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The sun is out, it’s peak spring and the Golden Week holidays are here. But so too is the latest COVID-19 state of emergency, and this time it’s serious. Like it or not, for the next few weeks Tokyo will have to dial back on drinking and dining out — particularly the former.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t go out at all. We all know the key criteria to look for: anywhere that’s quiet, uncrowded and properly ventilated, preferably with plenty of outside seating. That sounds like a perfect description of Jinnan House and its simple, casual, tea-specialist dining room, Sakuu.

From the frazzle of central Shibuya it’s less than 10 minutes’ walk, but once you’re there it feels so calm and secluded, you could be out in the suburbs. Around a gentle curve, up a short, tree-lined slope, through a gateway and past a sign reading “Ocha and Good Things” you reach a large compound filled with greenery, an assortment of outdoor furniture and a retro food truck.

The Jinnan House complex is home to a gallery (Haus Studio) and the offices of the admirable Japanese food culture-focused magazine, RiCE. More importantly, if you’re thirsty, hungry or just want to rest your legs and head for a while, this is where you’ll find Sakuu’s laid-back, light-filled tea room.

Taiwanese-style warm egg custard purin with cold brew ryokucha green tea from Sakuu | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Taiwanese-style warm egg custard purin with cold brew ryokucha green tea from Sakuu | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Until two years ago, this was the site of the original Fuglen Coffee Roasters (now housed in more expansive surroundings by the Tama River in Kawasaki). These days, the primary focus is on ryokucha (green tea) and hōjicha (roasted green tea), prepared with care and a refreshing absence of formality. The house brew, Tenryu, is a bright, revivifying tea grown in Shizuoka Prefecture, served in stylish, modern kyūsu teapots and infused three times, each iteration imparting its own distinct character.

Don’t overlook the dessert menu. There’s yuzu kanten (citrus-infused jelly), cool and refreshing; Taiwanese-style egg custard purin, piping hot from the steamer; or hōjicha terrine, so thick and creamy you’d swear it contained chocolate as well. None are overly sweet. All are excellent.

Despite the diminutive size of its kitchen, Sakuu offers a small menu of light teishoku (set meals with rice and soup, also available as takeout). The current menu includes ginger-accented shōgayaki pork; “guilt-free” karaage chicken deep-fried with powdered tea in its crispy coating; inarizushi (tofu pouches) stuffed with rice and hijiki seaweed that are not just vegan but, quite unusually, barely sweetened at all.

And then there’s the aji furai (fried horse mackerel). Instead of the standard butterflied fish on the bone, here the meat is removed and mixed with potato salad, then breaded and deep-fried, emerging as fat as a fugu (blowfish) and twice as filling. Served on a sea of home-made tartar sauce (for an extra ¥100), this is not to be missed.

Sakuu’s aji furai (deep-fried horse mackerel) turns the dish’s usual butterflied presentation on its head by mixing the fish with potato salad and forming it into a jumbo
Sakuu’s aji furai (deep-fried horse mackerel) turns the dish’s usual butterflied presentation on its head by mixing the fish with potato salad and forming it into a jumbo “blimp.” | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Healthy, nourishing food made with skill; quality Japanese teas; a youthful team that’s helpful and welcoming; and that spacious al fresco seating area: there is a lot to like about this easy-going urban oasis. But the best and most surprising thing about Sakuu is that so few people even know it’s there. And that makes it perfect for these difficult times.

Over the holiday season (April 30 through May 9), RiCE.Press is hosting a curry festival at Jinnan House, featuring takeout meals by different chefs each day, as well as online workshops. For details and full schedule, visit bit.ly/curryrice-fes and register for tickets at bit.ly/curryricefes-tix.

Jinnan 1-2-5, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0041; 03-6434-9675; jinnan.house; open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (teishoku till 6 p.m., obanzai snacks till closing), Sun. till 7 p.m. (hours subject to change during COVID-19); set lunch ¥950, tea from ¥700; takeout available; nearest station Shibuya; nonsmoking; cashless only; Japanese menu; some English spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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