So, I'm finally back from my extended (thank you ash cloud) trip to Japan. And it was fantastic. I saw, ate and, of course, drank so many amazing things it's hard to know where to begin. Before I travelled eastwards I'd hoped that I might be able to have tea in at least one or two traditional tea houses, but I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be indulging virtually every other day! As wonderful and individual as each of these experiences was I think writing about all of them might stretch everyone's patience so I have decided to concentrate on the tea that made the biggest impact on me.
My very first tea house experience was in Tokyo, in the Shinjuku Gyoen on our first full day in Japan. As I've said, I was worried I wouldn't get many chances for a traditional tea; so spotting a tea house whilst walking through a beautiful cherry blossom-filled park in one of Tokyo's busiest areas, I wasn't about to let the opportunity pass me by. It was a lovely little tea house which shocked me in its austerity as we walked in: a tiled floor, paper screens, and bench seating at tables that faced into the middle of the room (photos inside weren't really appropriate).
We were served the frothy dark green matcha and delicious pale pink sweets by ladies in kimonos and it all felt quite zen. I was so pleased to have experienced traditional tea I didn't allow myself the tiniest little bit of disappointment that I could feel trying to peak through my mood. Perhaps I was just too western to really appreciate the simplicity of the experience; maybe I needed to soak up a bit more of the Japanese spirit before I could really enjoy it. As we continued our walk past thousands of Tokyoites taking photos of the glorious cherry blossoms (and I'm talking virtually everyone in the park whether on their camera-phones or their telephoto lenses that would put a paparazzo to shame) I was determined that next time I would be prepared for the whole tea experience and really grab it with both hands.
My next opportunity came in Kanazawa, a smallish town near the Sea of Japan about 4 hours north of Tokyo. On the afternoon we arrived we walked through Kenroku-en, its famous garden in the sunshine (although slightly wishing we'd brought warmer clothes with us); and that evening we went to the rather wonderful contemporary art museum. Kanazawa was turning our to be a bit of a hit. The following day we decided to hot-foot it over to Higachi-Chaya, the Geisha district - the only one still in existence outside of Kyoto. It was a lovely area of tiny streets and little squares all overshadowed by a temple-strewn wooded hillside.
When we went into a traditional house and discovered it had a tea room at the back I was determined to give the whole thing another shot. As is usual we paid for the tea and sweets up front and then went into the tea room. To say I was completely blown away would be an understatement. The little tatami room had the kind of seating that allows you to put your feet down into a hole (which makes it much easier if you're not used to sitting on the floor) with a long wooden table in front of you.
Everyone (although at this stage Coffee Boy and I were alone) had to sit facing the same way - but given the (sadly unphotogenic) view I can't imagine anyone would want to face anywhere else. The windows looked out onto a tiny but beautiful garden. Despite its diminutive size, every angle was like a picture: some moss covered rocks here; a bamboo water feature there; and all with the most gorgeous light dappled through bamboo leaves; it was just amazing. I have to admit, I was so overcome by the beauty of the room I could feel tears pricking at my eyes. I thought I'd managed to pull myself together when Coffee Boy said "you're not tearful are you? Oh for goodness' sake"...
This tea room was, so far, everything I'd hoped it would be. We sat ourselves down and waited for the main event. First to come out, as is customary, were the wagashi tea sweets placed upon a simple piece of folded paper along with the implement to eat them and a perfect little sprig of leaves, wet as if with dew. The wagashi themselves were of the lovely moist variety and each was shaped like a cherry blossom. These type of wagashi are a very sweet concoction made of pounded rice and filled with a paste made from aduki beans. The idea is that you eat the sweet first and then counteract it with the bitterness of the matcha but personally I prefer to eat my sweet whilst I'm drinking - just call me a tea rebel. Perhaps the most amazing discovery for me was the fact the matcha was nowhere near as bitter as I was expecting. I subsequently discovered there are different grades of matcha and generally the more expensive stuff is less bitter. For my taste the stuff they were serving in this glorious tea room was pretty perfect - bitter but still refreshing.
As I sat enjoying the view and soaking up the whole ambiance of the place a few more people arrived. But to my pleasure everyone was treating the room with the same quiet reverence. I found this to be a feature in all of the traditional tea rooms we visited - I guess people who are paying £5-6 to sit on a tatami mat and drink tea aren't likely to be the lairyest customers but it was gratifying that we never encountered the loud coach parties we kept bumping into at our various hotel breakfasts either. One thing that did surprise me was how quickly our fellow tea drinkers seemed to move on. I had assumed that the whole experience was one to be savoured and contemplated but for most of the Japanese people we encountered in these kind of tea rooms it was very much a pop-in and pop-out again kind of deal. Well no matter, I was determined to take my time. From feeling the rough tea bowl in my hand to gazing at the beautiful views the whole experience was, for me, completely magical. Just I was sinking into a reverie of tea bliss Coffee Boy put everything in perspective by gazing across and with a quizzical tone in his voice said, "so, ice cream?" Obviously, having just eaten an incredibly sweet wagashi that wasn't what was uppermost on my mind but it was time to go and having indulged me in my culinary desires it was only fair I reciprocated (and we did find some pretty amazing ice cream...)
As you can imagine, this was far from our last tea encounter. A number of the gardens and parks in Japan have tea rooms, usually in the spot with the best view and I was determined to indulge in as many of these amazing experiences as I could. It turns out that our first two tea rooms were actually quite unusual - at least in the seating arrangement - as nearly every other one we visited involved sitting on a tatami mat (cross legged for me as kneeling does not equal an enjoyable tea break!). And although I came to prefer the simplicity of sitting on the floor, this tea room in Kanazawa still holds a special place in my heart. In fact, I find myself smiling just thinking about it.
I'm so glad I discovered my love of tea otherwise I may never have enjoyed such lovely experiences as these. And I urge you, even if you're not the biggest tea fan in the world, if you ever go to Japan you really much visit a traditional tea room. For me it really summed up the essence of the country, at least its more traditional side. Of course there is a whole other side to the place. But that's another story...