October 19, 2017

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Powdered Happiness

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By Gabriel Phillips

If you were to ask a Briton what links Japan and the United Kingdom, the answer would be we’re both island nations with a fondness for seaside resorts and tea. Tea forms an important ritual in both cultures. The tea ceremony traces its roots back to the 9th century and is well documented with in-depth scholarly discussion and debate. In Britain, the main source of contention is over the amount of milk added, or whether sugar should be allowed anywhere near the beverage.

Visiting new places in Tokyo is always a nervous experience for me. While it’s never a question of travel difficulties, there have been multiple occurrences where I’ve been turned away from more traditional establishments owing to the fact that I’m not Japanese. Unfortunately, this has instilled an unease of new places that often warrants caution.

As I left Jiyugaoka station in the blistering heat, I started to climb the hill that led to the first tea house. Koso-an is situated in a peaceful garden next to a surprisingly busy street. As it was late in the morning, I was one of the few people there but was still welcomed with open arms. I’ve had very few experiences with matcha that I have enjoyed, mainly due to bizarre, Westernised lattes in Japanese restaurants in Edinburgh that have left me with significant sugar rushes that inevitably leave me on the brink of collapse an hour later.

This experience was entirely different. As I was guided to my space on the tatami floor, I ordered a combination set of matcha and wagashi. Matcha is something that can go stupendously right or worryingly wrong, on this occasion however, I was left in a state of pure delight as I sipped on it while slowly scoffing down delightful sweets that left me overjoyed at their simplicity and taste. When in Japan you are often overwhelmed by unnecessary complexity and Tokyo’s need to have an ultra-modernist take on something traditional (as I have experienced through multiple trips to Ginza). It is clear to me that returning to the most basic, simple and traditional methods will often provide you with a clear and outstanding result. This is what I experienced with my trip to the tea house.

It is with great sadness that I have to leave Japan soon. As my time begins to end, I try to visit as many places as possible so that when I return I can list off my reel of accomplishments to friends and family. While some have been merely tick box exercises such as visiting shrines, both the uniqueness and warmth presented to me in these tea houses have assured me that I will return to them. When, I do not know. But most definitely soon.

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