As any regular reader knows, I love tea. I drink it almost every single day, and when I’m with my friends it is the activity I look forward to the most. In some ways that sounds dumb, but to me tea isn’t just about some hot leaf water, but it’s about creating the space and environment for conversation and connection. And what are friends for, if not for those things?
When I travel, before I search for restaurants or activities, I search for teahouses. Most cities have no teahouses, because they are terrifically difficult businesses to run profitably. China is the exception, where it seems like every city or town has excellent teahouses.
To me a good teahouse is one with great tea, a great environment, and great people. I rarely get to know the people at restaurants or other businesses, but I always seem to get to know the people who run or work at teahouses. I’m not sure if it’s because it takes a certain type of person to be involved in a teahouse, and that person tends to be warm and friendly, or if it’s the space that fosters the connection.
I’ve probably been to over a hundred teahouses across the world at this point, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites which stand out above the crowd.
Zhao Zhou, Budapest
Europe is generally a really bad place for tea. Many major cities have zero great teahouses, though a few have some. Budapest is a major outlier, though. The story is that in the 70s a place called The Red Lion opened up and turned the people on to tea. I visited the Red Lion and it was terrible, but at least it birthed many other great teahouses in the city.
The absolute créme de la créme is Zhao Zhou, which is probably my favorite teahouse in the world overall. The breadth and depth of their tea selection is incredible. I’ve had a few teas there that weren’t my favorite style (for example a dark roasted oolong), but I’ve never had one that wasn’t a great example of what it was. They specialize in Chinese teas, but even their Japanese teas are excellent. Phoenix Dancong teas are some of my favorites and they have several excellent ones. Their puerh selection is incredible.
Rather than choose my own teas there I usually just ask the owners what they recommend and I’ve never once been disappointed. Over the years I’ve come to know the two people who run it and have become friends with them, and they are truly some of the most warm and kind people I’ve ever met. Spending time with them is one of the things I most look forward to when I visit Budapest.
The space is also incredible. It’s beautifully designed and sits right next to the Danube river. On most days I’m in Budapest I spend at least 3-4 hours there drinking tea, hanging out with friends, or working on my laptop. Of all the places I spend time outside of my home, it’s among those where I feel most at home.
I like Zhao Zhou so much I’ve even tried to buy part of it, not to make money as it grows but because of the pride I’d feel to be associated with it.
Té Company, New York City
New York is a city that has a lot to do, but if I have time for only one activity in New York, I’m going to Té Company. I still remember visiting it for the first time and being absolutely amazed at what they were doing.
Oolong is a much less mainstream tea than green or black tea, and Taiwanese oolong is generally considered to be among the finest oolong tea. And here was this tiny tea shop that sold only (or at least primarily) Taiwanese oolong teas! I couldn’t believe the bravery of opening a tea shop in one of the most expensive cities that would only carry such a connoisseur focused tea. When I saw the relatively low prices, I figured that the tea may not actually be that good, and of course I was surprised when it was some of the best Taiwanese oolong I’ve ever had.
Té is run by a couple, Elena being a Taiwanese tea expert, and Frederico being an elite chef. He makes tea snacks that are the best I’ve ever had. The pineapple linzer cookies are sublime and a nice nod to traditional Taiwanese pineapple cakes.
The shop is small and sometimes full, but I’ll always wait for a table. Like Zhao Zhou it has a menu where everything is good so I usually just pick three random teas and share with a friend.
I also subscribe to their monthly tea subscription, since everything they have is good. (They used to have an annual one but I can’t find it now)
Yakumo Saryo, Tokyo
I don’t know the whole story, but there’s a Japanese designer named Shinchiro Ogata who has built five or so different tea / tea sweet shops around Tokyo. The most famous is probably Higashi-ya (and it would make a top ten list on its own), but in my opinion his absolute masterpiece is a place called Yakumo Saryo.
