Having visited Kyoto before, I had a vague idea of Gion and its streets of Japanese tea houses. The cosy cafes, the pack-a-punch matcha and sweet mochi stuffed with azuki beans and dusted with kinako were also fondly remembered. On this trip I decided to do things a little differently. I would buy the Japanese sweets as souvenirs, in their pretty packaging that the Japanese do all so well, and as no trip to Gion is complete without it, I would of course do the obligatory matcha. This time, at a traditional Japanese teahouse, instead of trawling the cobbled streets tasting everything along the way (think sweet tea biscuits to squid to pickled radishes and back to matcha). I would save room for the traditional and the Japanese fusion tea-sets that await you in the Japanese cafes of Gion.
Infused with the flavours and slick service of Kyoto, the two cafés offered up some of the most delicious cakes and tea that I have ever tasted in Kyoto. The first café was a traditional teahouse with a warm, homely atmosphere. We could take in the sights and sounds of the owners preparing our tea while reading some of the local Japanese magazines. I used reading ever so lightly.
Any good guidebook will lead you to the streets packed to the brim with quaint tea houses serving matcha and some complimenting wagashi and the various tea-making paraphernalia that go alongside it. A simple bowl-like cup and a small brush are your matcha-making essentials. But, to have a sit down and let the professionals show you how it's done while plying you with sweet jellies and soft kinako mochi, is the way we all should learn how to make Japanese tea. If not only to let your feet rest, the kind hospitable welcoming of the tea house’s owners made us feel at home immediately.
Although the brewing of tea remains dominated by the rich-in-colour and equally powerful bitter green matcha, I was happy to try houjicha as a change after feeling visually saturated by all things green and matcha flavoured. La Patisserie des Reves serves houjicha, or roasted green tea, that is refreshingly smooth with a subtle aftertaste that I quickly grew to love. I liked trying versions of it as lattes, cookies and sweets, as I worked my way around Kyoto’s streets atop my rented maiko geta.
With a deceptively Japanese shopfront, what lay beyond La Patisserie des Reves doors was a delight to our senses. The shop floor is filled with light and a gleaming display case of artisan cakes and macarons which sits front and center and lured us to the upper level to enjoy an afternoon tea set, complete with one of the richest deserts I have eaten to date. The houjicha latte was a magnificent way to complement the sweetness of the decadent dark chocolate of the somewhat alcoholic Apple dessert I chose.
As part of the Japanese tea experience I urge you to try a fusion café in Kyoto like La Patisserie des Reves by Philippe Conticini. Perhaps this French café is not the obvious choice when jostling for customers with traditional teahouses in Kyoto, but after the memories of matcha fade, what is left behind is the memory of a decadent desert experience. It pairs the best of French patisserie with Japanese tea. That which seems familiar while successfully incorporating the local flavour always leaves me wanting more. So, suffer as you might to pack away endless sweets and drink copious amounts of tea, it was the perfect way to spend the day taking in the tranquil sights of the famous temple, Shoren-in, while overloading on selfies in our kimono in Kyoto.