No Japanese tea ceremony would be complete without wagashi. These exceptionally pretty confections are an integral part of the tradition and balance out bitter matcha tea with their sugary sweet azuki bean paste. You might think that by buying one of those plastic-wrapped azuki bean sweets from the konbini and pairing it with a cup of green tea at home counts as experiencing this time-honoured combination (they are still pretty tasty, even the ones from 7-Eleven). But until you’ve visited a proper Japanese teahouse, where the setting epitomises zen aesthetics and the wagashi is expertly made, you cannot truly appreciate it with all five senses – which is one of the points of the tradition.
Six teahouses to try
Yakumo Saryo consists of a restaurant and a tea room, Sabo, which sells wagashi by confectionery brand Baishinka. It was founded by the owners of popular tea salon Higashiya, but what sets it apart from the latter is its seclusion. It’s in a quiet neighbourhood, set back from the street, and it boasts a garden of Japanese plum trees, which you can gaze at through a perfectly placed window in the tea room. As you walk towards the entrance, you can already get a sense of the very contemporary interior design through glass walls. The friendly concierge, who is Japanese but speaks English as well as a little French and German, will greet you warmly and show you through to the tea room. It’s a quiet, dimly lit space featuring one large, square, wooden table and a counter at the back where
There are some things that Japan really gets right. Tea is one of those things. Garden landscaping is another. And creating a calm space within a massive busy city is also right up there. Kosoan offers all three. As we walked up the road from Jiyugoaka Station, past rows of shops and shoppers, we caught sight of the immaculate old Japanese house that you would most likely walk straight past if you didn’t know there was a teahouse inside. There is no English sign, save for a tiny wooden board with the word ‘open’ carved into it. We tiptoed up the path – it’s so quiet! – through the ridiculously pretty garden and gently opened the glass sliding doors. Taking our shoes off at the entrance, we breathed in grassy tatami and then found a spot on the floor around one of the low tables that dot the main tea room. They have both Japanese and English menus (the latter with pictures for easier ordering) with set choices basically consisting of a hot or cold drink and a sweet treat. We ordered Matcha with Sweet (¥830), which arrived on a black tray, the bitter, creamy green tea served in a large deep bowl. The sweet on the side was a crystallised-sugar azuki bean treat, which cracked pleasantly as we sliced it up with a knife so tiny it is surely meant for dolls. We’d also recommend trying the Anmitsu (¥830), which includes a bowl of sliced fresh fruit with a dollop of ice cream, sweet syrup and a small serving of tea. Knowing that the space was once someone’s home (in fact, we think
It took Shinya Sakurai 12 years to become a tea master. That's a long time to dedicate to tea. But when you visit his shop in Nishi-Azabu, 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 used to be many moons ago – 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 seated 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 for ¥320 each, but we decided to try the full experience and asked for the 'five tea tasting course' (¥3,800). 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 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 t
Walk along the narrow garden path that takes you from the street towards what seems to be the back of a house and you’ll catch sight of this century-old Japanese home that’s been converted into a kimono shop with teahouse. The garden overflows with greenery and offers a welcome introduction to the relaxed and authentic atmosphere inside. Kasoyo is actually a kimono shop, which means you’ll get to drink matcha tea and snack on chewy but tasty tsukumo mochi while watching kimono maker Kotaro Nakano hand-sew his creations. When we visited, he sat next to us and showed us how he ties little knots into the fabric, which he then dyes to create a kind of floral tie-dye pattern on the kimono material. You might even be there when customers come in to try on kimonos, some of which can sell for around ¥500,000. Since the menu is in Japanese, we simply asked for wagashi with matcha (¥1,000). Sitting at a small wooden table, surrounded by kimono fabric and peering out antique wood-paned windows, this is a wonderful way to experience the look and feel of a well-preserved traditional home while enjoying an equally traditional tea set.
Kameido-based traditional confectioner Funabashiya marked its 200th anniversary by opening this shop and café in Hiroo in 2005. The ground floor shop sells Funabashiya staples such as anmitsu (jellied red beans and fruit topped with sweet syrup), custard puddings and the signature kuzu-mochi for takeaway. Head upstairs and you'll find an elegantly appointed café space that's always quietly humming over lunch time. Here you can sample desserts including green tea chiffon cake and kakigori shaved ice, as well as some surprisingly wholesome lunch sets incorporating five-grain rice, fish and seasonal vegetables.
The impressive Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens was built in 1629 and is designated as one of Japan’s Special Historic Sites as well as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty. Take a stroll around the beautifully landscaped grounds with its picturesque ponds, fairytale bridges and wealth of seasonal blossoms before taking up a window seat inside Kantoku-tei tearoom. The décor is a little rudimentary and you may find yourself sharing a table with a couple of salarymen who seem to flock here for the affordable lunch sets, but turn your attention towards the view and none of that will matter. Also, your matcha tea set will cost a mere ¥540.
Want to make your own wagashi?
Simply Oishii Japanese Cooking Class
Miyuki Suyari welcomes you into her home where she’ll teach you how to make traditional sweets for ¥6,000 per person (20% discount for groups of three or more). simplyoishii.weebly.com
Buddha Bellies Cooking School Tokyo
Within walking distance of the Imperial Palace, this award winning cooking school offers wagashi-making classes for ¥5,400 per person in a cosy home environment. buddhabelliestokyo.jimdo.com