Kyoto has always been a region famous for its tea. For centuries, emperors and peasants alike have enjoyed hot ocha with meals, while priests sipped matcha in between meditation sessions to awaken the senses. Tea will no doubt be a part of any traveler’s time in Kyoto, but to fully experience this timeless drink, visitors should seek out the areas of Wazuka and Uji. These areas just outside of Kyoto City, are both major producers of high quality Uji brand tea and provide opportunities for of activities focused on the region’s world-famous tea.
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Wazuka: The Heartland of Uji Tea Growing
Located in a wide river valley framed by forested mountains that taper down into gentle hills, Wazuka is a picture-perfect slice of Japanese countryside. The mineral-rich soil and localized weather conditions in the area make for ideal growing conditions that give Wazuka tea its famous balance of sweetness and umami.
This corner of Kyoto Prefecture is still off the radar for many international visitors and remains a hidden gem for those seeking an authentic look at Japanese tea production. It’s an ideal location for travelers who want to take in the iconic sight of tea bushes running gracefully in long hedges along the mountainsides. While many of these fields can be seen from the roads, it takes special access to enter them and experience the magic of tea farming up close.
・Tea Farm tours with d:matcha Kyoto
For access to the tea fields, look no further than Daiki Tanaka, a local organic tea farmer. He runs a tea business called d:matcha Kyoto that seeks to play a role in revitalizing the region as well as spreading the culture of Japanese tea farming to new audiences. One way of doing this is by introducing foreign guests to his tea fields on an informative half-day Wazuka tea tour. In fluent English, the charismatic farmer imparts his knowledge about agriculture and tea in a friendly and easy to understand way.
The tour takes guests deep into the heart of Wazuka. Upon arrival at Daiki’s tea fields, visitors climb mossy stone steps through ancient cedars to a small Shinto shrine. This is akin to entering a more tranquil world, where nature is in command. The tea fields lie next to the shrine, with vibrant bushes in tight rows. Being deep among the tea bushes is an invigorating experience. Daiki shows guests how to snap off the young buds by hand – just as it’s been done for centuries here in Wazuka.
Daiki’s tea is picked and processed on the same day, so it makes sense that the next stop on his tour is the tea factory. Though only used during the harvest season, the factory sits in an old building of clay and wood and allows visitors to gain a better understanding of the work that goes into the production. The machinery is surprisingly retro and has a wonderful nostalgic feel to it.
Another part of Daiki’s tea education vision is the d:matcha cafe & kitchen in central Wazuka. This is where lunch is served to tour guests upon returning from the factory. The menu features dishes seasoned with tea, and the leaves picked from the field earlier are fried into tempura. It’s a delicious homestyle meal that captures the essence of freshness and vitality of Wazuka tea.
After lunch, a tea tasting is held where various cultivars of tea are presented. Daiki explains how these single origin teas each have their own terrior, a flavor profile based on the conditions that they were grown in. This is immediately evident in the tasting of both sencha and matcha. It’s a thrill to taste tea that has been grown with such care and thought, and Daiki succeeds at making the complex world of Japanese tea all the more approachable through his engaging tour and tasting experience.
Tea Tours at d:matcha are held from 9:30am to 1:30pm daily, except Wed and Thurs. 10,000 yen per person. Online reservation required. Guests can request a pickup from JR Kamo Station.
・Additional Wazuka Sightseeing Suggestions
In the center of town visitors will find the Wazaukacha Cafe, just a 10-minute walk from d:matcha and near the Wazuka Yamanoie bus stop. This facility doubles as an inviting cafe and a visitors center, providing sightseeing maps and information for travelers. They also have a shop selling local goods and over four hundred tea items. This is a great spot to pick up some single origin Wazuka tea, allowing you to savor the rich taste of an individual farm instead of a typical mass-produced blend from multiple fields.
Rental bikes are available for 1,100 yen per day. Breezing through the hillside scenery is enjoyable in any season, and a bicycle allows for easy access to the famous Ishitera tea plantations on the west edge of town. This is perhaps the most beloved view in Wazuka, and is well worth the ride.
Uji: The Iconic Home of Tea Culture
On the southern outskirts of Kyoto City, the city of Uji stands as the undisputed center of Japanese tea culture. This area flourished as a summer retreat for Kyoto nobility 1200 years ago, but grew into a noted tea town in the early 13th century when a variety of tea processing and blending methods began to be invented here. With traditional merchant buildings and elegant tea rooms, Uji has a refined sophistication that contrasts well with the countryside character of Wazuka, where much of the tea is grown.
