On a Quest for Tea in Japantown
Poor Japantown… at times it seems like the beleaguered, unpopular sister of Chinatown in San Francisco. Every few years, rumors will rise to the surface about how it loses money on a continual basis and may be scrapped into order to build condominiums. The Japan Center, built in 1968, is comprised of three drab, indoor malls which are certainly unattractive from the outside. In the center of these is an outdoor plaza and a tall pagoda sculpture known as the Peace Pagoda, which according to Wikipedia was designed by architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented to San Francisco by the people of Osaka, Japan. At times I’ve felt that the concrete slab nature of the Japantown architecture certainly contributes to its lack of appeal to tourists — whatever were we thinking in the 60’s when we erected these giant concrete tombs? Oh, the mistakes of modernism.
In any case, if you are a fan of Japonisme, anime, and sushi bars, or just want to experience the largest Japanese district in the United States, this is a must see destination. Unique shopping venues include a bonsai shop, a Japanese woodblock print gallery, samurai swords, kimonos, incense shops, and gift stores of all kinds with beautiful housewares. But what about the tea?
We ambled down there recently and had a quick lunch at Izumiya, which consisted of edamame, oshitashi (a boiled japanese spinach salad), vegetable sushi for me and some yellow tail for my faithful companion, Mr. Tea. I didn’t take any pictures of our lunch that came out well, in any case, I’m sure my readers all know what sushi looks like so the point is moot.
Some years ago there was a small teashop here, which is sadly gone now. For purchasing tea, we do have the Nijiya market, a huge Japanese grocery store full of wonderful foodstuffs and an entire aisle of Japanese tea from well-known brands such as Lupicia, Maeda-en, Yamamotoyama, and others of which I am entirely unfamiliar. I’ve been here on many occasions to purchase some genmaicha, fukamushi sencha, and kukicha. On the day we were there, tasters were offering samples of a first flush shincha and some seaweed snacks.
We passed many shops selling stacks and stacks of tetsubins, cups, and handmade teapots of all varieties. I own a tetsubin which I purchased 10 years ago or more. Being made of cast iron, they are quite indestructible and will keep your tea very warm. It wasn’t until I started hanging out at Chinese tea shops that I learned tetsubins are traditionally made for keeping your water hot and are not really meant to brew tea in, because they will pick up the flavor of the tea. I have used mine for that purpose for many years – don’t tell the tea police!
One cute little place we managed to find (pictured above) was a rather unassuming stall called Kissako tea. Sadly, it’s one of the only places to sit down and grab a cup of authentic Japanese tea in Japantown! This stand is run by an older Japanese couple and has traditional food items and sweets, as well as different varieties of tea. I drank a big bowl of frothy, green matcha and some mochi on a stick while Mr. Tea opted for an oolong. The Japanese tea here is from Ippodo in Kyoto and my matcha was delicious. With all of the teas in my rather large, overflowing tea stash I still haven’t gotten into matcha preparation, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.
If you are interested at all in tea made by Marukyu-Koyamaen, there is a gift shop here called Asakichi that sells it. I purchased some of their kabusecha a few months ago, and fell in love with the gentle, sweet flavor and vibrant color of it. It sets my mind at ease that I know where to go back and get my fix. According to the shopkeeper, their tea is flown in monthly from Japan.
Lastly, I had to visit the Kinokuniya, a huge two-floor bookstore with books in both the Japanese and English language. I ferreted out several books on tea, including some on cooking with tea, which I definitely want to try my hand at soon. I had a little fun with Domo, an animated character who is reminiscent of a meatloaf with teeth. Japantown is a fun place for tourists and locals alike, I only wish there was more tea everywhere but of course I am a little biased! Perhaps if there were more tea shops, the tea loving tourists would flock here in droves? I can dream…