Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Mix & blend Tokyo: Adventures in tea through the seasons

Mix & Blend Tokyo:Adventures in tea through the seasonsA wisp of vapor rising from a teakettle … the robust aroma of roasted hōjicha … the subtle sweetness of classic green sencha … every stimulus conspires to soothe your senses in the quiet sanctuary of Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, a hideaway perched above the lively streets of Omotesando, Tokyo’s premier fashion district.

“I was trained to serve with poise and efficiency at a bar counter,” says tea master Shinya Sakurai, looking back on his bartender days. “The need for controlled yet flowing motion had a lot in common with the stringent procedures of the tea ceremony.”

An important responsibiliy: Shinya Sakurai operates his roasting machine with the air of a dedicated scientist. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI
An important responsibiliy: Shinya Sakurai operates his roasting machine with the air of a dedicated scientist. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI

Today he serves tea following his own interpretation of the decorous ryūrei (tea ceremony performed with tables and chairs instead of on tatami) table style from the Urasenke tradition. “I first ask customers about their preferences in tea. If they arrive after a meal, I’ll recommend teas according to what they’ve eaten.”

Offering up the second and third brews with just the right timing, the tea servers exchange only a few words with their clientele across the counter, reminiscent of the low-key conversation at a bar. The staff’s disciplined movements add a pleasant tension to this tranquil space, where time slows to a standstill. The blend of elements is inimitably Sakurai’s.

The perfect pairing: Wagashi Japanese sweets are an indispensable accompaniment to Japanese tea. The shop's selection ranges from its signature bite-sized sweets (photo front) to seasonal specialties. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI
The perfect pairing: Wagashi Japanese sweets are an indispensable accompaniment to Japanese tea. The shop’s selection ranges from its signature bite-sized sweets (photo front) to seasonal specialties. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI

“I hope to convey the spirit with which Japanese observe the changes of the seasons,” Sakurai says. Based on the old calendar’s 24 seasonal divisions of the year, his shop offers a menu of tea blends and wagashi Japanese sweets that changes twice a month. Autumn features such combinations as green tea with persimmon, ginkgo, yuzu citrus or apple. Sakurai sometimes will blend tea by request, much as bartenders oblige with custom cocktails. The personalized service and seasonal blends entice customers to come back for more.

Surprising variety: Sakurai's shop handles as many as 30 types of tea leaf. Teas used for hōjicha (roasted green tea), which is roasted to order, vary depending on whether they are for light or dark roasting. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI
Surprising variety: Sakurai’s shop handles as many as 30 types of tea leaf. Teas used for hōjicha (roasted green tea), which is roasted to order, vary depending on whether they are for light or dark roasting. | RYOICHI OKAZAKI

Hōjicha, a roasted green tea, rewards drinkers with its savory, invigorating flavor. Thanks to the association with coffee, Sakurai sees roasting as a way to expand the ranks of Japanese tea aficionados. He also offers green-tea-based cocktails with snacks; always on the lookout for new pairings, he finds inspiration in the discovery of unlikely but successful matches. With plans in the offing to take a hand in tea cultivation as well, the Sakurai experience continues to expand and evolve.

Spiral Bldg. 5F, Minamiaoyama 5-6-23, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6451-1539; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (tearoom open to 11 p.m. on weekdays); Japanese teas from ¥1,400, set of tea with wagashi from ¥1,700, course of various teas and wagashi from ¥4,800; loose teas are sold at the adjacent shop (from ¥800), with some available by the cup for tasting (from ¥400); sakurai-tea.jp. This is the final installment in a four-part series on shops in Tokyo where you can “mix” your own products.

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