The winding, hilly lanes of Kyōto’s Higashiyama district require a fair bit of effort to navigate. Fortunately, a little tea shop tucked away next to one of the area’s scenic stone-paved streets offers the perfect antidote to depleted energy levels: freshly-made Japanese sweets and a bowl of hot, frothy green tea.
Name? Kasagi-ya (かさぎ屋).
Speciality? Traditional Japanese sweets and green tea.
Where? 349, Masuya-chō, Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto City, Kyōto Prefecture (京都府京都市東山区桝屋町349). Can be hard to find as it’s squashed between larger shops – here’s a map to put you on the scent.
Operating hours? 1100-1800 (closed Tuesdays), according to Tabelog. Now Tabelog’s usually right, but I remember walking in about 20 minutes before the stated opening time and the shop was ready to serve me. Then again, this is a small family-owned business so one should expect some flexibility.
How much? Menu prices range from 650 to 800 yen.
English menu? Available.
Date of visit? Friday, 25 November 2016.
Time of day and type of meal? Late morning, snack.
I’ve visited Higashiyama often enough to develop a fairly fixed routine. My lengthy walks would take me uphill to Kiyomizu-dera, from where I’d descend along Matsubara-dōri until Sannen-zaka shows up on my right. Down Sannen-zaka, then Ninen-zaka, then north along the road that runs past Kōdai-ji (with a customary detour into Ishibei-koji). Further north into Maruyama-kōen, a sharp turn west into the grounds of Yasaka-jinja, and finally down the steps of Yasaka-jinja itself into the Gion area. I might add a place or two, or choose not to visit certain spots I’d seen recently, but most of my excursions to this part of Kyōto have broadly followed this pattern.
All well and good, but the initial uphill stretch to Kiyomizu-dera alone would burn off a few calories. The rest of the route, whilst mostly downhill as the next snapshot of the Sannen-zaka slope suggests…
…is still quite long, requiring a further investment of energy digested out from whatever I might have had for breakfast that day. By the time I reach the (rough) midpoint somewhere around Ninen-zaka…
…I’d find myself craving a spot of refreshment. Thankfully, there’s a place here that I always rely upon to supply the extra dose of energy needed to complete the remainder of the trek.
See that elderly lady heading up the steps in the picture above? She’s just passed the place in question.
Now for a proper storefront image. Good to see you again, old friend.
I step inside. I take a moment to breathe in the atmosphere. This place has been dishing out traditional Japanese sweets since the early Taishō Era, so there’s over a hundred years of atmosphere to go with the food.
It’s a well-known, well-regarded place, but now is about 20 minutes before the stated opening time. No surprise, then, at finding the room still quiet, with just a couple of other people present. In fact, the only surprise is that people are already being served prior to official hours, but it’s a small family business – they can open whenever they choose.
On my last visit, I settled into that cosy corner spot right next to the front window. The table’s taken this time around (I snapped the picture after its occupants had left), but no matter – I’m here for something other than the seats.
Time to flip through the menu; an English version’s available on request. Not that I actually need to do much flipping … my heart’s set on the usual. (We’ll see what that is shortly.)
Order placed. I start to drift into a happy state with the complimentary hot tea, served in simple but lovely vessels that almost seem as old as the shop itself.
Within minutes, another tray arrives – laden with the refreshments I’d been craving since morning. いただきます.
The dish on the left contains a serving of 三色おはぎ (sanshoku ohagi) (650 yen), or simply Ohagi in the English menu. The “three colours” (三色) are achieved by covering the ohagi, which is essentially a small cake of cooked rice, in three different kinds of sweet bean paste: azuki (consisting mainly of whole red beans), koshi-an (finely mashed red beans), and shiro-an (ground white beans).
On the right, we have a bowl of hot matcha – or more specifically 薄茶 (usucha) (300 yen when ordered with a sweet course) – freshly whisked into a delicate froth.
I’ve taken tea in more formal settings before, but this isn’t that sort of establishment. I recall one particular tea ceremony where I had to be careful about every motion, every glance, every minute point of etiquette, from the way I raised the bowl to my lips to the order in which I consumed the items on the table. Here, I was free to dispense with such rigour and obliterated the contents of my tray in exceedingly simple fashion: bite of the sweets, sip of the tea. Bite of the sweets, sip of the tea. Over and over again, until my supply of ohagi was exhausted and the tea bowl was thoroughly drained.
Dishes emptied, feet rested, spirits restored. I plunge back out into the streets of Higashiyama, which are decidedly less peaceful now that the crowds have begun to swell…
…ready to resume my walk, and already looking forward to a return visit.