Less than five minutes east from the busy Horikawa Avenue and the impressive main gates and graceful temple roofs of the Nishi Hongwanji, the headquarters of Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, is a tea shop called the Bikoen(美好園 literally “Garden of Pleasing Elegance) that has stood, since the fifth year of Meiji(1872), next to long established stores selling Buddhist altars, meditation beads, and sticks of incense. For generations, we have supplied exclusively various kinds of tea for all the different gatherings and ceremonies sponsored by the Nishi Hongwanji.
We also provide all the mattcha, fresh powdered green tea, to the nearby residence of the 13th generation Grand Master of the Yabunouchi tradition of tea. The Yabunouchi family has introduced the aesthetics of the serving tea to generations of Nishi Hongwanji priests of all ranks. For this reason, the mattcha available at the Bikoen all bear poetic names that reflect the aesthetic ideals and preferences of the Grand Masters of the Yabunouchi tradition that begun with Yabunouchi Kenchu (1536-1627.) Kenchu studied with the renown Sen no Rikyu(1522-1591) under one of the first teachers of the art of serving fresh green tea, Tekno Joo(1502-1555.)
The grandmasters, or iemoto, of the Yabunouchi family have preserved the elegant formality that has been the hallmark of Kyoto’s courtly tradition.
Because mattcha represents over half of what we sell, we take special care in using tea leaves from harvesting them in the famous tea fields of Uji in order to maintain the high quality of delicious and aromatic tea leaves that generations of tea masters have preferred. In addition we continue to provide the best of the teas that come from the Uji Field, selling sencha and gyokuro teas that have the distinctive soft taste and gentle aroma that is the hallmark of the Bikoen tea.
Recently, we have fashioned a small tea room and miniature tea garden behind the store to provide customers with an opportunity to taste mattcha and appreciate the tradition behind the serving of Japanese tea. “Tea tastes good when it is served well,” says Hashimoto, the master of the Bikoen, so I wanted to provide a space that would give my customers a chance to learn more about how to serve and receive tea so that it tastes good. In a time when everyone rushes around to attend to what they think are important, it is nice to take a tea break.
In order to prepare tea that tastes good, you need to begin with good tea leaves and good water. The Bikoen starts with the finest tea leaves and in response to direct orders from customers, we provide tea from selected tea fields in Uji. In winter, we welcom guests with hot tea made from water boiling in a large iron kettle that warms both the store and the hearts of customers. At the Bikoen, inspired by a framed scroll above the front counter that reads, “Enjoy our signature tea: Purity of Spirit,” it is still possible to enjoy a true “tea-break”.