Food & Drink

Tokyo's tapioca boom: Where to find bubble tea in the capital

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Bubble tea isn’t a new arrival in the Tokyo drink landscape, but the beverage has recently enjoyed a popularity boom. Perhaps you’ve passed a long line of adolescents in front of a store, or your Instagram feed has been overwhelmed by chunky straws and tapioca-filled, vacuum-sealed cups.

The drink — which consists of flavored tea, often mixed with milk and sugar, with black tapioca balls at the bottom, waiting to be sucked up — originally comes from Taiwan, and has gained popularity internationally over the past few decades. Its arrival in Japan is a little less clear, though it seems the first real inroads bubble tea made in the country came at the start of the millennium.

But the beverage has never been a true trend here until now. While bubble tea has had its devotees over the past decade and a half, it only recently connected with Japanese teens, the arbiters of culinary cool across the archipelago. Perhaps owing to bubble tea’s photogenic properties, its colorful, layered toppings and add-ins easily visible in plastic cups, online outlets have referred to a nationwide “tapioca boom.” You know it has spilled over into the mainstream when YouTubers and J-pop idols try to cash in on the trend.

Although bubble tea comes in all kinds of flavors, customers tend to go for sweet options, with milk tea versions the most preferred. Sweetened versions have become so omnipresent that publications such as Joshi Spa have reported on how just how unhealthy the drink can be for you.

Addictively chewy: A vat of sweetened tapioca balls are stirred before being ladled into a cup.
Addictively chewy: A vat of sweetened tapioca balls are stirred before being ladled into a cup. | GETTY IMAGES

So maybe bubble tea isn’t something to sip on every single day, but its current popularity has resulted in an unprecedented variety of stores offering the drink in the city for the occasional indulgence.

A great place to start is with the longstanding hits. Chun Shui Tang originates from Taiwan and has been credited by many as creating bubble tea back in the 1980s. According to a 2017 CNN story, the founder of the tea house got the idea for bubble tea after visiting Japan and seeing coffee being served cold. It isn’t clear if this claim is true, or if Chun Shui Tang was just able to market itself most effectively, but you can find seven stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area, with the latest opening in Tokyo Dome on April 20.

Chun Shui Tang sells Taiwanese dishes too, but it’s the bubble tea that brings out the lines. Its menu boasts a large mix of milk tea takes on the drink, anchored by the jasmine milk tea and particularly rich soy milk green tea creations. It’s also worth checking out the seasonal menu, which often incorporates fresh fruit and whatever flavor is currently on trend: Right now, you can enjoy cold and warm hōjicha (roasted green tea) bubble tea. Also check out its higher-end TP Tea in Shinjuku’s NEWoMan for slightly leveled-up beverages.

Sometimes, too much choice can be overwhelming. Cha-Do keeps it simple with its milk tea bubble tea, which focuses on the simple sweetness that made the drink such a hit across the world. This small shop used to only be found in Koiwa, Edogawa Ward, but, in early April, a new space opened up near Koenji Station, which helps bring this basic but tasty version to more Tokyoites.

The Koiwa neighborhood seems to be a hot spot for memorable bubble tea drinks, housing places such as Toki Seven Tea, Golden Ratio and the chain Chatime. A recent arrival comes in the form of Takusha no Cha, located near Shin-Koiwa Station. This one has caught on with the Instagram crowd thanks to fruit-heavy takes on bubble tea that load up on slices of strawberry and whipped cream alongside the soft tapioca pearls. Definitely not one for those trying to cut calories, but these creations rise above usual social media bait thanks to the actually enjoyable fruity flavors.

Crowd pleaser: A group of students lines up in front of a bubble tea shop in Koiwa, Tokyo.
Crowd pleaser: A group of students lines up in front of a bubble tea shop in Koiwa, Tokyo. | PATRICK ST. MICHEL

Craving a bubble tea later at night? Ikebukuro’s Hefkcha (but actually known by the pronunciation of its kanji, Senkicha) is open until 11 p.m. every day, meaning you can get your fix right before the last trains get rolling. Hefkcha boasts a big menu with everything from cream-cheese-flavored to green tea teas. All drinks come with the option of adding tapioca, which boosts the majority of these items up a notch.

But in the Tokyo bubble tea landscape, Gong Cha reigns supreme. If you see high-school-aged kids drinking out of big red straws, odds are they visited one of the 15 outposts spread throughout the capital. Gong Cha consistently gets high marks from magazines and websites focused on trends, and the praise tends to be deserved. Its menu boasts a lot of customization options, though you can’t go wrong with basic black milk tea with pearls. If you want to get a little more daring, go for a refreshing peach tea and tapioca creation. It’s maybe not the flashiest option, but great taste isn’t bound by appearances. Just ask the teens crowding these stores.