One of the things I like most about our trips to Japan is the opportunity we have to try things that are uniquely Japanese, or are unusual to us. Unusual food and drink is high on the list of things to try out.
This year, we went to Ningyocho, which is an area in the old Shitamachi part of Tokyo. I was inspired partly by the book Old Tokyo: Walks in the City of the Shogun by Sumiko Enbutsu, and partly by a post I’d read on RocketNews24 about an old tea shop in the area, Morinoen.
It wasn’t our best adventure, I have to admit. We were both out of sorts, the day was a warm one, and I hadn’t done my usual precision planning. My planning consisted of relying entirely on the guide book. Following the detailed instruction in the book to take the last car on the Hibiya line and leave the station by the stairs at the end of the platform, we tipped out of Ningyocho station on a side street and couldn’t orientate ourselves at first. I studied the guidebook and tried to work out where we were. Mr Hicks pulled out his tablet computer and tried to get the pocket wifi to work. As we struggled, a passing pedestrian stopped and asked if we needed help. I explained that we were trying to follow the walking guide in the book. She took one look at the map, which has few landmarks on it beyond a series of numbered circles that refer to the text, and said, “I don’t understand that map, where do you actually want to go?” I plucked Suitengu Shrine out of my brain and offered it to her. She smiled. “I’m afraid the shrine is closed for rebuilding.”
She steered us to a street map at the closest kosaten and helped us to work out where we were. We had a quick chat about where we were from, why we were in Ningyocho and how long we would be in Tokyo, and then she headed off with a cheery “Good luck!”
On the map I spotted the street, Amazake Yokocho, where the tea shop was located and we headed in that direction.
Morinoen opened in 1914 and specialises in roasted tea, hojicha (ほうじ茶). The smell of the roasting tea permeates out from the shop into the street, so you know you’re getting close as you approach. The shop on the ground floor was tiny. We took our time considering the teas we would buy to bring home, settling on a genmaecha, a grade 2 sencha and, for me, a tiny pot of sakurayu – cherry blossom tea.
Cherry blossom tea is an unusual and very Japanese thing. Blossoms from the yae-zakura tree are pickled with salt and plum vinegar. The tea is usually served at betrothal meals or weddings because of its purity and because it represents beginnings. The first time I brewed it, I did it wrong. I put a teaspoonful into the teapot and poured on the hot water, leaving it to brew. The resulting drink was super salty. Not unpleasant, but definitely a shock! I have now learned that it’s normal to take just a couple of flowers per cup and it’s okay to rinse off the salt or even to soak the flowers briefly in warm water to remove the salt before putting the blossoms straight into a cup of hot water. Done correctly, the tea tastes slightly salty but the cherry blossom fragrance floats elegantly over the top, making it a most refined beverage. It also goes very well with a tea ceremony sweet.
Heading out of Morinoen without venturing upstairs to the tea room to sample one of their famous parfaits or even their green tea beer, we wandered further down the street. I was on the look out for traditional dolls. Ningyocho means Doll Town, after all. However, my luck wasn’t in. I did see a mikan tree with fruit on and a karaoke box-cum-tea room, though.
According to the walking guide, we should also have encountered a shop selling inarizushi (my favourite), a shop specialising in shamisen, one where you can buy a lacquered basket with your family crest on, and a takiyaki shop. We saw none of these. I think our eyes weren’t working properly. At the end of the street was a small park. In the middle of the park was a statue of Kabuki character Benkei.
Three or so centuries ago, this area was full of puppet theatres and Kabuki theatres. Puppet makers also thrived in the area. In the Meiji era, the theatres moved to Asakusa, but the puppet makers remained in Ningycho. I had thought that my animator husband might be interested in this history, but when we got there, there wasn’t anything obvious that we could read or visit. The Benkei statue is apparently it for remembering the area’s history.
Instead of heading left at the end of Ayazuke Yokocho, towards Kasami Inari Shrine and the fabric district, we went right towards Shin Ohashi Dori, looking for Matsushima Shrine. We apparently missed it. For an area with seven shrines dedicated to lucky gods, we were really not having a lucky day!
In front of the shrouded Suitengu Shrine, we turned back towards Ningyocho station. We stopped off at the delightful Kotobukido, which has been making traditional tea ceremony sweets for over 100 years. As we were choosing our sweets, I chatted with the two women who were serving. They explained that, although the business has been going for more than 100 years, the shop we were in had opened as recently as the mid-1980s. I found this hard to believe, as the interior is all old wooden cabinets and shelves. Perhaps the building was reconstructed and the old shop fittings put back in? They asked if we were Australian. I said that we were English, and we had a wonderful conversation about how much the English love tea, peppered with exclamations of “イギリス人はお茶が大好き,大好き” from everyone involved in the conversation – me, my husband, the two women from the shop and another woman who had popped in for some sweets.
We bought the house speciality – kogane’imo (こがねいも) – a sweet that resembles a baked sweet potato, made from white bean paste, egg yolk and sugar, rolled in cinnamon powder. Most people buy them to eat on their way to Suitengu, or eat them warm in the shop with a cup of tea. We took ours back to the apartment and ate them later.
We also bought a box of the more traditional wagashi, and two fresh sweets shaped like peaches. The children’s day carp that we had with our first brew of sakurayu were from this box. I love tea ceremony sweets, particularly these hard ones. They are not too sweet and really bring out the flavour of the tea.
The tiny paper packet next to the sweets contains a sharpened bamboo stick. It came with the sweets and is the same kind of implement as you get in tea ceremony, for cutting your sweet.
These sweets are among the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Like works of art, but infinitely more tasty.
Down the street from Kotobukido we found a shop selling wooden utensils, plates and bowls. We bought a selection of individual wooden teaspoons to remind us of Japan when we make tea or eat ice cream at home. The variation in colour and shape among the spoons on offer was lovely, and we took our time choosing them.
Although we’d spent as long as the book recommended for exploring the area, there was lots we didn’t see in Ningyocho. Such as the birthplace of Junichiro Tanizaki. Although I had read In Praise of Shadows, I hadn’t read The Makioka Sisters at that point, so it didn’t bother me that much. Now that I have read his famous novel, I’m more interested in seeing where he was born. Perhaps a return visit to Ningyocho to see the places we missed is in order.