Yakuma Saryo has some of the very best Japanese teas I’ve ever had. The employees who prepare them are trained by actual Japanese tea masters. I got to know one of the employees there and when I found out she also studied Urasenke (traditional Japanese tea ceremony) I asked what level she was. I didn’t recognize her answer and when I looked it up later I discovered that she was such a high level that she was qualified to train teachers! I’d guess it takes 15-20 years of constant study to get to that level.
That sort of excellence is reflected everywhere in the Yakumo Saryo experience. The kitchen there also serves dinner and pre-covid was invitation only. You couldn’t even make a reservation. The teahouse is situated on a lot that is largely a tea garden, so every view is of trees and landscaping. A single pot of gyokuro would be prepared in a handmade pot and served in three different cups for different steepings to maximize the experience. Each of those cups would be handmade and excellent.
They have a service called Goshincha which is essentially their take on afternoon tea service, and it is probably the single best tea experience I’ve ever had. I avoided it for years because it was $75-80, which seemed like a lot. Once I tried it once I decided that it was a bargain. It’s four or five teas expertly prepared and paired with snacks like tea sweets, sushi, and homemade pickles. Unfortunately it’s become so popular that I usually can’t get a reservation for it anymore.
Those are my three favorite tea houses in the world, but there are so many more than deserve mentions. Samovar in San Francisco no longer exists, but it single-handedly gave me a love for tea and was also where I met literally 100% of my friend group in San Francisco (either directly at the shop or through people I met at the shop). It was a magical place, especially the Hayes Valley location.
All of the other Ogata places in Tokyo are great (Higashi-ya Ginza being a favorite). Ippodo in Tokyo is also very good. Marukyu-koyamaen in Kyoto is great. Wistaria in Taiwan would have probably made the list if I had been there a few more times. Formocha in Amsterdam and Song Tea in San Francisco are also top tier but aren’t really the type of teahouses where you can just walk in and sit and have tea. Level teahouse, Flying Bird, and 1000Tea in Budapest are all so good that I’d be raving about them if it weren’t for Zhao Zhou being even better.
While I’ve never been to a teahouse in China that was so amazing that it makes this list, the average random town in China will have a better teahouse than most countries have.
My dream is to some day own a teahouse so that I can create the sort of experience that I’ve benefited from in all of these amazing tea houses. Because I’ve made friends with a bunch of teahouse owners over the years I know how hard the business is, and how important things like online sales and restaurant sales are (and I wouldn’t prioritize those things), so I don’t think I could open one until I truly didn’t care if it lost money, which it probably would.
Photo is another small teahouse in a hotel in Kyoto. I’ve posted so many photos over the years of my favorites that I figured I’d show another one that I thought looked great. I’m in Vancouver today trying some new teahouses!
Damn, I didn’t know that Samovar closed. It used to be absolutely amazing around 2010-2014 when I went there every so often (the location at 498 Sanchez St). But when I went for the final time in 2016, it was nowhere near as good as it used to be and the menu had been cut significantly.
When I was back in SF again in 2019 I went to the Yerba Buena location and it was absolutely awful. It seemed like they tried to expand too fast, and none of their locations were ever as cozy nor as delicious as the place on Sanchez St was a decade ago — it was the perfect place to go on a date. I don’t know if it changed owners or what, but somebody drove it into the ground. I’m not surprised it’s gone for good now.
From todays NYT. Thought this’d appeal to you.
Japan Has Millions of Empty Houses. Want to Buy One for $25,000?
The New York Times · by Tim Hornyak · April 17, 2023
With a shrinking population and more than 10 million abandoned properties, the country is straining to match houses with curious buyers.
Jaya Thursfield, an Australian who moved to Japan 2017 with his wife Chihiro, bought an abandoned house not far from Tokyo for 3 million yen, or around $23,000, in 2019, and set about renovating it.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
April 17, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
When Jaya Thursfield found a house he wanted to buy in Japan a few years ago, friends and family told him to forget it. The place wasn’t worth the trouble, they said. After all, it stood in a forest of shoulder-high weeds after being abandoned about seven years earlier — one of the millions of vacant houses known as akiya, Japanese for “empty house” — throughout the country.
