The Bianco Guide to: Matcha in Tokyo
*Update: I’ve added an Instagram account (here) and google map (here) to this guide. You now will be able to see all the places I’ve visited, from Matcha to Ramen and other great food collected on one Instagram and one big map. Follow the account here, and check out the map here.
Biancissimo is a globally connected family and therefore it was always my plan to also provide the platform to other creatives from all around my digital and analogue world. Chouchou is one of those lovely creatives, joining my team as a one of a kind food writer and bon-vivant.
Sitting and working next to me at VICE, we became good friends and food aficionados from my day one. Since her father is a former Michelin star chef, Chouchou is looking at food from a sophisticated and very interesting angle and it was our weekly routine to spend a certain time next to each other eating and discussing food instead of projects and deadlines. Even after Chou left VICE and took her talent (and belly) to Highsnobiety we did not give up on that plan to blow up together, though it was now more difficult.
But then this summer, when she heard about me planning my next trip to Japan, a message with "Bianco, is it cool if I join you in Tokyo" popped on my screen (and of course I said yes).
Finally we joined forces to get the best (and the most) food as possible into our bellies and finally she could turn her creative and cultivated food skills into one lovely guide about one lovely green powder - Matcha.
The Bianco Guide to: Matcha in Tokyo
To begin with, I want to say that I am super excited to have a little say in the world of Biancissimo and hope that reading about my matcha madness will bring you just as much pleasure as I had stuffing my face in Tokyo.
As Bianco mentioned in his guide to Kyoto Food for Lovers, it is actually the former capital of Japan that is famous for its sweets and matcha deliciousness. He also claimed that the best ice cream in the world can be found there. Therefore, Kyoto is on my list for my next Japan visit, but first let me assure you that Tokyo has at least as much to offer at the green tea front.
Before I dive into reviewing the most matchalicious dishes I had, you might wonder what ‘matcha’ actually is. In Europe we mostly know it as some kind of overpriced superfood addition that hip bloggers mention with a #fitspo caption. It is that and more. It is definitely famous for its meditative and spiritual embodiment, derived from the balancing energy the tea provides through increased theanine and caffeine levels and its richness in antioxidants. One could argue if the stone-ground powdered green tea is actually healthier than other teas or if it is just another cult, but I am not going to write a scientific thesis on its effects. You can read about that in plenty of other articles on the world wide web. All I want to do here is help those of you, who like to step outside of their sweet comfort zone to have the best time in Tokyo. I am pretty sure that I cover a good range of places for everyone’s preference of the matcha dream.
One last thing to manage your expectations:
Having grown up as the child of a former michelin star chef, I am trained to have very precise senses and always look for the taste of a product in its purest form and then analyse the liaison with other products. Meaning: matcha itself doesn’t taste particularly delicious and its bitterness isn’t everyone’s cup of tea - in the most literal sense. In my guide I put forward those dishes, that did not lack the original taste of the green tea plant, yet made it accessible for the majority of the European taste buds.
Suzukien Asakusa Main Store
First things first, I want to mention this ice cream shop that struck me on my very first day in Tokyo and set the matcha bar unexpectedly high from the beginning. As ever so often in Tokyo, lining up for some quick fix food is a norm, but in this case customers are sent to a so-called ‘waiting room’ that has been particularly set up - two streets away from the actual ice cream parlour. This ‘how to wait for ice cream level’ is even new to Tokyo connoisseurs like Bianco and of course raises the expectation for the ice cream itself.
In the garage-like antechamber your name is taken and the wait amongst mostly Japanese customers is around 10-15 min. So be prepared for that. After your name, or some similar derivation of it, is called out, you are given a boarding pass to matcha heaven (literally an ice cream pass). With that in hand you then return to the gelateria, where you can choose matcha ice cream with different intensity levels (1 to 7) and some other (uninteresting) flavours. The collabo store between the sweet shop Nanaya and the tea shop Suzukien definitely manages to keep up with those expectations of your creamy dreams. Presumably most people come for the richest flavour served, the premium 7.
However, having tasted pretty much the full range, I find that it is the golden middle that has it all. Matcha ice cream level 4 offers a round taste of green tea, sweetness, creaminess and is tasty while not being the sort of ice cream that immobilises you for the rest of the day or gives you any other stomach surprises that intense matcha could cause. Conclusion: great ice cream, better all in all experience. A visit to the well-known store can be perfectly combined with a sightseeing tour of the Asakusa shrine, which is just around the corner.
Little tip: make sure they give you your correct order if you come in a group.
Oiwake Dango Honpo
In the middle of the Shinjuku main shopping street you can find a proper-looking patisserie on the right hand side of the entrance of a shopping mall. What at first appears to be a traditional display of sweets for takeaway, actually is an indoor teahouse to refuel yourself in style. It is mostly busy, but still a perfect hideaway from the even busier Shinjuku area. You can find pretty much every Japanese sweet, dessert or cake here, which are served by very nice ladies who wear what looks like traditional bakery outfits.
