Ordering Ceremonial Matcha in Kyoto

Ordering ceremonial matcha in Kyoto

The good thing about arriving in a surprisingly busy area of Kyoto, was the amble choice of teahouses. In an attempt to be open to new experiences, I embraced under-planning and walked into the first teahouse I came across. After drinking matcha in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, I wanted to try a matcha flavoured food. The menu had a variety of matcha noodle dishes, and appetizing desserts. Since matcha is an acquired taste, flavoured ice cream, tiramisu, and parfaits are a great alternative for those who don’t yet appreciate ceremonial matcha.

There were many food items, but unfortunately no vegan options. Instead, I ordered a ceremonial matcha and hoped it would be served with a sweet treat. In Japanese teahouses, the most expensive matcha on the menu is the highest grade ceremonial matcha and is served with sencha and wagashi. Wagashi is a small Japanese confection, often made from sugar and rice flour. It is typically plant-based, even when it includes a filling.

The order did end up including a delicious pink wagashi. The matcha itself didn’t have that distinct umami flavour, however, it was still extremely fresh and skillfully prepared. I also ordered an iced matcha, which was smooth but much sweeter than expected as they added a generous amount of syrup.

Sometimes it’s nice to stroll around, and visit a place without looking at reviews. Though, I have extremely high expectations for my next matcha tasting as it would be in the highly regarded teahouses of Uji.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

One of the first restaurants on my list was Chabuton in Osaka. Mostly because both their website and reviews confirmed they had vegan options. Chabuton was also more likely to be open, as well as easily accessible, as it was located at Yodobashi-Umeda. The incredibly busy department store was on the subway line, making it the perfect lunch spot on the way to drinking tea in Kyoto.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

When the plant-based ramen arrived, it was reassuringly similar to all of the pictures I’ve seen online. Unfortunately, it turns out the reviews also accurately described its flavour. It was great as a vegetable soup, but far from a traditional tasting ramen. Now of course I’m no expert, especially since I’ve only ever had vegetarian ramen. However, ramen broth is usually much thicker and has a deep complex flavour. This dish tasted more like a light soup with fresh vegetables and noodles. While I’m grateful they had a vegan option at all, I’d love to taste V2.

Plant-Based Ramen at Chabuton in Yodobashi-Umeda

Since I was still hungry, I ordered the green veggie gyoza. I had to triple check the nutritional info, and rejoiced every time I saw the veggie gyoza were in fact vegan. The gyoza were pan fried and perfectly crisp. There was even a gyoza and rice set, which I planned on getting if I returned.

Two things to keep in mind when ordering a dish that comes with a dipping sauce in Japan. One, never assume the dipping sauce of any dish is free of fish-based dashi. Two, if all else fails there’s usually plain soy sauce nearby.

Soy Chai Latte at Yodoyabashi Odona in Osaka

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

After a very early breakfast of convenience store goodies, I started to get peckish. Since it was only 10 am, I stopped at a Starbucks to refuel.

The Starbucks at Yodoyabashi Odona was quiet and classy. The glass display case was full of the usual items and some extra decadent treats. I skipped those as I figured my drink would have plenty of sugar already.

The friendly barista greeted me, and I placed an order for a medium soy chai latte. My go-to size is a small, but in Japan I get a medium. This isn’t because of the minuscule difference between Canada’s mL sizes and Japan’s cc sizes. It’s because a small is interpreted as a Tall in Canada, and a Short in Japan. Yes, I’m the annoying customer that forgets to use Starbucks’ official size names. I get flustered enough trying to remember my order and to ask for soy milk. While waiting in line, I always wonder if I should say soy latte or latte with soy milk. The first sounds better, but the second emphasized the soy more and might be more in line with the register process.

I was extra nervous about asking for soy milk in Osaka. When I previously asked other restaurants in Japan if they had soy milk, they would only catch the word milk and excitedly say yes. Even though I made a mental note to say ‘soy’ instead of ‘soy milk’, I accidentally blurted out chai latte with soy milk.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 1

Turns out I was worried for nothing. The barista clearly understood my request, and even handed me a cute soy milk card to ensure I was given the right drink. I quickly snapped a picture of the card before my drink was ready. Then I snapped another of the condiments bar. There were multiple sugar options (which I skipped), including: white & brown sugar, liquid sugar, and even orange vanilla sugar. There was also something called coffee powder, which looked like finely ground coffee that may or may not have been sweetened.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 2

I enjoyed my soy chai latte on a gorgeous red velvet chair, and got to planning the rest of the day.

Soy Chai Latte in Osaka 4

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

Prior to travelling to Japan, I had done some research into the best places to buy and sip on ceremonial grade matcha in Uji and Osaka.

