The spirit of tea is the spirit of Japan
BY TAKAHIRO TAKENOUCHI STAFF WRITER
Sueko Matsuda teaches children how to serve Japanese tea. (Takahiro Takenouchi)
If it's tea you're after, here's a tip.
Fifteen minutes by train from Kyoto Station on the Kintetsu Line is Momoyamagoryomae Station.
From there, walk down Otesuji shopping street. Before long, you will be assailed by the fragrant aroma of tea wafting from Matsuda Tokoen, a specialist Uji-cha tea shop founded some 380 years ago in Kyoto's Fushimi Ward.
People lured by the aroma inspect the tea mill at the shop entrance, while shop assistants show children how to make delicious tea. "Through a cup of tea, I want them to develop a true Japanese spirit."
I was greeted with a smile by the mild-mannered 13th-generation owner, Sueko Matsuda, 51.
A tea ceremony parasol protrudes from the shop entrance. Before the children's eyes is a glass pot. The liquid is light green, denoting "sencha" tea permeating in the hot water as the tea leaves slowly decoct. When poured into a teacup and sipped, the tea has a delicate aroma and piercing sweetness.
"It's totally different from the tea I drink at home!"
Founded in the Kan'ei era (1624-43) in the early part of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Matsuda Tokoen is the oldest shop in Otesuji Street.
The street runs from the gate of Fushimi Castle, built by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified warring political factions across Japan.
It even holds tea seminars for children and parents. Matsuda allows children to hold the teapots, saying, "Touching warm pots, even breaking them is an important experience." "Children who are used to plastic bottles don't know how tea is made. It's no doubt connected to problems in their lives as a whole."
When she was a child, Matsuda awoke to the smell of "bancha" and grew up drinking top quality "gyokuro" tea brewed by her grandmother.
After graduating from university, she went to work for her father, the shop's proprietor, and at the age of 39 she became the first female proprietor of Matsuda Tokoen.
But at that time, bottled tea appeared on the scene and she began to get customers who asked, "Do you have any black soybean tea?" Amidst the changing environment surrounding tea, she sensed the decline in awareness of the seasons and of culture rooted in lifestyle and began to think of contributing to Japanese culture through tea.
Matsuda Tokoen has customers who bring their own teapots to enjoy a cup of tea, as well as foreign customers.
"A tea house is like a salon," says Matsuda. "I would like to transmit Japanese culture, including through the time spent in the shop."
Matsuda Tokoen's English web site is (http://www6.plala.or.jp/toukouenE/index.html).