Best Tea in Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto’s Japanese tea is world famous, and matcha is a great take-home souvenir. Likewise, teahouses are a great option for a midday break after a long morning of touring Kyoto, Japan. In this post, we cover the best tea shops, plus our favorite tea ceremony, in case you’re interested in a more traditional, cultural experience.
Japanese teahouses typically serve a bowl of hot, slightly bitter matcha accompanied by small Japanese sweets known as wagashi. At least, this is what you’ll find on the menu at more traditional teahouses, which are the focus of this post. Other locations are better classified as sweet shops, and they’ll have a variety of desserts like ice cream, mochi, yatsuhashi, and shaved ice.
These shops are most commonly found in the Gion district, and in our experience, their desserts are the highlight and their matcha is an afterthought. If you want a more serious, less Instagram-centric tea experience, the options in Gion would not be our first choices. Accordingly, we’ll cover those in a separate ‘best desserts in Kyoto’ post.
If you’re really interested in green tea, you might be considering a trip to Uji. This small town near Kyoto is known as the producer of superior quality green tea, with the oldest operating teahouse in the world plus dozens of shops and street vendors selling matcha-flavored everything. (No joke, you can get matcha ramen or hot dogs!)
While we recommend Uji as a day trip from Kyoto for those with a surplus of time, its tea is not the basis of that recommendation. Byodoin Temple is the main draw there from our perspective, with most of the tea shops and ceremonies being roughly on par with Kyoto’s options.
With that said, here are our favorite teahouses in Kyoto, with a bit of information and quick reviews of each…
Ippodo Tea – Located in the Nijo Teramachi area, and Ippodo Tea was founded 300 years ago and is widely regarded as the pinnacle of tea shops in Kyoto, Japan. While we were doing “research” for this article, we tested a number of tea shops, hoping to find a hidden gem that surpassed the highly-hyped Ippodo.
We never did. If you’re only doing one tea shop in Kyoto, it should unquestionably be Ippodo Tea. Due to its popularity, it’s larger, more polished, and less intimate than other teahouses in Kyoto, but it is still quiet and contemplative. We recommend ordering the Kyoto-exclusive options, and make sure to get the pricey gyokuro, which is worth the money thanks to its smooth flavor and umami aftertaste.
Hiranoya – The only other teahouse in Kyoto that we consider essential is Hiranoya, which is a hybrid teahouse and restaurant and one of Kyoto’s most iconic buildings. While the Arashiyama district is absolutely chaotic near the train stations, popular temples, and famous bamboo grove, once you wander off the beaten path and find the uphill roads of rural Sagano, you’re in for a pleasant treat.
If you’re following our 1-Day Western Kyoto Itinerary, you’ll encounter a junction in the road with a large torii gate near Atago Shrine on your way to Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple (another highly recommended spot). The kaiseki restaurant to the left is Hiranoya, a 400-year old thatched roof establishment that is famous in Japan. However, it’s sufficiently out-of-the-way that you’re unlikely to find tourists here.
Hiranoya is included here as the perfect companion to Ippodo Tea because it’s a radically different experience. As noted, this is a kaiseki restaurant, and that’s evident in the way tea is prepared and served, with meticulous attention to detail in everything from the bowls to the sweets to the tea itself.
The atmosphere at Hiranoya is serene and delightful, albeit pricey and not quite as good as any of the teas we’ve had at Ippodo. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely worth it for a very different, equally good experience.
Ami Kyoto Tea Ceremony – While we hardly have comprehensive knowledge in the realm of Kyoto tea ceremonies, this is our favorite of the ones we’ve done. The problem with tea ceremonies is that they consistent of uncompromising formalities, and there is (in my opinion) way too much that is scripted and done out of tradition, with little emphasis on the tea itself. It feels like a lot of stoically going through the motions.
This may sound like a close-minded American take on Japanese customs and…maybe it is? I don’t really know, but I do know that tea ceremonies are not for everyone. They are definitely not for small children–and they try my patience as an adult. We gave Ami Kyoto a chance because the description indicated that its host had worked for several years in Florida. We decided to roll the dice that this meant she worked at the Japan pavilion in Epcot at Walt Disney World.
We were correct. Mari’s experience in dealing with Americans and her sweet personality made this a winner. Mari gave explanations about the why of certain cultural customs, while the other host, Hitomi, demonstrated the protocol of the ceremony with meticulous precision.
The overall focus on the taste of the tea and social experience of the tea ceremony made this infinitely better than other tea ceremonies in Kyoto. It’s actually a jovial and fun setting, which is far more than can be said about most other tea ceremonies. (I still would hesitate in taking kids, but your mileage may vary.)
Koma Gallery Cafe – I’ll level with you: at this point, we’re just rounding out the list so it’s not just three options. With that said, we both really do love Koma Gallery Cafe. It scores points here for being near the heart of the action in Higashiyama District, but without being crowded. (We’ve visited several times, and are often the only ones here.)
We also like it because they have both good coffee and good matcha. It’s not on par with Ippodo Tea, nor was Koma Gallery Cafe worthy of inclusion on our Best Coffee in Kyoto, Japan post, but if you want a shop that does both very well because some in your party prefer tea and some prefer coffee, this is as ideal of a “compromise” option as you’ll find.
Nakamura Tokichi Kyoto Station – We’re including this only as an option of last resort, in the event that you are either passing through or don’t have time to make it to the superior options. This is a hip option for its photogenic matcha ice cream sundaes, and the lines you’ll encounter bear that popularity out.
However, Nakamura Tokichi is also a famous tea shop based in Uji, Japan. They sell a variety of different teas, including a house blend of multiple varieties that’s quite good. While convenient and popular, the downsides of Nakamura Tokichi are that it’s impersonal, expensive, and not as good as Ippodo.
That covers our favorite tea shops in Kyoto, Japan. Note that these are recommendations are what we feel are most approachable to the ordinary tourist to Japan. If you’re a high-roller with connections, that opens up several doors, including places like the famed Ichiriki Chaya. However, you can’t just walk in off the street to the geisha-hosted teahouses in Kyoto, which is why “best of” lists including venues like those are sort of pointless.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited any teahouses in Kyoto, Japan? Any that you liked or disliked? Have you done a tea ceremony? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
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