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…


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Comments (10)

    Profile photo of scottteaman
    ScottTeaManMay 12th, 2012 at 10:41 pm      

    I am sssoooo glad you posted your adventure in Japantown. 1968 doesn’t seem like that long ago. I don’t remember it, but…….what I’m trying to say is 44 years is such a short time for Japantown-I really hope things turn around! When I do get a true Tetsubin teapot, I will use it for a specific tea…….I have to find the right one-something blue, no doubt.

    What’s up with Mr Tea ordering an Oolong-I hope they didn’t plant a lugie in his tea…. hee heee. This post really reminds me to drink more sencha, gyokuro, & matcha. Some people don’t, but I really like Matcha.

    Great review-I only wish we had a Japantown in Cleveland! It’s nice to dream…….

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 13th, 2012 at 9:34 am      

      I really need to drink more of my Japanese teas too. As you know I’ve been preoccupied with drinking all the FF darjeelings lately! I want to open up a Himalayan tea shop. I wish there was one!

        Profile photo of scottteaman
        ScottTeaManMay 17th, 2012 at 11:11 pm      

        Are you seriosly considering opening up a tea shop? That would be great!

          Profile photo of amyoh
          amyohMay 18th, 2012 at 7:40 am      

          Not seriously, no.

        jackieMay 18th, 2012 at 3:27 pm      

        How come Himalayan? I’m just asking because Nepalese tea is some of my favorite tea.

          Profile photo of amyoh
          amyohMay 18th, 2012 at 4:14 pm      

          Jackie, the Himalayan Mountains are in Nepal. :) And other countries too, of course. Their would definitely be Nepalese tea in my imaginary teashop.

            jackieMay 18th, 2012 at 6:30 pm      

            Yes, that’s what I was wondering. If you’re thinking about a Himalayan tea shop because you’re just as crazy about Nepalese tea as me :)

          Profile photo of amyoh
          amyohMay 18th, 2012 at 7:23 pm      

          Sorry I can’t reply to your last post for some reason. Yes, I really like Nepalese tea and Darjeeling too! But mostly it’s because there is a TON of chinese tea in San Francisco but nobody is selling that stuff!

    Profile photo of xavier
    xavierMay 13th, 2012 at 12:38 am      

    Japantown? I know Chinatown but not this other one.
    But you are right, it is probably because they don’t have enough tea stores.

    And watch out, there is something in your hair and it doesn’t look that nice.
    I guess it is looking for more tea, hence its behavior.

      Profile photo of amyoh
      amyohMay 13th, 2012 at 9:36 am      

      I know I get cranky when I haven’t had enough tea! :)