Next to a lot of rice-based and red bean covered treats, you will find what I especially liked for the perfect quick and easy snacks: sweet balls on the stick. Essentially finger-food, the mochi-like balls are covered with a thick paste of matcha. These are called Dango and the speciality of the house (which carries the same name). I personally love the rice balls - they are chewy but not too much, sweet and savoury at the same time, light yet filling and somehow also really cute to look at. And the matcha taste of course. So do some shopping and get the balls in. Or skip the shopping upfront. That’s what she said.
Also worth mentioning is the traditional summer sweet; warabimochi. In contrast to normal mochi, it is not made of glutinous rice and originates from the Kensai region of Japan. For those that have a bit of a bigger sweet tooth, you should definitely go for them too. They are also relatively simple in their taste, the warabi jelly structure goes great with the sweet sugar syrup that they are covered in.
Hōkoku-ji Temple, Kamakura
Thinking first-time-tourist, we now covered some culture and some shopping - time for a city escape. Of course I am exaggerating here, but when in Tokyo you pack your days with loads of activities along those lines, so a city escape is not too far off and in this case serves as a perfect introduction to Kamakura. The little seaside town about 1 hour south of Tokyo offers the perfect one-day city escape. Next to visiting the great buddha, you can also hang out at the beach or on really hot days in this cool(ing) bamboo forest. Hōkoku-ji, is a buddhist temple, which is mostly famous for its bamboo garden though. To be very honest, it is best if you find a local to take you there, because the walk from the train station is at best a little complicated. On the bright side; it stops plenty of tourists from getting there in the first place, so it really is a get away.
The bamboo forest itself is breathtaking and not what the usual eye gets to see very often. In fact, I was so astonished that I completely forgot where I was and can say that the journey is totally worth it. You feel like you are in a green bubble built from all these trees going straight up into the crisp blue sky. What makes it even more special though, is that you can join a matcha tea ceremony within this beautiful setting. In the little tea house overseeing the scenic garden, a few cute and friendly older Japanese women stir up the original matcha tea, which is served on an authentic wooden tray along with some round shaped sugary pastels.
Bite off a little bit before you take your first sip of tea. If you bid your time, catch a spot in the first row to enjoy your tea and really embrace the moment. It really is magic and a sensitive light hearted person is easily shaken by the peacefulness - yes, I even had tears in my eyes. But let’s focus on the tea. I do genuinely believe that this was the best matcha tea I ever had. The freshly stirred tea is served at perfect temperature and tastes earthy and vegetale yet sweet and round. The foam lingers for a while and the rich taste of the tea goes down very well. Slurping up the tea really is topping all of this greatness. My senses, my senses be praised.
As matcha in it’s original form is served as tea, you can’t miss out on this sort of intake and I strongly recommend making the experience a complete one by visiting this little piece of heaven on earth.
On your way back, pass by the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine, which is not only the most important one of the area and really pretty to look at, but also oversees the entire city and leads directly to the waterfront. Once you visit the shrine and then start strolling back you will find quite a touristy street parallel to the main road leading to the train station. Which from a matcha perspective is actually worth mentioning for multiple reasons.
Komachi street, Kamakura
I am not going into too much detail here, because there are more exciting places for matcha coming up next. But if you are still hunting some matcha in Kamakura, you can find several sweet options on this street. On the left hand side you first pass by an ice cream shop, which in contrast to the one I mentioned at the beginning, serves soft ice cream that is sprinkled with matcha powder. Refreshing and light.
A bit further down towards the train station on the left, you will find a sweet shop that has several biscuits and cakes on display - mostly packed though. What makes this place special is that they also have fresh and handmade matcha mochis there, which they prepare right in front of you.
These were really quite heavenly and I have yet to find better ones. Their soft and rice jelly like texture, with a sweet but subtle matcha taste and red bean paste inside really killed it. If you are looking for really good mochis, this is certainly a place to go.
You can also buy cute looking matcha cakes here - cute because they have bunnies stamped into the cake. They aren’t freshly made, but packed and therefore good to take with you on the train for a snacky snack or to bring home as a little present for your loved ones. I actually saw the same brand being sold at the airport, so again, this street is not an insider tip, but I still really liked the Nesquik like spongy cake.
Saryo TSUJIRI in Daimaru Department Store
Let’s head to the Tokyo main station now. This is where it really all came together for me. You can find tea houses offering a variety of Japanese sweets and desserts all over the place, but this one really is the non plus ultra matcha heaven. The Daimaru department store (right at Yaesu exit) is one of its kind. And no, I am not speaking of the vast variety of Japanese specialities that you run into when entering the store. However, if you are looking for some real Japanese treasures like a custom made Kimono, you should come here. Be prepared for some high end prices too, though. Funny enough (and that is what I am really getting at) the higher you go in the building, the higher you get on matcha.
