Top of any hit list for travellers in Japan is trying the local food (and drinks) which are hard to get hold of back home. While your local supermarket may have a modest assortment of sushi lunch boxes to try from or your local Asian food store may import a good variety of ingredients for you to experiment with at home, nothing beats actually eating and drinking local food in the country from which it originates.
The drinking of Matcha (Japanese Green Tea) is particularly important to try whilst in Japan because it is about so much more than just gulping down the frothy liquid – drinking matcha is a whole experience in itself, with a particular ambience and atmosphere that varies from tea house to tea house. So if you find yourself in Kumamoto and want to experience green tea in an authentic way, here are three places where you can enjoy a cup of matcha and everything else that comes with it.
One of the top tourist destinations in the city, Suizenji Park is a busy location throughout the year – particularly in the balmy summer months when the dazzling sunlight glistens off the large pond which the park has been sculpted around. The park is not huge – walking briskly, you could complete the whole circuit in ten or fifteen minutes. However, the usual fashion is to take a leisurely stroll, enjoying the visage from every angle before winding up back at the entrance where the tea house is located.
The construction of the garden took place in the early 1600’s at the bequest of Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi, who wanted to use the area as a personal tea retreat – he chose the site due to the spring-fed pond on the land, where the clean water was excellent for brewing tea – all the more reason for you to try a cup of green tea at the Suizenji Park tea house.
The tea house overlooks the pond with a spectacular view of the ‘Mt Fuji’ hill behind it. You can choose to sit outside or, for an extra cost, inside the tatami-clad viewing platform. Modestly priced, your tea set will include a small Japanese sweet. You can choose between the small white sweet with a light, creamy taste, or the rectangular biscuit-type sweet with a soft, rice cake exterior and fruity filling – each served with a small toothpick type implement which is what you use to eat it with. This is quite common in Japanese tea houses – the sweets are small and so, if served with a teaspoon, you’d gobble them up in one bite. However, with this tiny toothpick, you have to take tiny slices and so can enjoy the treat a little longer!
Trying green tea in Suizenji Park is probably the most picturesque option, and also convenient for tourists who will probably be heading in that direction anyway. For the best view, choose the warmer summer months to enjoy an arresting scene. Spring and autumn are also favourable because of the cherry blossoms and changing colours of the leaves. In the winter (if the tea house is open) you will enjoy a quieter experience as there are fewer tourists at that time!
Honmyō-ji is one of the most well-known temples in Kumamoto and has many events to attend throughout the year. Anyone who has visited before will know that it’s a bit of a hike to get to, as the temple is halfway up a big hill, where the top holds a superb view of the entire city. So I thoroughly recommend trekking to the top – and do try not to be too put off by the hordes of high-school students in their tracksuits who are casually jogging up and down the stairs while you’re puffing and panting just to get halfway… or is that just me?
Before you get to the temple itself, at the top of the staircase that is split down the middle with a line of lantern-style gravestones, there is a small tea house on the right-hand side of the stairs. As you enter the dimly lit room, it looks like a tea house that has collided with a decorative light fixtures shop and you’re not quite sure which one it is. Nevertheless, the old man who runs the shop is friendly and speaks a bit of English to help you with the menu.
The matcha set served here is accompanied by a slice of jelly flavoured with red bean paste. The main reason I usually steer clear of red bean paste products is because of the dry texture it always seems to have, but in jelly form the flavour is not too bad. The sweetness of the jelly goes well with the bitter taste of the tea, and you should take small slices of the sweet between sips to balance them out. While this tea house may not be stunningly beautiful or atmospheric, the perfect silence and delicious sense of calm are hard to find elsewhere and make for a very relaxing experience, especially if you need refuelling after a gruelling trek up that hill.
If you recognise the name ‘Fujisaki Hachimangū Shrine’, it’s probably in relation to the famous ‘Horse Festival’ that happens every September in Kumamoto near that popular place of worship. Less than a one minute walk away from this famous spot is the ‘Kusaha Sweet-Taste Cafe’ where you can enjoy some traditional Japanese sweets in an oasis of calm.
As a dedicated sweet shop, this cafe has a menu with lots of things to choose from, which include both sets and individual options. While there are a couple of meal items on the menu (such as soup and rice) this cafe is mostly dedicated to guests hoping for a cup of tea with a little something sweet on the side. Some of the traditional Japanese sweets on offer include isobe (wrapped in nori), abekawa (mochi balls coated in sweet sesame dust) and zanzai (a gloopy soup of red bean paste with lumps of mochi). I opted for the abekawa set which came with a generous cup of matcha, a small plate of crunchy pickles and a very generous serving of abekawa. The sweet sesame dust looks like and has the texture of sand, which doesn’t sound very appetizing but it’s actually delicious with a sweet, nutty taste.
This tea house may not be particularly conveniently located for tourists who aren’t in the area, but it is quite close to central Kumamoto and the tea house itself is beautiful – traditionally decorated with both tables and chairs as well as a tatami floor seating area. The tea house is tranquil and quiet, particularly if you get a view of the cute, little garden out back. The menu is all in Japanese but the owner and her daughter speak a bit of English.
Now you have three options for places to try a cup of matcha in Kumamoto, the only question remaining is: which one will you choose? You can also grab a cup of matcha at Kumamoto castle but there isn’t actually a tea house there – just a ‘vending machine cafe’ (a room full of vending machines with chairs for you to sit and enjoy your purchase) with a barely advertised desk at the back where you can grab a cup from the old ladies who work there… but I wouldn’t bother unless you have absolutely no other option to experience a real tea house. I’ll be honest – matcha isn’t my favourite hot beverage by a long shot – it’s bitter and I always leave the last gulp because it’s just too gritty to drink. However, the actual experience of sitting in a tranquil tea house, surrounded by peaceful sounds and trying a traditional Japanese snack – that whole experience is what makes it for me.