The city of Uji in Japan is famous for its green tea. The phrase “Uji tea” carries a unique history and promise of quality amongst Japanese tea lovers. Located half an hour south of Kyoto by car or train, Uji lies in the heart of the country’s western tea corridor. When I came to this historical tea town, I hoped there would be some unique experiences waiting for me here. The famous Byodoin temple in the centre of town was build in the Heian period—the year 998. In the middle of the temple rises Phoenix Hall. And just south of Phoenix Hall, lies the Byodoin Temple Tea Salon, Sabo TOKA.
Trying Uji green tea
Sabo TOKA is where you can try authentic Uji green tea served a variety of ways. They’re open 10:00 am to 4:30 pm every day except Tuesdays. Last call for tea is at 4:00 pm. For a tea set, prices range from ¥550 (about $5) for a basic sencha tea set with sweets, to the pricier chilled Uji gyokuro, that will set you back ¥850. The sweet served with the tea here are higashi—dry sweets made with starch and fine sugar.
You never know what you’re going to get when trying tea service in a new place. Tea can be done super bare bones—a basic kettle, water, and some dry leaves are really al you need. Or, it can be an upscale experience, with multi-tiered sandwich serving trays, cakes, and lots of frills. At the Byodoin tea room, you get a bit of both—elegant minimalism. The shop has a wabi-sabi aesthetic. Everything is simple—stone, wood, glass, and without a lot of frills.
Brew it hot, or cold
But, there were fine touches that elevated the tea experience—the quality leaf, the wine glasses used to decant the ice brew, the beautiful houhins used to steep the tea. The beautiful picture menus detailed in English and Japanese how to properly steep your tea for an enhanced tea experience.
This tea room did an especially good job of laying our their hot, cold, and ice brew offerings. A tea purveyor that knows that power of water temperature when extracting flavour and brewing tea, knows a modern approach to drinking tea requires both a technical savvy, and an appreciative nature. Not many places pay such close attention to water temperature, or offer the same tea steeped in three different ways, but they should! Three different water temperatures gives you three different tea flavours, especially when you’re dealing with fresh, high grade Japanese green tea with a lot of character. The cold brewing options especially play up the rich umami flavour that Japanese teas have in spades.
It was nice to see a restaurant offering so many different ways of playing with water temperature. In Japanese, cold brew is ‘mizudashi,’ and ice brew is ‘koridashi.’
For the cold brews, your first glass of tea is prepared by a Japanese tea instructor. Then, you’ll get a chance to brew as well. With the carafe of cold water you’ll fill half a teapot, wait 3 minutes until all the sand falls from the timer they provide, then pour every last drop from your teapot into the glass. In the case of a hot day, it’s hard to go wrong with an ice brew tea like this.
Tea service vs. tea ceremony in Japan
When in Japan there are so many tea offerings it can be easy to wonder whether you’re experience a traditional tea ceremony versus just a really nice tea service. Both can feel formal, or relaxed! There’s also many levels of tea ceremony, including some foreigner-friendly ones that are usually condensed versions that don’t have all the required spoken phrases required in a true Japanese tea ceremony.
When in Japan, the way you’ll know you’re in a traditional tea ceremony is if there’s someone sitting on a tatami mat in front of you, wearing traditional clothing, whisking and presenting you with a bowl of matcha. The atmosphere will be quiet and contemplative, but traditional Japanese tea ceremony always involves matcha. There’s also sencha do, the other Japanese tea ceremony that I’ve written about,but it’s much less common.
So drinking tea at a beautiful site like Sabo TOKA in Uji can feel like a tea ceremony, but technically it’s not. There’s a whole other aesthetic and art to modern Japanese tea service that goes beyond what’s encapsulated in the traditional matcha ceremony experience, but in general, quiet contemplation and the philosophy of gradual improvement, or kaizen, lies at the heart of it all.
If you are looking for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Uji, there are plenty of options around. Just wander down the main stretch of Byodoin Omotesando, a traditional old tea road to explore the old store fronts—some of them are hundreds of year old.
Drink tea at a UNESCO World Heritage Site
There are plenty of beautiful spots in Uji to sit down for tea, but the atmosphere of the Byodoin tea house I found both quiet and contemplative, and if you’re going to see the temple anyway, then I highly recommend stopping by for a cup of tea before you leave. Byodoin temple has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, and the Phoenix hall along with the items inside it are national treasures.
I love seeing how tea is done all over the world. Is there somewhere special you’ve had tea recently?