Only a twenty-minute train ride from Kyoto Station, Uji is a prime destination for travelers seeking out quaint Japanese scenery and delicious Kyoto tea. The streets are crowded with a variety of tea shops – both traditional and modern – and opportunities abound to sample the region’s famous tea.
・Taihoan: A Bowl of Tradition
A traditional green tea ceremony is one of the most popular experiences among foreign guests in Japan. For an enjoyable ceremony in an authentic setting, be sure to visit the Uji City Municipal Tea House Taihoan on the western shore of the Uji River. The tea is delicious, and the hosts here have mastered the art of presenting the ceremony to guests in an informative and engaging manner.
Set amidst a compact garden with rolling moss and dainty stepping stones, the tea complex at Taihoan is a stirring example of long-established Japanese design elements. While the traditional way of tea is to participate in the ceremony sitting on the floor, Taihoan also offers options for bench seating and chairs, allowing guests to enjoy their tea experience in comfort. A calming bowl of tea and a chance to rest one’s feet provides the perfect respite during a day of sightseeing.
Once inside, guests are greeted by the hosts. The ceremony commences, with sweets served while the matcha green tea is whisked and presented to guests. The tea is strong and earthy, a taste that pushes guests to fully immerse themselves in the moment and observe all that makes up the experience – the feel of the bowl, the sound of the boiling water, the way the light enters the small windows and falls upon the rough wooden pillars. This is the essence of enjoying a tea ceremony in a traditional room like the one at Taihoan.
A selection of experiences is available at Taihoan, including a basic tea service to introduce guests to the world of matcha, as well as a hands-on activity where guests whisk their own tea. The full tea ritual includes both thick and thin tea, and is the only way to gain access to the formal tea room.
– Basic matcha tea service (thin tea): 1,000 yen
– Hands-on tea ceremony experience: 2,400 yen (reservation required at least 3 days before / from 1 person)
– Full tea ritual experience (thick and thin tea in tea room):3,000 yen (Reservation required at least 3 days before/ from 2 people/available only July to September, December to February)
Sencha tea ceremonies are also held several times a month. Please note that matcha activities are not available on these days.
More info here.
Reservations can be made via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn Japanese Tea Etiquette (Tea Ceremony, Taihoan)
At Taihoan, a teahouse operated by Uji City, you can enjoy authentic Uji tea with seasonal sweets.
Tea Ceremony Association teachers will prepare tea using traditional methods. Visitors do not have to know anything about tea ceremony to enjoy their experience. (Sencha (typical Japanese tea) tea ceremony days are also held several times a month)
・Nakamura Tokichi Honten: A Sweet Tea Treat
If a traditional bowl of matcha proves too bitter, a sweet alternative can be found just a two-minute walk from JR Uji Station. Now in the seventh generation of family ownership, Nakamura Tokichi Honten is one of the most iconic tea establishments in Uji. The fanciful desserts served here deliver a whole new understanding of how Kyoto tea can be reimagined into something that defies classic expectations.
Nakamura Tokichi Honten wasn’t always a chic cafe. They’ve been selling tea since 1854, and their hundred-year-old storefront still stands as a testament to their longevity. In fact, guests pass through the original stone paved entryway where carts once pulled up to deliver freshly picked tea. The inspection rooms where the leaves were approved for processing now serve as an inviting shop area. This is an excellent opportunity to purchase some high quality Uji tea to bring home as a reminder of Kyoto.
Deeper back in the Nakamura complex lies the cafe, housed in an antique tea factory building refurbished into a stunning dining space. Aged wooden beams stretch overhead and original mud and brick surfaces peek through wooden paneled walls to remind us of the long history of the Nakamura brand.
Guests are greeted with a welcome tea set that highlights a seasonal selection of the Nakamura brand. It’s a fitting palate cleanser before the main dishes arrive, and refocuses the mind away from the commotion of sightseeing.
A variety of sweet treats are available on the menu, but the star of the show is the Maruto Parfait (1,430 yen). The presentation of this dessert is stunning in itself. Served in a bowl made of real bamboo and dusted with a delicate layer of fresh matcha powder, it’s a highly Instagrammable dish. Hiding within are layers of whipped cream, crunchy roasted rice, fluffy castella cake, and matcha ice cream – as well as a few more sweet surprises that won’t be spoiled here!
Additional menu items are available, including lunch and other desserts. Cafe hours are 10:00am to 5:00pm (last order at 4:30).
More information here:
Nakamura Tokichi Honten
Opened in 1854, with a history of more than 165 years, this tea shop is famous for its matcha sweets. While there are three Nakamura Tokichi stores in Kyoto Prefecture, the Nakamura Tokichi Uji Head Shop, which was the first store opened, is a must visit for those with a sweet tooth.
