TOKYO -- What do the words "Japanese green tea" call to mind? The tea ceremony, with its elaborate rules for serving and sipping, perhaps? Or the bottled drinks one sees in convenience stores?
Once upon a time, green tea was enjoyed mostly at home, brewed in a pot, or steeped in tea bags, like English tea. These days, fewer people, especially the young, drink green tea at home, often opting for coffee or other beverages. This has prodded some tea shops into coming up with more stylish ways to enjoy traditional tea.
My cup of tea
Tokyo Saryo in the city's southwestern Sangen-jaya district, has gone for a minimalist look. The gallerylike space has white walls, a plain, U-shaped counter and nine high stools. The menu is equally simple: Customers select two varieties of tea from a seasonal list. The set comes with a snack and costs 1,300 yen ($11.82) including tax. Most of the teas are single-origin -- a specific variety sourced from a particular plantation.
On a recent afternoon Tomomi Yabata, a 24-year-old office worker, visited the shop for the first time. "It's very stylish and it does not look like a green-tea shop." Yabata chose a variety from Shizuoka Prefecture, in central Japan, and another from Kagoshima Prefecture in the southwest. The server began quietly brewing the tea in front of her using a special dripper and a long-neck kettle, just like for coffee. Green tea, like the black kind, is usually brewed in teapot.
Green tea leaves can usually be steeped three times. Customers at Tokyo Saryo get three servings of each tea, for a total of six. The server adjusts the water temperature and brewing time to make the ideal cup.
Yabata took her time enjoying the various tastes and colors. "The tea from the second brewing tasted so different from the first," she said.
Powdered green tea, or matcha, has become wildly popular recently. Drinks and snacks flavored with matcha are common, both in Japan and overseas. But according to Satoshi Aoyagi, president and CEO of Lucy Alter Design, operator of the Sangen-jaya shop, "There is nothing in common between the genuine tradition of the tea ceremony and convenience store drinks.
"We aim to create an environment where a customer can fully enjoy tasting Japanese tea and viewing the process." The company opened Tokyo Saryo in January.
Old brew, new look
Another Tokyo tea shop, Ohashi, is reminiscent of a European import store. It is located near Nakano Station, a few minutes' train ride from the western district of Shinjuku. The interior is decorated with balloons and colorful ornaments. On a shelf, are bags of teas from across Japan, including famous tea-growing areas in Shizuoka and Kyoto prefectures. Western-style tea boxes also line the antique-looking shelves, but these days they hold green teas.
Tomomi Nakazawa, a woman in her 40s, learned about the shop from a friend who bought her a packet from the place. "The package was very cute and good for a present," Nakazawa said.
Small boxes of assorted tea bags selling for 1,470 yen are popular, with the package design a big selling point. Customers, mostly women, often display the boxes at home after enjoying the contents, according to the shop.
Despite the shop's Western interior, the business is no newcomer. It was founded in 1653. Previously, its customers were mostly in their 60s or older, but the business wanted to appeal to a younger crowd. They remodeled the shop with a European look and it has gradually caught on with women in their 30s and 40s.
But tea shops are not just for those on an outing. One afternoon in July, a tea shop in the Otemachi business district near Tokyo Station served people hard at work.
Kino Chaya, which opened in January in a corner of a Kinokuniya bookstore, draws some 4,000 visitors a month. Customer traffic has been rising more than 10% a month.
"The shop is often packed with people during lunchtime, so I came here a little later," said a 53-year-old man who works at a nearby financial company as he ordered a matcha latte. "It tastes good and solid."
In addition to green leaf tea and matcha powdered tea, the cafe offers matcha flavored latte drinks and ice cream. The products are reasonably priced, running mostly from 200 yen to 400 yen each.
"We wanted to offer real, quality tea in a casual setting," a director from the shop's operator said.