Green tea pilgrimage to Ippodo Kyoto

I’m addicted to coffee but I do enjoy an occasional cup of tea, especially if it’s from Taiwan or Japan. Since we were spending a few days in Kyoto, it would not have been complete if we didn’t pay a visit to the Ippodo Tea main store on Teramachi Street.

Our first attempt failed because we arrived too late in the evening and the tearoom was already closed. As a consolation, the nice staff at the shop let us browse in the retail store, and gave us samples of cold-brewed gyokuro tea to try.

I had never heard of gyokuro before, and fully expected to be sipping on some nice but normal cold green tea. I have never been more wrong in my life.

After the first sip, I did a double-take and asked the lady if this was some sort of dashi broth instead of green tea. She smiled politely at the clueless gaijin (i.e. me) and replied: “No, it’s gyokuro”.

I learnt something new that day.

There is green tea, and then there is gyokuro. It’s technically just tea grown in the shade, but it’s so much more than that. It’s written as 玉露 in kanji, which translates to “jade dew”. I’ve never drunk jade condensation before in my life, but apparently it tastes like this.

Imagine the most flavourful kombu and katsuobushi dashi that you’ve ever had; keep the rich umami and then make it taste as light as a cloud.

By the time we finished our small tasting portion, the retail store was closing as well. We noted the opening hours of the tearoom and returned bright and early the next morning.

We were ushered into the Kaboku Tearoom, seated and presented with the menu. I already knew what I was going to have, and pointed straight to the “Kyoto Exclusive Premium Select Gyokuro” and asked if it was the same as the samples they served yesterday. It was, but would instead be hot-brewed.

The Wife chose the “Kitano-no-mukashi”, another Kyoto-exclusive item, and the waitress explained that it would be served two ways.

Firstly, a thick koicha (濃茶) would be served, and then secondly, the remnant would be whisked with hot water to make usucha (薄茶).

Again, we learnt something new.

The gyokuro arrived first, on a tray with a tin of the precious tea leaves, a small serving flask, a pretty maple leaf-shaped soft wagashi and four (?!) teacups.

There was also a glass of cold gyokuro, same as what we had before, which was not part of the menu but served gratis. It was a nice touch, and much appreciated.

Our waitress then proceeded to explain and demonstrate how to brew the gyokuro.

First, pour the tea leaves into the serving flask. Next, spread out the four empty teacups. Then, from the thermos on the table, pour the just boiled water into one of the teacups. And after that, transfer the hot water successively from one teacup to the next, until you reach the fourth and final one.

Apparently the hot water loses about 10 degrees of temperature after each transfer, resulting in warm water of about 60 degrees Celsius, ideal for brewing the delicate gyokuro. Anything hotter results in bitter tea, and anything cooler doesn’t fully extract the flavour.

As an added check before pouring the warm water into the tea leaves, cup the final teacup in your palms. It should be hot, but just cool enough to hold comfortably.

Let the leaves steep for about 90 seconds, which was timed using the small sand-filled hourglass provided, and then serve and enjoy.

It seems like too much work just for a few cups of tea, but the entire brewing process felt very zen and relaxing. The only thing that mattered during that time was getting the timing and temperature right.

Here’s a closer look at the tea leaves after being steeped. Doesn’t it look like some sort of vegetable soup, with a glistening layer of delicious oil floating on top? It was, as expected, very oishii. Similar in flavour to the cold version, but, well, hotter.

The process was repeated a few more times, with each iteration producing lighter, but no less flavourful, tea. After five rounds, it started to taste like common sencha and that’s when you’re supposed to stop. And so I did.

As I was into my second round, The Wife’s koicha arrived, together with some hard wagashi. It looked like the algae sludge at the bottom of a fish tank that hasn’t been cleaned for a long, long time.

The first sip was, as expected, bitter. But in a nice way. And subsequent sips revealed more of the rich flavour of heavily condensed matcha. I wasn’t a big fan of this koicha, but The Wife quite enjoyed it. But then again, she likes to eat bittergourd, which explains everything.

When she was done with the koicha, our waitress brought the cup with remaining green sludge back to the counter, added some hot water and proceeded to bamboo whisk the heck out of it.

Tadah! Usucha. Plus another maple leaf wagashi that magically appeared. Domo arigato very much.

I think we must have spent close to two hours in the tearoom, slowly enjoying the tea and the serene atmosphere. When we started to get hungry, we asked our waitress where she likes to go for lunch, and she pointed us to a small soba shop down the street. It turned out to be very nice.

As we were leaving, she handed us a small package and instructed: “Pour some ponzu on it and have it as a snack”. Turns out it was the leftover gyokuro leaves from our flask, which were too precious to throw away.

So when we checked in to our ryokan later that afternoon, we requested for some ponzu and finished the very last remnants of the amazing tea.

I am still a coffee-not-tea person, but I will always remember our unforgettable gyokuro experience at the Ippodo Kaboku Tearoom that morning in Kyoto.

Eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto

The world has changed forever due to that-which-must-not-be-named and international travel is on an indefinite pause. There are many countries we want to visit again and Japan is definitely among the top choices.

In the meantime, as we remain grounded in Singapore, we can look back and remember the wonderful time we had in our eleven days in Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto during the autumn of 2018, two years and a lifetime ago.


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