Only a minute from JR Uji Station, the store building is an important item of cultural heritage. In the gardens, there is a stunning 200-year-old pine tree, the Horaifuna-matsu, one of 100 famous trees in Uji City. Visitors can enjoy the view from the open terrace building, remodeled from what was once the tea factory, while sipping their tea. The most popular delicacies in the store are, of course, the tea and the desserts! The tea jellies are a particular favorite, (which come in two flavors: matcha and hojicha roasted tea) and are made using Nakamura Tokichi’s secret recipe, sealing all the matcha flavor into the jelly, and paired with matcha ice cream, Japanese white flour dumplings, and red bean paste. It’s a luxurious dessert served in a photogenic bamboo cup only used at the Uji main store.
・Fukujuen: A Hands-on Appreciation of Tea Processing
From the hills of Wazuka to the tea houses of Uji, we’ve seen how tea makes its journey from field to teacup. However, there is a crucial step in the middle that deserves more attention. The transformation of tea leaves into matcha powder is a fun process that visitors can experience for themselves at the Fukujuen Uji Tea Workshop. This 230-year-old tea dealer invites guests to participate in a newly renovated tea culture center on the eastern banks of the Uji River.
A number of activities are available at Fukujuen to give visitors a better understanding of the work that goes into creating Uji tea. The most popular is the matcha workshop, held under the instruction of an expert. Guests use a classic stone mill to grind tea leaves into fresh matcha powder, which is then used to make a bowl of warm tea. It’s a simple process, but an enlightening one that reminds us that when we drink matcha, we drink the tea leaf in its entirety. All of the health benefits are preserved through the grinding process, ensuring that the matcha guests enjoy is high in antioxidants and invigorating catechin compounds.
Walk-ins are accepted for the 40-minute matcha workshop from 10:00am to 4:00pm, but reservations are suggested. 1,320 yen per person.
More information here:
Tea Hand-Kneading, Uji Tea-Making on a Ceramic Plate, Matcha Tea-Making with a Stone Mortar (Fukujuen Uji Tea Workshop)
Use a stone mortar to grind tencha, which is the primary ingredient to make powdered matcha tea, and then prepare and drink your own tea.
In addition to a workshop, where you can experience making tea and creating tea utensils, there are also famous tea-ceremony rooms on-site where you can learn the art of Japanese tea ceremony. You can also enjoy tea sweets and tea ceremony cuisine at the old style Japanese restaurant. At the tea shop, you can purchase original Uji green tea and tea utensils. Enjoy everything about Uji’s green tea here beside the clear flow of the scenic Uji River.
・Asahiyaki: A Local Legend of Pottery
For many foreign tourists, little thought is given to the vessel that tea is drunk from. Whatever cup is on hand will do just fine. However, when the experience of drinking tea is considered from a holistic point of view, the cup and teapot become essential parts of creating the atmosphere wherein tea can be fully savored.
A trip to Uji is the perfect opportunity to bring home a special piece of pottery to enhance your future tea moments. Teaware is available in many shops in the area, but the only pottery that is an Uji original comes from the Asahiyaki establishment on the eastern bank of the Uji River. For over four hundred years and sixteen generations, this family-run kiln has been producing teaware created from clay pulled from the mountain that sits alongside the river, in close connection to one of famous tea ceremony. A genuine Asahiyaki piece is the only way to truly bring home a piece of Uji.
Entering the Asahiyaki gallery is a step into a world of refinement and elegance. The works on display instantly draw you in, the muted colors and intriguing textures calling you to inspect them further. Each of the pieces here has passed through the white-hot fire of the kilns in the Asahiyaki factory nearby, granting the teaware unique characteristics and ensuring that customers each own a one-of-a-kind treasure.
Works by the current master potter are for sale – priced for serious collectors – but a variety of affordable options are on display as well. The shelves abound with palm-sized teacups, charmingly rustic plates, and long-spouted kyusu teapots. The latter is a signature piece of the Asahiyaki lineage, a delicate pot used to brew sencha, the most commonly enjoyed Japanese green tea. This ho-hin (treasure pot) teapot is the perfect way to celebrate the elegance of tea in your own home.
For a more in-depth look at the Asahiyaki process, enter the factory itself and take part in a pottery class taught by a craftsman. This is a fantastic opportunity to get a hands-on understanding of the craft and create a signature pink-glazed piece in the process. Guests can choose from several activities:
– Create a classic tea bowl using an electric potter’s wheel. (4,400 yen per bowl)
– Hand-form a tea bowl at a table (3,850 yen per bowl)
– Paint your own design on an unglazed plate using iron pigment (3,300 per plate)
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