Tokyo’s stylish tea boom
By Darren Gore on 24 Aug 2017
No drink is as central to Japanese culture as tea. Introduced to the country via China back in the 9th century, the beverage has both inspired and fuelled centuries of Japanese achievement, from the artistry of brush calligraphy and haiku poetry to such demanding pursuits such as Zen meditation. Generations of salarymen and students have relied on the drink to get them through testing times, and then of course there’s the high art of the tea ceremony itself.
Recently though it has been coffee that has captivated younger Tokyo-ites, with a seemingly endless stream of hip new coffee shops appearing across the city. Tea aficionados are nonetheless fighting back, with something of an oshare (‘stylish; fashionable’) tea boom emerging in Tokyo as creative minds put their own spin on the age-old ‘way of tea’. Let LoveInn Japan guide you to six of the best spots for experiencing Tokyo’s tea renaissance.
Artless Craft Tea & Coffee
Artless, one of Tokyo’s hippest branding and design agencies, has brought its vision to the realm of tea drinking with this super-stylish cafe located in the Nakameguro Koukashita complex, which lies directly under the train tracks branching out from Nakameguro station. Specialising in high-grade hand-roasted teas and single-origin coffees, the cafe has been designed by Artless founder Shun Kawakami to highlight the ritual that is a key element of the tea-making process in Japan. Untreated raw wood walls and an intensely black counter top ensure that your attention is focused upon both the taste of your chosen drink, and the beautiful hand-crafted utensils used to prepare and serve it. LoveInn Japan’s recommendation is the Ryuoen tea, a coarse and smokey variety from Kyoto that encourages slow, contemplative drinking in a similar way to a fine whisky. Behind a discreet curtain, meanwhile, awaits a small gallery (open on weekends only) showing contemporary art selected by Kawakami and his team.
Nakame Gallery Street J2, 2-45-12 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: Nakameguro station
This popular spot in the heart of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, dedicated to traditional teas, has a perfect balance of Japanese aesthetics and sleek modern minimalism. Within a narrow but deep premises the first floor houses a take-out counter, while the second and third storeys offer a serene cafe-style space in which to sample authentic matcha tea (as used in the Japanese tea ceremony) and other drinks, together with traditional wagashi sweets.
5-5-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Access: Ginza station
Da Yo Ne
Ochazuke is a healthy Japanese snack traditionally enjoyed at home and made by pouring green tea, dashi (soup stock) or simply hot water over steamed white rice covered in an assortment of toppings. In the Kyoto area, being served this dish while a guest at someone’s home is the host’s subtle way of telling you that the fun is over and it’s time to leave, but across Japan ochazuke is also renowned as a hangover cure. This latter reputation is, presumably, what led noted ‘food producer’ Tatsuya Yamashiro to open this sleek counter-seating-only cafe, dedicated to the dish, in Tokyo’s party-central district Roppongi. Open until well after the sun has risen on most days, Da Yo Ne is a great spot for refuelling in the hours between club closing time and the first train home. As well as traditional varieties, Yamashiro has devised a menu of original ochazuke recipes that use such toppings as cold shabu shabu-style pork and sudachi (a sour citrus fruit indigenous to Japan).
1F, 4-12-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Access: Roppongi station
Koso-an, in the family-friendly Jiyugaoka area, is a tea house set inside a residential-style building that is over a century old. A popular tourist attraction in its own right, you should expect to queue outside for a while at weekends or on a national holiday. The wait is a pleasure however, since it allows you to spend some time taking in the tranquil atmosphere of a traditional Japanese garden. Once inside you can enjoy the finest matcha tea and wagashi sweets while sat on tatami matting: if you are very lucky at one of the window seats directly overlooking the garden. No matter where you are seated, though, Koso-an’s interior contains a wealth of Edo-era artefacts to rival some museums.
1-24-23 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: Jiyugaoka station
Shimokita Chaen Oyama
These days the Shimokitazawa neighbourhood, with its abundance of bars and vintage stores, is a firm favourite of Tokyo students. Just a century or so ago, however, it was covered mostly with tea plantations. And so it makes perfect sense that this bastion of traditional tea culture is located here. The two-floor premises (a shop at street level, with a tea room up above on the second floor) is overseen by two brothers who have both attained the highest rank possible (10 dan) in the art of tea making. In the summer months the shop’s signature shaved ice, flavoured with matcha or hojicha (a roasted green tea), is hugely popular.
2-30-2 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Access: Shimokitazawa station
This brand new venture opened by two young product designers, and located in the Sangenjaya district a 15-minute train ride from Shibuya, takes the concept of the minimal tea house to a stunning extreme. The off-white space is uniformly bathed in light and entirely free of non-functional decoration, with the centrepiece being a wood counter, surrounded by simple stools, where the tea master prepares hand-dripped single-origin green teas. The distinctive drippers used, crafted from copper, wood and ceramics, were designed by the shop’s owners to ensure that tea leaves steep for exactly the right amount of time. Tokyo Saryo is a surprisingly relaxing place given its stark design, and for tea lovers is well worth the trip.
1-34-15 Kamiuma, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo
Access: Sangenjaya station
Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.