Tea culture in Japan isn’t just about matcha and sencha anymore.
Modern Japanese tea masters are upending centuries of tradition with new twists on the drink, an attempt to persuade a new generation that tea doesn’t have to be stuffy, fussy and expensive. They’re bringing in innovations as daring as adding flavoring and alcohol.
That may not seem outlandish in a world that goes mad for Unicorn Frappuccinos, cronuts and rainbow bagels. But in Japan—home to the highly formal, regimented tea ceremony—it’s a sign of a growing movement in which tea stands, salons and shops are pairing smart design with a casual yet authentic approach, aiming to reignite millennials’ interest in the ubiquitous beverage.
Tea With a Kick
An intimate, eight-seat salon inside Tokyo’s Spiral Building, the Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience provides an oasis in a city where the depth and appreciation of tea is often sacrificed to convenience.
Tea master Shinya Sakurai has developed his own range of tea-infused alcohol that includes refreshing Sencha Gin, smoky Iribancha Whiskey and pink-hued Sunrouge Hoshiko plum wine. Prices start at 1,200 yen ($10.75). While not necessary considered uncouth, tea-infused alcohol is not commonly seen in Tokyo, which has made Sakurai’s creations particularly noteworthy.
In the space, the decor of dark timber, copper and an impressive array of vessels and tools convey a sense of tradition but don’t distract from the main event. Teas are sourced from around the country and served with wagashi (traditional confectionery), while a range of courses featuring tea, liquor and light food are also available.
“We offer an uncommon experience,” says Sakurai, who worked as a bar manager before opening his own venture. “As people from different professions start working with tea, I think that more new things will emerge.”
(Upscale) Flavored Tea
Stephane Danton left behind a career as a wine sommelier to develop his own brand of Japanese tea. Born in the culinary nerve center of Lyon, France, Danton moved to Japan in 1992 and worked as a sommelier and consultant for tea shops and bridal companies before opening Ocharaka in 2005. He wanted to create a more accessible alternative to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
“The way that I think is very simple: To keep tradition, you have to adapt tradition,” Danton says.
The compact shop is lined with rows of various Japanese teas flavored with fruits, flowers, plants, and spices, such as baked apple, caramel, and mango. Starting at 920 yen for 40 grams, the lineup includes more exotic flavors, such as yomogi (mugwort) and konbu (kelp), along with a more familiar sakura (cherry blossom).
While the varieties appeal to younger and non-Japanese drinkers, Danton hopes flavored tea will be a gateway to appreciating the traditional teas. Like any good sommelier, Danton asks customers what they like—their favorite fruits and flavors—to recommend an in-house blend. Danton hopes to expand in Asia and registered a company in Singapore in 2015.
A Tea for Coffee Lovers
Tokyo Saryo is labelled as “the world’s first hand-drip green tea shop.” Tea in the salon is prepared by a barista, rather than a tea master, with the aim of spurring a conversation around the preparation and enjoyment of Japanese tea. Founders Satoshi Aoyagi and Mikito Tanimoto developed direct relationships with domestic tea farmers and produced Green Brewing, a range of teas that come from a single grower. (Many teas are blended.) The company can show customers where their tea leaves come from and demonstrate that not all teas are the same, Aoyagi said.
“We focus on tea leaves: different regions, different prefectures and different varieties,” he said. “People within the industry have said that they have been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time.”
The company’s first retail shop and storefront opened in early January, with nine stools wrapped around a central wooden bar. The blank walls and recessed lighting serve as a blank canvas for a single tasting menu (1,300 yen) featuring two varieties of green tea prepared using a bespoke, drip-style apparatus and accompanied by light sweets.
The Traditional Touch
To fully appreciate the alternative takes on tea, it helps to experience the ultra-traditional. For that, stop by the Ippodo Tea Company’s Tokyo Marunouchi store, which opened in 2010 near the Imperial Palace. The shop provides a chance to appreciate the Kyoto-based purveyor’s 300-year heritage and wealth of knowledge. “Working with trusted farmers and wholesalers, [with] whom we’ve built relationships over many years, we can consistently provide the same quality tea, year after year,” says Yuki Kitajima, Ippodo’s Tokyo Area Manager.
In the Kaboku-style tearoom, customers can take a hands-on role in the tea brewing process, choosing from one of 40 in-house blends paired with complementary wagashi, the traditional, plant-based sweets enjoyed with tea. The shop also offers a thick, premium-grade matcha with a paste-like consistency. Served with dark chocolate and eaten with a spoon, the unforgettable creation provides a chance to dive head first into the rich, aromatic world of matcha. Ippodo’s selection of matcha starts at 1,200 yen.