing matcha.
Another area whose name is an homage to tea, 1899 is located in the neighborhood of Ochanomizu, which literally means “tea water.” This classy restaurant goes beyond break time and offers a full menu of tea cuisine, where the leaf finds its way into salad dressings, sauces, soups, patés, and many more dishes. You’ll also find an original 1899 tea beer, and an Ochanomizu cocktail with plum wine, Japanese whisky, and bancha (a woody, second-flush green tea).
Nakajima Tea House
Inside the traditional strolling garden of Hamarikyu, the serene teahouse Nakajima no Ochaya sits in the middle of a pond, accessible by handsome bridges crisscrossing the mirrored water. Sparely built from wood, single-paned glass, and a few sliding paper doors, guests sip matcha while gazing out at the view, the green of the tea echoing the green of the scenery outside. Although the garden is accessible from the busy Shimbashi and Hamamatsucho stations, it feels pleasantly separate from the city, which can be glimpsed past the trees and lawns. Sitting on tatami mats with water rippling all around gives the feeling of floating along in a boat.
Kagurazaka Saryo is located in a renovated machiya, or traditional wooden townhouse, and its soft lighting, patio seating, and simple decor makes it a stylish hangout for the neighborhood’s posh residents. The star of the menu is the Japanese tea selection including several varieties of sencha and hojicha, but they also have Chinese teas, some herbal choices, and a few interesting twists like azuki or kinako lattes. The matcha chocolate fondue is an intense treat, and the café’s late hours make it a good place for caffeine-fueled philosophical conversations.
Meaning “tea factory,” Chacha Kobo is a shabby-chic hideaway in a university neighborhood. With a homey atmosphere and inexpensive prices, this is a great choice for a humble onigiri lunch, a fortifying pot of tea (choose from a dozen types, and they give you the tools to drink several infusions), or a shaved ice with house-made syrups and condensed soy milk. The proprietors use organic, pesticide-free teas, most of them domestic green teas but with a few black teas and herbal choices available.
Sakurai Tea Research Institute
The elegant Sakurai Tea Research Institute (as its name translates to in Japanese) is indeed an experience. After choosing your tea, taking into consideration the region, season, and characteristics such as fragrance and bitterness, the white-coated (in a nod to tea’s medicinal properties) tea sommeliers will prepare your drink before your eyes, taking you through first, second, and third infusions. Hojicha is roasted on the spot, just before brewing at the brazier, and a carefully selected assortment of seasonal sweets and snacks is offered alongside.