Japan. Tea in Kyoto
Kyoto is one of those places where I get what I can only describe as a fizzy feeling of excitement, sheer happiness bubbling up for no apparent reason. It’s the texture of the linen door curtains I gently move to the side with my hand, the brightest pop of yellow of the beautifully fan-shaped gingko leaves, all the shades of fire coloring the Japanese maples, the sound of water trickling into a stone basin, the soft rustling of a paper-paneled sliding door, the perfume-y smell of the cedar wood soaking tub, tatami mats under my feet.
Four years had gone by since last time. This time, tea was at the top of my list. Here’s what happened.
Ironically, my first encounter with Ippodo Tea was not the first time I visited Kyoto but when I won a tea giveaway on social media a couple of years ago. Their Kan-no-shiro matcha made me fall in love with matcha tea. After visiting their NYC location last spring, I was determined to pay them a visit (or two) in Kyoto. Their shop and adjacent tea room are located on a beautiful gingko tree lined street full of artisan and antique shops. According to one of my favorite books, Old Kyoto. A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diane Durston, Ippodo was once a purveyor to the Imperial family, until after World War II. I went there twice and tried a few things from their tea room menu and bought some teas to take home (Ummon-no-mukashi matcha and Kitano-no-mukashi matcha, which is only available in Kyoto). The first time, I tried both (Ummon-no-mukashi and Kitano-no-mukashi) matcha in their usucha version (thin tea), plus sencha and hojicha. Each tea comes with a traditional wagashi, a sweet confection (you get to choose between soft or hard). The second time, I tried their koicha version (thick tea). What is left in the tea bowl gets whisked into usucha. An old Japanese lady sitting at the table next to me was astonished that I had ordered koicha and she clearly gestured that she didn’t like it (we soon found out why, the bitterness!). I had only had koicha once before, at Setsugekka in NYC and it was an otherworldly experience, without any bitterness, which is why I was not expecting it to be so bitter. And in the usucha version, it was just perfect. But from subsequent experiences in Tokyo, I learned that bitter is not always something you want to avoid. Stay tuned for that.
Ryuoen tea shop
A stone’s throw from Ippodo, you can find Ryuoen tea store. Their tea is from Uji (south of Kyoto) and the surrounding areas. The name “Ryuoen” was not new to me but at first I couldn’t remember where I already had their tea. Then it came to me! At Oyatsuya, the Japanese dessert and snack tasting with tea pairing in San Francisco! I also found an old article in the NYT archives that describes their tea shop really well. “Ryuoen Chaho has been in business in Kyoto since 1875, a relative newcomer in that city, where many shops have been around for hundreds of years. [...] Most of the shop is filled by a raised tatami-mat area, where tins of mattcha and fine bamboo tea whisks are displayed in a glass case along with the price list. [...] Along one wall, heavy, molasses-brown glazed tea jars, each with its pristine paper cover tied with a silk cord, are ranged along shelves.” (Kyoto's Fragrant Green Teas, NYT, SEPT. 16, 1990) I bought the sencha of which they had offered me a tasting and their most popular matcha, although I was very tempted to get their winter release matcha too!
Close by to Ippodo and Ryuoen, this modern-style specialty store, with designer accessories and clean lines, also stocks incense, postcards and washi paper. At the back of the store, there’s an indoor seating area reserved to the customers who order tea. They only had 2 types, gyokuro and sencha, each served with a sweet pairing of French macarons (for sencha) and chocolate cake (for gyokuro). The teas were brewed to perfection and served in teapots (but no leaves to re-steep, sorry). Bonus points for the inner bamboo garden, very zen.
I found this tea house thanks to the book I mentioned earlier, Old Kyoto. A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diane Durston. It’s located in one of my favorite areas in Kyoto, along the Philosopher’s Path, a beautiful walk from temple to temple. Speaking of temples, don’t miss Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)! We sat outside and enjoyed a beautiful bowl of matcha and chestnut-based wagashi while taking in the view of the gorgeous fall foliage along the Shirakawa Canal.
Tawara Yoshitomi Karasuma
This is a traditional wagashi (confectionery) shop with adjacent tea room and confectionery museum which we (I don’t know how) missed! Anyways, at least we enjoyed matcha and wagashi there. Sometimes I wonder, what was I thinking?? Let’s blame the jet lag!
Honorable mention to Lupicia, which is a chain tea store, probably comparable to David’s Tea. They mostly stock flavored blends but also some authentic, unflavored Japanese teas. Here I was able to find Kyobancha, a special type of tea from the Kyoto area that I can’t wait to share with you here on the blog!