The first place I visited was Uji-en (Uji Garden) in Shinsaibashi. The tea shop is located near the end of a covered street in the shopping district, which feels like a large yet crowded hallway. Since there were two tea shops on the same area, I checked out the merchandise to try and figure out if I was in the right place. Taking the time to look around, also helped me spot the tea drinking area. Even though I knew Noren were traditionally draped at the entrance of restaurants, I thought the fabric might be concealing a stock room. Luckily, I got a brief glimpse into the back of the tea shop as another customer exited. It felt impolite to walk in, and so I asked another shopkeeper if I could enter while miming drinking matcha by holding my two hands up and tilting an imaginary matcha bowl to my mouth. The shopkeeper understood I wanted to drink matcha, not just buy a tin of tea, and enthusiastically invited me in.

There were plenty of seats, but I decided to sit by the counter to get a better view of the matcha preparation. Before placing my order, I was given a small cup with a deep caramel liquid. The drink was cold, and had a rich earthy aroma and subtle sweetness. It didn’t have the strong bitter aftertaste of green or black tea. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first taste of roasted green tea also known as Hojicha.

When my matcha was served, it came with yet another small cup. This time the small cup contained a hot bright green liquid. After enjoying the hojicha, I bravely took a sip of the unknown tea. As soon as I caught a whiff of the tea, I knew I wouldn’t like the flavour. It smelled and tasted exactly like vegetable broth. I was convinced it was vegetable soup, but later found out it was sencha. Apparently most people preferred the taste of sencha over matcha, and so it is served to clear the palate.    

After tasting one of the best and worst teas I’ve ever had, it was time for the main event. I won’t leave you in suspense any longer, except to say that this trip has completely changed the way I drink matcha. The first sip was so exceptional that I had to pause in appreciation before taking another. The matcha tasted incredible, and was obviously very fresh and of high quality. However, the skilled preparation took it to the next level. The delicate foam, the fully dissolved powder, and the perfectly warm water were all signs of an expertly made matcha.

Paying attention to details not only pays off in terms of flavour, but it also makes you appreciate matcha more than you would if you had in a plastic to-go cup while rushing to a meeting. It reminds me of a quote by the monk Jeong Kwan, who said on Chef’s Table: “I make food as a meditation.” Both the quote and this tea experience have had a huge impact on the way I prepare matcha and food in general.

If you are curious, here’s how I prepare my matcha.

  1. Boil filtered water and let stand overnight. Japanese tea tastes best in soft water.
  2. Boil water again once you are ready to drink matcha.
  3. Pour the boiling water into your matcha bowl, and let stand for a minute or so.
  4. Transfer the water into another vessel. This helps warm the bowl, and then cools down the water to 80°C to avoid burning the matcha.
  5. Sift two scoops of matcha into the bowl to prevent clumps.
  6. Add a little bit of the warm water into the matcha bowl.
  7. Whisk quickly in a zig-zag shape for approximately 30 seconds. Once foam appears, slow down and get rid of any air bubbles.
  8. Add the rest of the water. If you’d like to prepare a latte instead, then add half of the remaining warm water along with non-dairy milk.

Hanami in Osaka

Hanami in Osaka Japan

During the cherry blossom season in Japan, people flock to the parks to view the blooms and have picnics. The first park I visited was Kema Sakuranomiya Park by the O River in Osaka.

Groups gather on picnic blankets or giant blue tarps. They remove and neatly line them up before sitting in a circle. Employees on their lunch break typically eat store-bought bento boxes, while families enjoy homemade food. Some even prepare a fresh meal on a tiny grill.

I joined the few individuals sitting on benches. My lunch seemed fairly basic, but I noticed many others also picked up their lunch from a nearby FamilyMart, Lawson, or 7-Eleven. Despite my hesitation, I soon understood why convenience store food is so popular. Of course it wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it was better than the food served at some restaurants.

My cold lunch set consisted of soba noodles and Inari. The sushi was incredibly fresh and delicious. On the other hand, the soba noodles appeared to be a disaster. They were all stuck together, and impossible to eat. Then I discovered that they came with a clear packet that appeared to be water. Once I poured the water in and mixed the noodles, they separated like magic. The soba noodles tasted even better with the shredded seaweed and green onion toppings. Since the sauce provided appeared to have bonito in it, I made a note to grab plain soy sauce packets next time.

After I was done my lunch, it proved to be impossible to find a garbage bin. My usual hack for Japan is to check for one in public washrooms, but that only works when they have paper towels. While walking around, I heard a sound reminiscent of an ice cream truck. Weirdly enough, this turned out to be a coca cola sponsored garbage truck. It seems that people threw their garbage bags into a fence enclosed area, and so I did the same. Then I walked upwind.

Hanami in Osaka Japan


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