But Mr. Thursfield, 46, an Australian software developer, wasn’t deterred. Through the overgrown garden, he could see it was special: The black roof tiles cascaded down to slightly curving eaves that were much higher off the ground than those of most houses. The entrance hall had its own gabled tile roof. If the 2,700-square-foot house looked more like a Buddhist temple than a farmhouse, it’s because it had been built by a temple architect in 1989.
Mr. Thursfield and his Japanese-born wife, Chihiro, had moved to Japan from London in 2017 with their two young sons and a dream of buying a home with a big yard. The plan was to purchase a vacant lot and build a house on it, but land is expensive in Japan and their budget wouldn’t allow it. So they turned to the growing supply of abandoned houses, which are cheaper and often come with more land.
The Thursfields’ house in 2019, shortly after they bought it. The house had been deserted after the previous owner’s family refused to inherit it upon the owner’s death.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
Mr. Thursfield has done much of the renovation work himself, including woodworking.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
The couple have spent about $150,000 on renovations, and there’s more to do.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
They’re far from the only ones. “We would never have been able to afford a house of this quality and size if it wasn’t an akiya,” said Ms. Thursfield, 49. “And while many Japanese don’t like used homes, foreigners see a house that is cheap and are more willing to reuse and renovate to their tastes and budget.”
As Japan’s population shrinks and more properties go unclaimed, an emerging segment of buyers, feeling less tethered to cities, is seeking out rural architecture in need of some love. The most recent government data, from the 2018 Housing and Land survey, reported about 8.5 million akiya across the country — roughly 14 percent of the country’s overall housing stock — but observers say there are many more today. The Nomura Research Institute puts the number at more than 11 million, and predicts that akiya could exceed 30 percent of all houses in Japan by 2033.
The Thursfields’ house, which sits among the paddies in southern Ibaraki Prefecture, about 45 minutes from central Tokyo, had been deserted after the previous owner’s family refused to inherit it upon the owner’s death. The local municipality took it over and put it up for auction with a 5 million yen ($38,000) minimum bid, but it failed to sell.
When it landed on the block again, Mr. Thursfield decided to try his luck. After giving the house a quick inspection with an architect friend and finding no major issues despite the years of neglect, he nabbed the house for 3 million yen, about $23,000.
Because the value of a house in Japan typically decreases over time until it is worthless, with only the land retaining value, many buyers seek to demolish a neglected house and start again. But that process can be prohibitively expensive. Others aim to preserve what’s there.
“There was no way we wanted to knock it down and build something new. It was too beautiful. So we decided to renovate instead,” Mr. Thursfield said. “I’ve always been someone who likes to jump in the deep end, take a few risks, and learn new things, so I was confident that we would manage somehow.”
Since buying the farmhouse in 2019, the couple have spent about $150,000 on renovations, and there’s more to do. Mr. Thursfield has documented the project on YouTube, drawing more than 200,000 subscribers.
While the Thursfields’ house had been abandoned by the previous owner’s heirs, some homeowners die without ever naming an inheritor. Others leave their properties to relatives who refuse to sell family land out of respect for their elders, leaving the house to wither.
“In rural areas, there is a long history of ancestral owners of akiya living in the houses and on the land,” said Kazunobu Tsutsui, a professor of rural geography and economics at Tottori University who lives in a renovated akiya built more than a century ago. “Therefore, even after moving to the city, families will not give up their akiya easily.”
Now officials on both local and national levels are taking steps to give them a push.
An akiya sat idle in Nagasaki, Japan, earlier this year.Credit…Tim Hornyak
Inside, detritus left behind by the previous owners gathers dust.Credit…Tim Hornyak
“Poorly maintained akiya can mar the scenery as well as endanger residents’ lives and property if they collapse,” said Kazuhiro Nagao, a city official in Sakata, along the west coast, where heavy snowfall can damage unattended structures. “We’re partly subsidizing demolitions, collecting neighborhood association reports on akiya, and trying to make owners aware of the problem by holding briefings.”
