Souen looks like 18th century apothecary with its statuesque interior and meticulously organised cabinets: there are rows of glass vials – each holding a different variety of tea, neat stacks of ceramic and iron cups for religiously-precise brewing, and glassware so fragile you don’t even want to glance at them out of fear they’ll spontaneously shatter. Pass the copper-clad tea counter and you’ll find yourself at a dark bar counter, a stark contrast to the image of folded legs on tatami mats that usually accompanies a traditional tea ceremony. 

The casual calm we feel upon entering isn’t a coincidence, as Souen seeks to strip away the mystique and stale nonchalance most people have with tea. In attempting to do so, Shinya Sakurai pays tribute to Baisao. Baisao was a Japanese monk who broke away from the rigid formalism of the chanoyu tea ceremony, instead advocating for its daily consumption by simply simmering the leaves or brewing them in a vessel. Flash forward to 2016, where Sakurai utilizes the precise control and timing of tea preparation found in traditional tools, but sheds the formalities with his contemporary creations and a touch of familiar conversation, not dissimilar from a bartender.

If you are ever fortunate enough to try Souen’s tea tasting course, understand that tea will never be the same again. We had the chance to try a green tea only grown in the shade, the gentle gyokuro, which produces a salty seaweed flavor upon its first intensely concentrated infusion, before gradually transforming into a zippy iced tea garnished with yuzu for its final, and third infusion. The second infusion was the least unique as it presented the tea like people normally enjoy the beverage (with more volume than the first shot-sized infusion), but it nonetheless was delicately sweet and full of umami character.  However, our most curious discovery was how afterwards, the warm tea leaves were dressed with ponzu, as our host pushed the brewing vessel forwards with a smile. 

“Please eat,” he clarified.

Tea and spirit blends have a long history of experimentation in the west, and Souen also serves up some boozy tea concoctions, be it single malt whiskey infused with freshly roasted hojicha or a punchy combination of gin and sencha. These are elegant solutions that seem extremely natural and well-thought out, without a hint of contrition. 

It’s medicine for the heart and soul, tea with a hint of playfulness and fun. There’s plenty at Souen to geek out about, but the warmth of Sakurai makes it an experience even for adventurers new to tea appreciation.

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Souen
Five tea tasting course is ¥3,800. 

3-16-28 Nishi-Azabu,
Minato-ku,
Tokyo. 

Open 11 am – 11 pm 

 

/ Words and photographs by Anne Berry /