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Shinya Sakurai, Japanese Tea Ceremony Meets Mixology

Shinya Sakurai, Japanese Tea Ceremony Meets Mixology

How tea master mixologist and former bartender Shinya Sakurai is updating Japanese tea ceremonies with scent, sight, sound and liquor.

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Imagine a wooden Japanese teahouse that is nestled amidst a manicured, stone-paved garden, and that the arriving guests bow themselves into an intimate room laid with fragrant soft rush mats. They contemplate meanings behind a wit-teasing calligraphic scroll and admire a flower arrangement; they observe meticulously choreographed tea making by a tea master and take Japanese sweets with their respective, individually prepared matcha. This is the Japanese tea ceremony, also known as Sadō or Way of Tea, a practice that originates from Zen Buddhism and across centuries has been refined into an austere, soul-purifying art form.

The traditional makeup of Sadō could not be any more different from Sakurai Tea. On the fifth floor of Fumihiko Maki’s famed, asymmetrical Spiral Building, a clear glass wall shields Sakurai’s minimalist, copper-cladded tearoom from the bustle of Minami-Aoyama. Tea master mixologist Shinya Sakurai awaits his customers in a white lab gown. There are only eight seats and bookings are strongly advised.

Seated at a polished stone counter, Sakurai combines the theatrics of tea making with his humbling presence. His tea menu can offer up to 30 different types of Japanese tea per day. Each is numbered, brewed to Sakurai’s inventive specifications, and paired with Japanese sweets and pickles as seen fit. Tea-based cocktails also feature prominently. “I was a bartender before I served tea,” Sakurai introduces himself, “I used to serve mainly alcohol.”

In fact, it was Sakurai’s previous stint at Higashiya, a Japanese confectionary shop founded and run by designer-architect Shinichiro Ogata that brought him to the art of tea. “When I was working at Higashiya, a master of Urasenke (one of Japan’s three most prestigious tea ceremony schools) taught me. I also learned by myself for 14 years. Through tea, I learned tea sets, design including Japanese culture.” Ogata, who is also a design partner of Sakurai Tea, remains a profound influence: “The way Ogata designs, his philosophy and his way of thinking are good teachings to me,” Sakurai says, “His design of Sakurai Tea creates good tension when I serve tea. It frees one’s mind.”

The culture behind Japanese tea fascinates Sakurai: “Japanese tea is the only tea that steams leaves in the process. Tealeaves become so different by how the tea is served. I also roast the tealeaves myself.” As Sakurai speaks, he prepares high-grade gyokuro tea from Yame, Fukuoka. This type of green tea is grown under the shade and is praised for its inherent sweetness. “Gyokuro needs a very low temperature like 50 degrees Celsius. I brew it up to three times with soft spring water from Kagoshima.”

To prepare his serving of gyokuro, Sakurai pours boiling water through a set of teacups, a practice familiar from Chinese tea ceremony, not Japanese. He holds each of the teacups in his palms, relying only on the radiating heat to tell when the water temperature becomes right. He lets the tealeaves immerse in a significantly little amount of water in a flat, lidded and beaked ceramic vessel.

Sakurai extracts, with a few forceful strokes, every drop of the green-yellow gyokuro essence into an Espresso-size teacup. It boasts a deep, mildly acidic, seaweed-y umami. The tealeaves are allowed time to breathe and brewed again at a rising water temperature. At the end of his serving, Sakurai infuses a high temperature gyokuro with sudachi lime and shiso leaf and brews it instantly in melting ice. He also offers his customers the fully rehydrated tealeaves with a dressing of citrus vinegar as snacks.

One of the intriguing things is that he also roasts tea himself. “The importance of roasting tealeaves is that I can adjust to the taste I like. I meet directly with tea farmers and choose the batch of tealeaves. The ones with good aroma.” Therefore, the menu at Sakurai Tea includes some of Japan’s lesser-known tea variations, such as fukamushi (deep steamed green tea), awabancha (fermented and roasted green tea), and karigane (roasted stems of gyokuro tea). He also creates his own blends. Most recently, the No.145 blend of Japanese mugwort, blueberry stems and cherry blossom petals, celebrates the taste of Japanese spring.

Unlike a mixologist, Sakurai undertakes a more sober approach to tea and alcohol infusion. He rarely instantly mixes tea with liquor and never uses distillation as a method of infusion. “It is not traditional in a way. I created a new method mixing the philosophy of Sadō with elements from Chinese tea and a bar,” he says, “I also have this idea of making a range of original crafted liquor. To me, this is like making cold brewed tea by infusing with cold water.” Sakurai’s way of thinking is organic and a progressive reflection on Sadō. It shows his respect to the natural taste and form of tea, instead of re-molecularising it.

Therefore, for No.201, Sakurai reworks a gin and tonic, steeping sencha tea in gin, and his No.202 is an infusion of vodka with bancha tea. He also blends single malt whiskey with a type of roasted tea called hojicha and serves it with a side snack of smoked iburigako radish. “For me, when mixing tea with alcohol, tea and alcohol are both important. The most important thing is blending them with harmony.” The taste commands his customers’ attention.

“By no means is Japanese tea and alcohol infusion a norm.” And so it proves, as customers sit in silence, in awe of Sakurai’s pairing of matcha and beer. As matcha is a tea definitive of the Japanese tea ceremony, there is a cultural expectation of how it should be prepared and enjoyed. Sakurai’s method is mind-boggling. It begins with a typically ritualistic preparation of matcha: washing and warming a tea bowl, cleaning a tea whisk, and whisking matcha powder and water into fine froth. Sakurai interrupts this sequence, casually, with a pouring of fridge cold Ebisu beer into an unassuming pint glass, into which he slowly but rhythmically empties the bowl of matcha. The thick emerald-green froth stays separate and afloat the amber-coloured beer. It adds a great mouth feel. Interestingly, the bitterness of matcha brings out the sweeter taste of beer. “Some people are very shocked at how we serve tea, how we present,” Sakurai says, “Through our new method, I would like to evolve Japanese culture.”

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