Though the akiya problem has not had a direct impact on sales in overcrowded urban markets, where high-rises continue to go up, the potential hazards to communities posed by empty houses are growing along with their numbers, according to Akira Daido, chief consultant at the Nomura Research Institute’s Consulting Division. Mr. Daido pointed to a recent legal revision that allows local authorities to effectively raise the property taxes on neglected houses if the owners ignore municipal requests to maintain or demolish them. In another sign of rising concern, the government has approved a plan by the city of Kyoto, where inventory is tight yet some 15,000 houses sit empty, to tax the owners of those empty homes — a first in Japan.
Akiya are increasingly seen not just as a threat to suburban and rural markets, but to the emotional health of the country, sparking family disputes over inherited properties. That, in turn, has led to a cottage industry of akiya consultants like Takamitsu Wada, the chief executive of Akiya Katsuyo, who acts as a counselor for squabbling relatives, often urging them to act before their properties become a lost cause.
“In many cases, the parents die without making clear their wishes regarding the family home, or they develop dementia and find it difficult to discuss these things,” Mr. Wada said. “In such cases, the children may feel guilty about getting rid of the family home, and may often choose to leave it unoccupied.”
Municipalities across Japan are also compiling listings of vacant houses for sale or rent. Known as “akiya banks,” they are often bare-bones web pages with a few underwhelming photos. Some have partnered with private-sector companies like At Home, which currently lists akiya in 658 of Japan’s 1,741 municipalities.
Matthew Ketchum and Parker Allen, the founders of Akiya & Inaka, in the Hachioji area of Tokyo. The company is capitalizing on the akiya glut, matching vacant homes with curious buyers.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
“Akiya banks are run by municipal office workers, the majority of which often do not have any experience in real estate,” said, Matthew Ketchum, a Pittsburgh native and co-founder of Akiya & Inaka, a Tokyo-based real estate consultancy. “The existing solutions do not align with the needs of modern buyers and sellers.”
Mr. Ketchum’s firm is one of several that have sprung up to capitalize on the akiya glut, matching vacant homes with curious buyers. Akiya & Inaka’s listings include a 2,195-square-foot home built in 1983 in the suburb of Hachioji, Tokyo, with a small garden and a reception room featuring a raised tatami floor, tokonoma alcove and a rare wickerwork ceiling of woven cedar. The property is listed at 36 million yen, about $272,000.
“Every Japanese agent we talked to advised us to demolish this place,” said the house’s owner, Takahiro Okada, 85, a retired journalist. He and his wife Reiko, 86, had been renting out the house but decided to sell after their tenant left last year. Their children weren’t interested in it, so the property lingered. Different owners might have torn it down and sold the land.
“If we all do that, we’re losing Japanese culture,” Ms. Okada said. “When seen from an international perspective, and through the eyes of foreigners, Japanese things can have inherent uniqueness and value.”
Mr. Ketchum and his partner, Parker J. Allen, said they’re now fielding about five times the number of inquiries as when they began in 2020. “At first, we were getting most of our inquiries from Japan residents, Australians and Singaporeans,” Mr. Ketchum said. “That has changed now, with the vast majority of our international clients being based in the U.S.”
Reiko, left, and Takahiro Okada in the house they’re selling through Akiya & Inaka. “Every Japanese agent we talked to advised us to demolish this place,” Mr. Okada said.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
The exterior of the Okadas’ house, in the Hachioji area of western Tokyo.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
The property is listed at 36 million yen, or about $272,000.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times
Many clients have been spurred by the pandemic, which “definitely changed the mind-set of people living in Japan regarding the idea of rural living,” Mr. Allen said. “The fact that property in the Japanese countryside is by and large undervalued and there are viable properties that are almost turnkey has finally dawned on these people.”
