Remind me again what Japan’s national (nonalcoholic) drink is. No, it’s not coffee, whether out of vending machines or fastidiously dripped by well-coiffed baristas. It is, of course, green tea — not that you’d realize it in Tokyo. This may be the land where ceremonial tea was perfected, but it’s hard to find anywhere in Tokyo that serves even a basic everyday variety like bancha, let alone jade-green sencha or fragrant high-grade gyokuro.
Thank goodness for Shinya Sakurai. In the year since he opened his elegant boutique-plus-tearoom in the backstreets of Nishi-Azabu, it has become one of the city’s great resources for all things ocha (tea). Its official name is Souen, but it is the English subtitle — Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience — that best describes the owner’s labor of love.
Browse the shop, examine the tea paraphernalia, sniff and sample before making your purchase. Then make your way through to the back, install yourself at one of the low counter seats and watch Sakurai at work, expertly whisking sharply bitter powdered matcha, carefully steeping some delicate leaf tea, or infusing aromatic hōjicha (roasted tea).
Pair your selection with some of the excellent wagashi (traditional sweets) and prepare to discover the raison d’etre for this parallel universe of Japanese cuisine — they match perfectly with tea. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, order one of his liqueurs, such as rum permeated with the dark, earthy flavor of hōjicha. Heady stuff indeed.
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