Steeped in centuries of tradition, Japanese tea houses and culture have developed into a unique art form of ceremony, discipline, and eastern philosophy. Key to experiencing the art of tea is the work of Sen no Riky. A tea master born in 1522 who shunned the values of elaboration in favour of Wabi-sabi – a philosophy that elevates the virtues of simplicity and purity. Since his time, the influence of Wabi-sabi has seeped through all aspects of the Japanese tea ceremony. Everything from the ritual preparation, to the instruments used are all equally symbolic and significant.
The philosophy of tea culture in Japan is markedly different from British tea culture. The latter involves tea biscuits, digestives, and hobnobs — often dunked and consumed alongside a nice warm cup. A familiar home comfort that is so deeply ingrained in British culture. In contrast, Eastern tea practice traditionally focus on enjoying tea with its most natural aroma. The experience as they say in Asia, is in the ritual of tea drinking itself (minus all the confectionary excesses we’ve come to expect with afternoon tea) With the contrast as clear as night and day, the rise of London’s Japanese tea obsession is quite an interesting juxtaposition of culture; a kind of metaphorical meeting of east and west.
Who knew that after almost five hundred years, Riky?’s legacy would be felt even up to this day. Katsute 100, located in Angel, is one stellar example of this. To step into this tea room is to step back in time, with its early twentieth century aesthetic and antique Japanese furniture. Sourced directly from small scale producers in Japan, the boutique’s tea offerings include various loose leaf and tea bag infusions. Try the Gyokuro, a high-grade green tea possessing an earthy umami flavour that evolves each time the pot is infused. For a more robust taste profile, Katsute 100 also offers Genmaicha, which features roasted brown rice for a grassy and aromatic experience. Alternatively, sample the Kyoho sencha, which offers a light berry flavour from vibrant grapes grown in the mountain.
Another company which celebrates this tradition is Tsujiri, a 155-year old tea house born in Kyoto that has recently set up shop in Soho. Tsujiri’s tea house has been designed by lighting designer Shozo Toyohisa and features sleek sculptural wood features enriching the space’s minimalist atmosphere.
Tombo cafe offers a similar contemporary approach at their branches in Fitzrovia, Soho, and South Kensington. Sourcing green tea and matcha from the foothills of Mount Fuji at a Maruyama estate, they offer tea blends that include the use of cherry blossom leaves and ginger. Tombo’s tea packaging also features the work of Japanese illustrator Natsko Seki, whose whimsical and colourful work combines Japanese symbolisms with modern day Kawaii culture.
Japan’s minimalism is not only celebrated in tea, but a lifestyle which the nation has understood and celebrated worldwide. At a time of excess and fast-paced living, simplicity has become a virtue, and is the reason why brands like Muji and Uniqlo have resonated globally. The deep considerations and streamlined approach to London’s Japanese tea houses are all rooted in both tradition and philosophy. Just the act of drinking tea, these zen spaces provide a calming oasis where one can momentarily disconnect. So, when Londoners are busy running about, jumping in and out of busy tube stations, and cramming ourselves into jam-packed pubs — it’s no wonder why the allure of a quiet moment of peace is so undeniably compelling. And hey — having a nice cuppa on hand helps too.