TODAY I CONVINCED my boss to send me to tea houses. Smart move. Tea has been a casual hobby of mine, rather dormant since my last stay in Japan. Sweaty, muggy city days don't lend themselves naturally hot tea drinking, and neither does the workload. This was my chance. I went to three tea houses; one modern, two traditional.
1. Yamamotoyama is a tea institution in Tokyo, selling tea for "over 317 years," according to a poorly-written English flyer. It functions as a tea retail store and tea cafe. A long glass counter winds around the inside, displaying boxes and casks of tea, in addition to nori, seasonings, and sundry other trinkets. Yamamotoyama is slightly cluttered, and probably hasn't been fully redecorated since its original building was destroyed by the 1945 air raids.
I ordered the day's sencha (green tea) and a slice of cake for 300 yen.
I sat next to a few older women around a low table with a sunken range and teapot in the middle. The sencha was just so-so in my humble opinion. Came from Saitama-ken, the prefecture I live in. Actually rather bitter, although it got more friendly after the second cup. I think it may have been steeped too long. I was expecting an expertly prepared tea, but it seems like the tea cafe doesn't emphasize the tea so much as the conversation. There was another bar in the back where people seemed to be tasting tea more discriminately, but I had no idea what to order and it looked rather expensive.
2. Next, I went to Tsujiri. Unfortunately, Tsujiri seems to have caught the Shiodome bug - the philosophy that anything traditionally Japanese is better when you multiply it times ten, add a liberal dose of the nearest western-inspired ingredients, and up the price a bit.
To be fair, Tsujiri does have a large selection of matcha (fancy green tea for ceremonies) for retail. However, since there was no traditional green tea on the menu, I was forced to try what everyone else was eating - a matcha "parfait." This gastronomic ogre was a complete departure from matcha tea in the traditional sense, consisting of a milkshake-sized glass full of mochi, green tea whipped cream, green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream, yokan, oranges, and a little tea at the bottom. A maladroitly-colored, tasteless excess. All the people around me were digging in, though - Japanese twenty-somethings, mother and daughter teams, the odd Taiwanese tourist group. I don't get it. Looks kind of cool though.
3. So, stomach aching slightly, I journeyed to Ginza for my last stop of the day. I think I judged Ginza too harshly. There's actually some good, inexpensive, authentic eating here if you know where to look. When walking by Uogashi Meicha it's all too easy to write it off as a modern tea shop full of style but no function (i.e. tasty tea). However, don't let looks fool you this time. Meicha has been selling high quality teas since it's conception in 1931 - it just has a trendy makeover.
To go to the second or third floor, you simply buy a 500 yen ticket and take it upstairs. I consider 500 yen to be a great deal for an experience like this, right in the middle of Ginza. The second floor was inhabited but quiet. I sat near two old ladies on a dark wood bench as I watched my server painstakingly prepare my tea set. The first course was a chilled 1st flush Indian darjeeling taster - golden-sweet with a dry finish. I later tried to buy some downstairs, but it wasn't for sale - annoying. The main sencha came from Shizuoka; also sweet and dry. I was given a few tiny palette cleansers, and finished with houjicha (potent, oily taste, like sesame oil. I like it). All in all a great experience. My server really took pride in doing everything right - adding just the right amount of water, using every single drop, swirling hot water around the tea pot to warm it up. Check out her work station.
If anyone wants to try these places I'm happy to send you contact info.