More and more unique approaches and intriguing elements to independent tea rooms continue to appear in the wide universe of Camellia sinensis – bar counters with built-in chagama (茶釜), concepts that are on par with coffee roasters where tea is made fresh (from roasting hōjicha to making sencha from frozen fresh spring leaves), fine-dining restaurants including tea pairings, terraces on top of steep tea hills, and bars incorporating spectacular almost performance-like experiential cocktails with tea…
Since tea is tightly knit with cultural heritage and rich history, cherishing the century-old traditions never ceases to be important, nevertheless, out-of-the-box ideas enhance and allow tea to move forward simultaneously bringing refreshing creativity to the table. This article will review a few interesting tea places that I have visited in Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea during the last year, where we can observe the fusion of tradition and modernity. While this article won’t provide an exhaustive list of tea places, it can serve as a sip of inspiration. As we plunge into a few fascinating contemporary designs and ideas, firstly let’s visit Baisa Nakamura in Uji, Japan – a tea room and a tea factory, 2 in 1.
“Gaho”: Freshly Processed Spring Tea Anytime in Front of You
売茶中村 Baisa Nakamura, Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Harvesting tea together with Genki Takahashi-san from Tea Factory Gen (Onomichi, Hiroshima). Photo: Baisa Nakamura.
Eiji Nakamura is a 7th generation tea maker, who decided to go a little bit off the beaten path. His family has been working in the tea wholesale business in Uji since 1854, and while he learned the craft from his father Yoshitaka Nakamura, Eiji-san decided to go on an independent journey of learning about tea directly on a farm in Kirishima, Kagoshima. Therefore, he worked for “Nishi Tea Factory” for more than six years to learn the craft of organic cultivation and production first-hand. Afterwards, he felt like drinking fresh tea straight after processing is a privilege that only tea makers get to experience, hence, he created a mini tea factory within his tea room, where customers get to witness the sencha making process from the fresh leaf until finished product – all while sipping tea. This setting works perfectly for educational purposes as Nakamura-san is very accommodating about sharing his precious knowledge about tea production.
Photo: Baisa Nakamura.
In October 2022, Baisa Nakamura created a fascinating concept as the core philosophy for their place: “Gaho” (我逢). They visit various tea farmers across Japan to obtain fresh spring tea leaf material, which then is steamed and frozen on the day to be stored separately according to region, variety, and farmer. Weekly, Eiji-san schedules tea making workshops that are free to attend as an observer alongside a cup of tea. The tea is made into small batches as the small custom-made machinery can only handle 2 kg of fresh tea leaves per batch. The freezing method preserves the aroma of the season, hence, after careful thawing, young spring tea leaves can be made any time of the year. If you are visiting, keep up to date with their calendar as occasionally they do temomi (手揉み) hand-rolling masterclasses with the traditional hoiro (焙炉) table.
Photo: Baisa Nakamura.
The name Baisa Nakamura comes from the wandering Zen Buddhist monk, poet, and tea seller Baisao, who popularised sencha drinking customs across Japan, which perhaps refers to Nakamura-san’s style of wandering himself to collect intriguing single-origin tea varieties in collaboration with independent tea farmers all around Japan. In his store, I witnessed unique varietals of natural and organic farming (which is still relatively rare here) and interesting cultivars and native bushes (在来; zairai). I sampled a nitrogen tea of a sencha blend of Asatsuyu, Yabukita, Z1, and Sayamakaori tea cultivars (the blend changes regularly), which splendidly increased the umami of the vegetal aracha (荒茶; crude tea). Secondly, we got to do a comparison of several varieties and terroirs: Yabukita from Ohbuku Valley in Ujitawara, Kyoto Prefecture (farmer: Tatsuhiko Yamaguchi-san), Zairai from Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture (farmer: Kazuhumi Udoguchi-san), and Yabukita from Tamba, Hyogo Prefecture (farmer: Tokujuen). Tea blends are still very common in Japan, therefore, this is a unique opportunity to get to taste the differences between various terroirs and cultivars and get acquainted with farmers who cultivate your tea.
Photo: Baisa Nakamura.
Hien Minh Tea, Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Hien Minh Tea.
Similarly to Baisa Nakamura, Hien Minh Tea House in Hanoi, Vietnam, also is one of the rare spaces, where all of the selection is hand-crafted by the owners of the tea house. Yen and Hùng seasonally go to Ha Giang province, home of ancient wild tea trees, to produce their own teas, including their signature: traditional lotus green tea. If you are lucky, visit Vietnam in June/July for the unique opportunity to take part in their lotus tea making workshops in the tea house, as the core philosophy of the space relates to Buddhism, Lotus, and ceremony. You can try to drink the traditional version of a thousand petal lotus green tea that is scented at least 7 times or the more modern approach of the green tea put inside a frozen fresh lotus. Both are delightful harmony-invoking experiences, especially when escaping the bustling dynamic of Hanoi as the design of the tea house embodies a temple-like sanctuary as if in the middle of a rainforest.