The top floor has a little traditional Japanese tea house, which I guarantee will make you reach the matcha climax. You will first see a souvenir-like shop, which offers all sorts of matcha goodness and traditional tea sets, but push on into the seating area. What appears straight away is that you don’t see any tourists. In fact, it is so traditional that women dress up in their Yukata to celebrate a classic afternoon tea. Secondly, the view.
There are seats by the window from which you can oversee the area and the stylish Tokyo station - don’t forget you are now on the 10th floor. But your senses will be teased even more with some traditional Japanese Shamisen music. And as if all of this is not enough…. here comes the menu. Luckily they provide images next to their options for those who don’t speak Japanese, but that doesn’t make it easier to decide. We actually took 2 desserts each, because they all look so fucking amazing.
I’m going to start with the traditional jelly dessert, which actually wasn’t anything like the earlier mentioned warabimochi. The jelly cubes didn’t have so much of a taste, merely the bean paste and the mochi balls topped with matcha gave it some flavour. I wouldn’t necessarily order it again to be honest, but find it worth mentioning here, because it is a very traditional dessert and worth a try.
If you don’t want to think too much outside the box, go for one of the around 10 ice cream cups that have a bit of everything - from cake to fruit. They mostly are a combination of different flavoured ice scoops such as vanilla, matcha or sakura (cherry blossom). You can also find some jelly balls, mochi balls or other yummy things inside, depending on the one you choose for. I think this dessert is really the safest option, as it is a lot like that big ice cup we know from our favourite gelateria around the corner.
The real deal however is the Kakigori bowl. The shaved ice is a must in summer (not just there, now that I know it) and you can literally find it everywhere in Japan. I also visited a Kakigori place, which I will get to later. This dish however, really has it all and differentiates from the traditional shaved ice by all these little extras. I mean just look at it! The pic says it all, if you ask me. I personally love the little mochi balls because of their texture and their subtle sweet taste. The whole thing really is a taste explosion. Also explosive is the of the ensemble of all these different forms of goodness including rice cakes, red bean, green tea jelly, ice cream - in one delicious bowl. The ice cream scoops have different intensities of matcha, the shaved ice is super light and refreshing. It is almost like this dish combines all desserts mentioned in this guide in one. You get the mochis, you get the tea, you get the ice cream and the shaved ice. If that is not a matcha orgy, then what is?
As a little add on they serve complimentary green tea and a matcha crisp like cookie, which you can also buy in the shop when leaving. Maybe ask your way around, it can be a bit difficult to find because it isn’t mentioned on any of the signs of the department store, but please don’t give up in case you don’t find it immediately! Or do it, but do it at your own risk of missing out on the fucking best. One more thing, like the whole department store, it is a bit pricey. But what you get in return is this beautiful and peaceful atmosphere inside a proper traditional tea house and of course all those absolutely sick dishes. If choosing is easy, then you don’t get matcha.
And guess what, we finished it all. It is just too good! Just do it!
Kakaya by the sea
One of Bianco’s favourite places as mentioned in his guide for advanced students of Tokyo is Kakaya by the sea in Shibuya. After I read the interview he has done with the owner, Teruyuki Tange, I was more than excited to eat in the lovely Izakaya and I was certainly not let down. You don’t come here for matcha, but for the all-round experience. Drinking, eating, smoking - sushi, sashimi, other great Japanese dishes and last but not least dessert!
The restaurant would not hit the spot if it didn’t also provide some matcha madness, as it is just a must in Japan. They can change desserts according to the season, but ask for some matcha, they surely have something on offer either way.
In my case, it was a delicious matcha cheese cake. The matcha taste dominates over the cheese taste, which makes it an authentic dessert in itself. The texture is super creamy, just like this american cheese cake we all know and builds on a buttery yet crisp biscuit ground. The round, sweet taste is the grand finale of either the menu or the a la carte option. You should not miss out on it, even if you are already full. This dessert is light, but really powerful.
Kakigori Cafe & Bar Yelo
Let’s just keep following the time of the day in our heads, because I would like recommend this 24 hour Kakigori place that you can visit for a sweet and refreshing midnight snack after dinner. Or you just do it like I did and hide away from the heat in the cooled cellar in which this cafe finds itself. Like so often, expect some queueing. But the turnover is around 10-15 min, so it is doable. As I already mentioned earlier, this sort of very Japanese ice is the coolest summer treat ever. What you get is basically a coloured snowy mountain of shaved ice flakes. Different flavours are offered, but (need I say it) go for the matcha one! The pile of thinly shaved ice on which matcha syrup is poured will blow your mind away (and potentially give you some proper brain freezes too). Kakigori can also be accompanied by other toppings: condensed milk, red beans, whip cream, or with some mochis. I went for red beans, I just love them because of their sweet and savoury taste. I like it all at once.
To create this ice, a special machine is used, a kind of manual or electric ice shaver. It is simple yet so good. Doesn’t it already look so cool?
Ah and no excuses on this one, it is really so light that you can eat it always and forever. You actually can’t leave Japan without trying it, so head over there or to any of the many Kakigori places that are popping up all over the town and make your Japan experience a complete one.