Tokyo Tea: Inside the City’s Premier Tea Shop

Drop the Lipton and dig into this whole new Tokyo tea adventure. It's a palate-dazzling experience like none other.Read More

The minimalist Tokyo Saryo is easy to miss, but hard to forget. (Source: Leibal.com)

Devotee of bagged tea, are you? We certainly are; not a day goes by when we aren’t sipping on some neuron-sparking chamomile or English breakfast. Imagine our astonishment, then, when we discovered the Tokyo Saryo tea shop on a trip to Japan’s beloved capital. Situated right between Setagaya City and Meguro City in the southwest of Tokyo, this sleek, unassuming tea shop opened our eyes to a whole new leafy dimension. Read on to uncover the best in Tokyo tea…

The space

Walking down Setagaya Street, you might just miss the narrow storefront and trim brown awning that marks the entrance to Tokyo Saryo. But there it is: Floor-to-ceiling class doors open to a crisp interior fitted with a square bar and angular elements everywhere (the Japanese love to be precise). Most of the space is washed with white, giving emphasis to the light wood bar top and stools. And while a bar is usually associated with alcoholic beverages in the West, here, it does worthy homage to the experience of preparing, smelling, sipping, and savoring tea of every shape, size, color, and texture.

The tea experience

Sure, you can buy tea to go from Tokyo Saryo (we’ll get to that later), but it’s always a good idea to try a new variety while you’re there. The “teatender” will give you the chance to select several teas from the in-house menu for comparing side by side — akin to an American beer or wine flight. As with alcohol, it’s recommended you stick to a single category of tea for your flight (green, black, oolong, or herbal). Once your tea is selected, the “teatender” will pour precisely heated tea over the tea leaves into white tea cups, then rest each tea filter on its bowl. These will be presented alongside a card that has each tea’s name on it, along with notes about their respective levels of bitterness, sweetness, and umami.

It's best to sample several teas in a single category — just like you would for a wine or beer flight. (Source: TokyoSaryo.jp)
It’s best to sample several teas in a single category — just like you would for a wine or beer flight. (Source: TokyoSaryo.jp)

For the best experience, start by smelling the tea leaves. This will give you a sense of a variety’s primary characteristics — earthy, sweet, fragrant, floral, and so on. Then, sip your tea slowly. Repeat this process with the remaining teas you have selected. You can also ask for water to cleanse your palate between teas, though we didn’t find this was necessary — at least not with green teas.

Once you’ve sampled your entire flight, your tea palate will be crystal clear — and can guide your purchase of tea leaves for steeping at home.

What to try and buy

Japan is known primarily for its green teas, though you will find black and oolong teas available, too. Here at Tokyo Saryo, though, we recommend exploring the rainbow of greens; it really blows away the stock “green” tea you often find on the shelves at U.S. supermarkets. As with the tea you sipped at the bar, pay close attention to the full menu’s notes on each tea’s standout qualities; after sampling your greens, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you like and what you should avoid. That said, here are a few recs from us newly converted tea-o-philes:

  • Koushun ($27/100 grams): This single-origin tea is light-bodied and elegant — best for an afternoon on the deck with a cool breeze blowing by.
  • Z1 ($27/100 grams): Once you acclimate to the sliding scale of flavors offered by Japan’s green teas, you’ll likely come to appreciate every part of the spectrum. Case in point: This bitter, earthy tea that’s very full-bodied. Best for sipping by a fire on a cold, sunshiny day.
  • Komakage ($18/100 grams): Slightly more affordable, this tea is a fabulous introduction to the savory sensation that is umami. Something like a green-tinged shiitake broth, it serves as a lovely precursor (or accompaniment) to a sushi feast.
  • Meiryoku ($22/100 grams): Cool at first blush, this mouthy tea tastes of sweet grains and evinces an incongruous aroma of black tea.

Tokyo Tea 101: A tea education

Learn about how to prepare and taste tea at Tokyo Saryo's onsite workshop. (Source: TokyoSaryo.jp)
Learn about how to prepare and taste tea at Tokyo Saryo’s onsite workshop. (Source: TokyoSaryo.jp)

If you’re staying in Tokyo for a while and want to double-back for more tea-ness, we highly recommend taking a “class” at the onsite tea workshop in Tokyo Saryo. These instructive, hands-on lessons show you how to prepare, sip, and experience tea to get the most from each variety. You’ll also receive information on various teas’ origins and history, which informs how the tea is enjoyed by modern drinkers in Japan.

For more on these classes, the Tokyo Saryo tea menu, or Tokyo tea in general, visit tokyosaryo.jp. Or, for a full tour of the city, check out our latest article on Tokyo — complete with hotspots for dining, fun, history, and adventure.