Modern Counter vs Traditional Tea Table
As much as the traditional tea houses are a precious timeless value, I have to admit that I warmed up to the concept of modern counters. It serves as a contemporary solution to gathering around a tea tray with a tea master skilfully brewing for you in the company of fellow guests. Generally speaking, the trend I have observed in the interior designs of modern tea houses is Scandinavian minimalism with some oriental Zen atmosphere invoking elements and the presence of natural decor.
Tea Stand Gen Yamate, Onomichi, Hiroshima, Japan. Photo: Tea Factory Gen.
Tea Factory Gen launched a second store only about two months ago. As tea farmers, they regenerate tea plantations in Hiroshima and cultivate and produce tea themselves without fertilisers and pesticides. Hence, another project that follows the leaf from the very beginning of growing to production to brewing and selling. Their signature is tea made from Hiroshima’s old native bushes zairai, as well as intriguing experimental teas like Japanese white tea, oolong, black tea, and hamacha, which was naturally dried by exposing tea leaves to the sea breeze.
A . Do Tea Space, Mullae-dong, Seoul, South Korea. Photo: A.do. The founder Lee Seung-Woo designed part of the menu where you can select the tea according to your feelings as the motto of this tea space is “be yourself”. The community value plays an important conceptual role as tea serves as a bridge between people.
Sakurai Tea Experience 櫻井焙茶研究所, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Timeless Tokyo.
Shinya Sakurai having a background in Japanese cuisine, confectionery, and in-depth study about tea, opened his tea studio on the 5th floor in one of the urban skyscrapers in Minami Aoyama. Since he sees tea as the elixir of health, the design takes after a modern apothecary, where some teas are craftily roasted and blended in-house, curating tea from various regions in Japan. In the adjoining tearoom, guests can venture on Japanese tea courses and tea-based alcoholic beverages with wagashi. And while we are talking about tea liquors like gyokuro martinis, bancha negronis, and hōjicha toddies, let’s explore bars that pay tribute to camellia sinensis.
Tea Bar Experience and Molecular Mixology
Bar Tea Scent, Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Bar Tea Scent.
Not only the tea aroma and flavour journey takes you to places, but the performance-like experience of Bar Tea Scent won’t leave anyone without a “wow”. The stylish dark ambient setting with minimalist decor of Zen dry rock garden (枯山水; karesansui) in the centre accompanied by ASMR sounds of water from the fountain-wall behind the bar. There’s a five-course tea omakase, starting with ceremonial matcha and ending with lapsang souchong-infused scotch, a selection of tea-infused spirits available by the glass or bottle, and a choice of rare single-origin teas, tea-infused bar-food options, and last but not least – plenty of signature tea cocktails, each of which can be made with or without alcohol. Some of the most popular being: “Garden Mist” (Jasmine Silver Needle white tea, ylang yang cordial, lemon juice, spearmint and acacia honey, and rosemary fog bubble), “Mountain Fog” (Da Hong Pao oolong, Kinobi Gin, Champagne Reduction, Cassis, Sandalwood Cordial), and “Ginza Matsuri” (ceremonial grade Uji matcha, chocolate rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, Hinoki syrup, garnished with origami and served in a chawan).
Tell Camellia in Hong Kong. Photo: Tell Camellia.
While I have not had the chance to visit Tell Camellia yet, after the experience at Tea Scent in Seoul, this discovery definitely intrigues. Crowned as the 23rd in the list of the 50 best bars in Asia, Gagan Gurung, the founder, sources tea himself from various corners of the world, including rare origins like Uganda and New Zealand, and then combine other iconic flavours of that country in a cocktail. The molecular mixology lies in cold brewing or cooking sous-vide tea and other flavours with alcohol. Then, a rotary evaporator extracts the alcohol from the mix so that it can be used in a cocktail. Japan, for instance, is made with matcha-infused vodka, seaweed, and natto, while Kenya is a blend of Marinyn black tea, banana, sweet potato, and cornflakes-infused tequila.
Tea with a View
Dan Dan Cafe and Sky Cafe in Wazuka, Kyoto, Japan. Maemje Dawon, Hadong, South Korea. Chanoma Tea Terrace with its six locations next to Mt.Fuji in Shizuoka, Japan.
Last but not least, a recurring phenomenon during my travels in Asia was the prevalence of tea cafes and terraces that offer captivating vistas of the lush tea fields. These unique spaces owe their existence to the tea-producing regions’ privileged access to these awe-inspiring landscapes. The renowned architect Tadao Ando once described Japanese teahouses as containing “an infinitely expanding universe in an enclosed, very small space.” Historically nestled in grass-thatched huts amidst tranquil gardens, these teahouses provided sanctuaries for seekers of enlightenment, designed to instill an appreciation for everyday beauty. In recent decades, contemporary architects have taken it one step further where the infinitely expanding universe of natural beauty is not enclosed within walls, creatively maximising the use of glass and simple terrace designs that draw attention towards natural wonders rather than the space itself.
As the grand tea journey continues, surely we will come across other innovative approaches to tea, meanwhile, feel free to share your findings and favourite tea places around the globe in the comments!