It took Shinya Sakurai 14 years to become a tea master. That's a long time to dedicate to tea. But when you visit his shop in Aoyama, Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, and sit down opposite him as he prepares an exquisite tea ceremony in an equally exquisite café space, you'll begin to appreciate the hard work and patience that goes into this tradition.
Shinya has modelled his store on the concept of tea being a form of medicine – as it once was – and he travels around Japan to source the best quality tea leaves. They're all on display in little glass containers, which are lined up in front of packs of tea for sale at his shop. At the back of the store, there's a seating area where you can enjoy sipping on the tea of your choice. If you'd like to taste different varieties, you can sample individual teas (from ¥1,400), but we decided to try the full experience and asked for the 'five tea tasting course' (¥4,800).
We sat down at the wide black counter that forms a neat square in the small café area. Shinya took up his place and set to work, making sure the water was the right temperature and then systematically pouring it from cup to cup to cool it down. The reason, he told us, is because the type of green tea he was serving – called gyokuro – needs to be brewed at a milder temperature.
Gyokuro is one of the most luxurious green teas in Japan. It's grown in the shade, which gives it a unique, refined flavour that's less bitter and full of umami. Shinya made three infusions from the leaves, each one a little milder than the last, and the third one infused with shiso herb and lime and served as an iced cocktail. Then he poured a special sauce over the leaves and gave them to us to eat. That's right – the leaves are such superb quality that it's a bit like eating spinach with a slight green tea flavour. We're starting to wish we could wake up to this kind of superfood tea experience every day.
The last two courses included roasted green tea served with pickled vegetables, and a bowl of rich, frothy matcha served with our choice of wagashi sweets. For those who prefer something a little stronger, Shinya has also created his own original recipes for tea-infused rum and vodka – so you could also think of Sakurai as a kind of standing tea bar.