One person it did not dawn on recently is Alex Kerr, an author and Japanologist originally from Maryland, who became an akiya owner in 1973 when he acquired an abandoned country house (known as a minka) in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, for $1,800.
Named Chiiori, or House of the Flute, the thatched-roof aerie is about 300 years old. Inside, it’s a shadowy space of polished wood floorboards, a large sunken irori hearth and giant overhead rafters wreathed in smoke. Outside, mist rises from the Kumatani River in the gorge below.
Mr. Kerr, 70, is the first to admit that akiya can be money pits. He has spent decades and roughly $700,000 (“about half” of which came from a government grant, he said) maintaining it, and now rents it out as a guesthouse. It’s one of about 40 derelict Japanese properties he has restored over the years, all the while preaching the importance of conservation and rural revitalization to municipalities, companies and homeowners who may not know what makes their properties special.
“Many cultures have wooden architecture, but when it comes to the techniques of carpentry, Japan overwhelmingly leads the world in joinery and use of materials, as well as use of space and choreography,” said Mr. Kerr, whose books include the memoir “Lost Japan.” “When it comes to old minka houses, you have all that, set in a natural environment, and within the context of being cheap. In the Cotswolds, wooden houses cost a fortune, but in Japan they’re being thrown away.”
Alex Kerr bought an abandoned country house in 1973 in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, for $1,800.Credit…Courtesy of Alex Kerr
Mr. Kerr’s house, named Chiiori, or “House of the Flute,” is about 300 years old.Credit…Courtesy of Alex Kerr
Mr. Kerr has spent about $700,000 maintaining the house, some of which came from a government grant.Credit…Courtesy of Alex Kerr
But he has taken note as real estate companies have begun to snap up habitable antique houses and market them to non-Japanese luxury buyers. He also pointed to young international buyers opening Airbnb rentals in erstwhile akiya and attending events like minka conferences.
Last year, the British videographer Sam King and his wife, Nanami Sakurai, fled Tokyo with the help of an architect who introduced them to an unlisted akiya in the mountains of Otsuki, 50 miles west of Tokyo.
The couple wanted to be “closer to nature on our days off,” said Mr. King, 35. “We also could not afford to buy so much as a shoe box in the city, so the thought of being able to get somewhere with a lot more space was very appealing so we can start a family and also own pets without any trouble.”
The house, in a depopulated community of mostly older residents, had been abandoned for roughly two years after the death of its owner. The price was 12 million yen, or about $88,000.
Set in a garden among plum and kiwi trees, the cottage has traditional tatami mats, shoji-paper and fusuma sliding doors, chunky wooden cabinets and tokonoma alcoves. The previous owner left behind a trove of personal possessions — paintings of Mt. Fuji, rolls of Japanese calligraphy, old tape players, kites, guitars, skis, crockery. The house is about 50 years old and needs to be updated to modern standards. Mr. King estimated the initial renovations, such as redoing the kitchen and bathroom, will cost $20,000 to $30,000. It’s well worth it to escape the city.
“We’d like to improve upon it quite a bit as it’s going to be our home, so we’ll probably end up spending over $100,000 in total on the project,” he said. “But we’ll hopefully end up with our dream home.”
If you’re ever in Glasgow, Scotland, I recommend Tchai Ovna:
Fantastic tea house with lovely tea selection and such a chilled atmosphere.
Hello, Ty long lost tea aficionado !
Loving that I haven”t checked your blog in years & was just thinking about LA and then decided to see what you were up too!
One of my good friends lived at Haight & Laguna & so I would always go to Samovar. I as well, had some very special times there. What a small world. That is really sad that it closed. I am sipping some itoen green tea as we speak, my favorite! I still have some unopened snazzy matcha ceremonial powder that I bought before leaving Japan. I probably should open that soon since it has been almost 13 year 😉 Anyways sending you love from Chicago to Vancouver. So sad the my favorite Canadians on the Blackhawks are gone. Sayonara-Duncan Keith & Johnathan Toews.