Thinking of experiencing a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony? Wishing to try superb matcha tea, a Japanese Wagashi sweet, and go back in time? Here are four of the best.
1. Central Kyoto - Tea Ceremony Room Juan (¥2,800 /¥2,400 prepaid)
A ten-minute walk away from the Kiyomizu Gojo Station on the Keihan line is one of the most beautiful and authentic tea houses in Kyoto, the Tea Ceremony Room Juan. Mrs. Kirihata is a gracious host and not only is she brilliantly knowledgeable, but she speaks good English as well.
In Japanese, the word Ju means to join together. On the other hand, the word An represents a tea house. So many tea houses will have the word An in their name. In tea culture, the Japanese have a motto, “Ichigo, Ichie,” saying that every tea ceremony is unique, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, and can never be repeated. Every moment during the tea ceremony has meaning, a tribute to the sophisticated tea culture which has developed over many centuries. Ju-An is a Zen-consecrated tea ceremony room built according to the canonical rules for the tea ceremony.
From a convenience point of view, this is the most accessible, being near Kyoto Station. You can also book online, with ceremonies lasting just under an hour, on the hour, every hour from 1 pm to 5 pm. Morning sessions at 11 am or 12 am are available on request.
2. Kiyomizu & Kinkakuji - Camellia (¥3,000)
A tea house with a history of geishas? Camellia is an oasis of calm and its sun bathed tea room is joy to be in. Calm, disciplined, and elegant, the ceremony is bewitching to experience. A sense of time and space prevailed, as if everything about this moment was distilled into the pearls of exquisite Uji matcha tea. It is one of Kyoto's newest tea houses, meaning they are keen to please and very enthusiastic about welcoming you.
Camellia's "Flower" is located on Ninenzaka steps, between Gion and Kiyomizu Temple, about 100 meters before the intersection with Sannenzaka. It is Kyoto's most popular area for sightseeing, so I suggest you go to the temples first in the morning and then have a break here. It is opening in Open 7 days from 10 am to 5 pm, with ceremonies every hour, on the hour. A new branch, called "Garden" near Kinkakuji is open for private groups only, from ¥8,000 per person.
3. North West Kyoto: Tondaya (¥3,240)
Set in an old machiya or merchant house, this is a very atmospheric place. The instructor spoke excellent English, and you get a tour of the house as well. A bit far from the center of Kyoto, but you could cab it from the subway or from Kinkakuji Temple, just ten minutes or so away. They also offer add-on services, from Kimono dress-up experiences to hosting Japanese Weddings in traditional attire, as well as a tea ceremony lunch served with authentic dining sets from the Meiji Period.
4. Sanjo & Nijo Castle Area - Ran Hotei (¥2,500, minimum 2 people)
This is a delightful find about 10 minutes south of Nijo Castle. Where else can you find a traditional kyo-machiya house decorated in a 'Taisho Roman meets Art Deco' style. The owner, Canadian tea master Randy Channell works closely with the tea growers from the Kyotanabe region. They are open in the evening on Wednesdays, until 9 pm.
For each tea house, it is best to book ahead. Part of the tea ceremony is to slow down and take in the peace, so booking and mentally preparing yourself is part of the enjoyment. If the Wagashi sweets take your fancy, why not go to the next level, and join in a sweet-making class?