Immerse yourself in Tokyo with a modern tea experience

It’s easy to get swept up in the chaos of Tokyo, but a modern, meditative tea experience can uncover Japanese culture better than most tourist hotspots.

Tea master Shinya Sakurai brews modern tea recipes.
  • Selena Hoy
  • March 2019

As I sit down at the eight-seat counter of Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, I’m struck by how immaculate and calm it is. My head is swimming with to-do lists and adding to that is the urge to take out my phone and start snapping pictures.

Instead, I stifle the urge and take a deep breath, drinking in the serenity of the place as I ready myself to drink lots of green tea.

Green tea is thought to have first been brought to Japan from China during the ninth century and has been a mainstay of Japanese culture ever since. Traditional tea ceremonies have been elevated to an art form, with a prescribed set of tools and a strict set of procedures, down to the way that the tea is scooped and the orientation of the design on a tea bowl as it is offered to the guest.

This tea house brews loose leaf tea infusions.
This tea house brews loose leaf tea infusions.

Today it’s also the norm in hotels, office break rooms and homes. There’s even a room in traditional Japanese houses named for tea: cha no ma, which means “tea space”. Tea master Shinya Sakurai opened Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience in 2014. Just as sencha tea ceremonies were popularised in the Edo period (1603–1868) – marking a departure from the matcha-based tea ceremony, which uses powdered green tea rather than whole leaves – Sakurai wanted to rethink the preparation of Japanese tea and experiment with pairing tea and alcohol.

Though the tearoom is small, there is a feeling of space. Burnished copper panels gleam in the kitchen and an L-shaped counter made from polished black wood acts as a canvas for tea presentation. Staff wear white jackets reminiscent of lab coats and as they wield their tea ceremony tools with precise motions, it resembles a science experiment in progress (in fact, the Japanese name for the place is closer to “Sakurai Tea Research Institute”).

At Sakurai, tea-making is treated as a science
At Sakurai, tea-making is treated as a science.

One of the well-coiffed staff comes to take my order. I choose hojicha (roasted green tea) with wagashi (Japanese-style sweets) and he offers a selection of six teas from different tea-growing areas of Japan to choose from. I had thought that green tea was all the same but he explains that this one is spicy, while another is sweeter, a third flowery. I pick a Kyoto leaf, then peer into a set of stacked bamboo boxes to select my accompaniment, awamochi – a sweet dumpling made with foxtail millet and red bean paste.

Wagashi sweets are part of the ceremony.
Wagashi sweets are part of the ceremony.

As he swirls the leaves over a brazier in a small ceramic pot, it’s so quiet I can hear the soft crackling of the Kyoto tea leaves as he roasts them and the stream of water as it is poured from a copper kettle across the room. After a minute or so, he brings the pot to me, wafting it under my nose, and the freshly roasted smell of the tea, deep green and smoky, washes over me.

He ladles water with a bamboo dipper into a small teapot, placing it in front of me. After letting it steep for 40 seconds, he pours it into a cup that he’s pre-warmed with hot water, coaxing out every drop with an exacting flick of the wrist. A fragrant vegetal steam rises from the cup, sending a promise of flavour.

I feel the warmth of the ceramic and the smoothness of the glaze on my fingertips as I wrap my hand around the cup that’s been presented. “With the first infusion, the tea is strong and bitter,” the bartender explains. The first cup pairs well with my awamochi, the sweetness playing off the boldness.

He then takes me through three infusions, inviting me to compare them, explaining that the character of the tea changes each time. At home, I never use my tea leaves more than once but he again pours water over the leaves, this time steeping only 30 seconds, as the leaves have already been activated. “On the second, the leaf opens up and the tea is aromatic. On the third, it’s mild and easy to drink.” The second cup rolls over my tongue, rounder than before. By the third, the astringency has faded and it tastes soft and almost sweet.

Sakurai also offers delicate tea-based cocktails.
Sakurai also offers delicate tea-based cocktails.

By this stage, I’m feeling quite mellow. This space and experience couldn’t be more different from traditional tea ceremonies with geishas and tatami mats, yet the calmness and focus I’m left with is exactly the same. I walk away with a bag of Kagoshima tea I picked from the on-site shop to try at home and a delicate flavour left on my tongue. It is a keepsake more fleeting than a photo but from an experience more deeply felt.