Japanese tea can be beguiling and bitter. And the ceremonial tradition that surrounds it can be disconcerting and dull.
The staff at Ippodo, a centuries-old tea merchant in Kyoto, may not go in for the rigidity of tradition, but they take their tea very seriously.
To them, enjoying a quotidian cup of tea in the company of friends is more pleasurable than following the rites and rigors of a traditional ceremony.
This shop and tearoom on Teramachi Street is in a beautiful machiya (townhouse) that dates back to the 1860s. The entrance is dominated by copper colored tea urns, and the aroma of different kinds of loose green tea — matcha, sencha, hōjicha — fills the air. In the tearoom, you can sample nearly a dozen varieties, and there’s not a tatami mat in sight. One thing you should notice, however, is a timer on your table. This, as your server will advise you, is indispensable when it comes to preparing your pot of tea.
I chose the flavor of the month, a specially brewed sencha (non-powdered green tea), which has a much lighter color than matcha (green tea powder) or hōjicha (roasted green tea). However, it still had that undercurrent of astringency characteristic of Japanese tea. The second cup was less severe, and more to my liking. And for dessert, all the teas come with a Japanese sweet.
Ippodo provides an accessible way to discover the world of tea, without feeling burdened by tradition.