The ancient town of Uji in Kyōto Prefecture is known far and wide for its tea. It should come as no surprise that, over the course of its centuries-old love affair with this soothing gift of the bush, some of the leaves harvested hereabouts began to end up in places other than your typical bowl of hand-whisked matcha.
Like your not-so-typical bowl of piping-hot noodles, for example.
Name? Nakamura Tōkichi Honten (中村藤吉 本店).
Speciality? Traditional Japanese tea and products made with tea, including a wide assortment of desserts and some savoury dishes. This is a lunchtime review and focuses on one of the shop’s meal selections, but bear in mind that they seem to be better known for their tea-based beverages and desserts rather than for meals.
Where? Within walking distance of JR Uji Station. Tabelog’s map has the exact location all plotted out. Note that the “Uji Station” run by JR is different from the identically named station owned by Keihan Railway, the latter being located at a considerable distance northeast of the shop.
How much? Noodle sets are in the JPY 980-1,150 range; less for noodle dishes only (without sides). Desserts are priced differently, but I didn’t order any on this occasion so I didn’t note down the prices for those.
English menu? Yes.
Links? The official site is here. As always, Tabelog has a wealth of information on this establishment, though some knowledge of Japanese will come in handy when using that site. English-language reviews are available on TripAdvisor, but as usual the map is a little off the mark – use the more accurate one on Tabelog instead.
Date of this restaurant visit? Thursday, 20 November 2014.
Period/type of meal enjoyed on visit? Lunchtime, set meal.
We were feeling quite famished after our morning excursion in Uji, so whilst warming up on complimentary tea at the riverside tourist information office, I took advantage of the free WiFi and trawled the interwebs for lunch recommendations. I eventually settled on Nakamura Tōkichi Honten, a venerable tea firm founded in 1854, whose main branch (hence the “honten” in the name) near Uji’s JR station also had a well-regarded café in the back of the premises.
This might seem like an odd choice at first, given how Nakamura Tōkichi is better known for Japanese tea and tea-flavoured desserts rather than meals. On the other hand, I was aware that some of their café’s not-so-sweet food offerings were made using matcha, thus giving us an opportunity to satisfy our hunger and have a taste of Uji’s famous green tea all in one go.
The tea firm’s headquarters – suitably ancient-looking for a 160-year-old company – stood out quite nicely amongst its much newer neighbours.
Stepping inside, we walked past the tea shop (which we’ll return to later) and headed straight towards the café in the rear courtyard. We were forewarned that it was a popular place, and we anticipated a bit of crowding given that it was lunchtime…
…but we certainly didn’t expect the long queue that stretched from the door and spilled onto the benches laid out around the garden.
Oh well, can’t be helped. I wrote down my name and the number of people in our party (3) on the waiting list set up next to the door, then settled down to await the summons.
After a while, my parents decided that they were too hungry to wait much longer, so they got up to search for another place to eat whilst I stayed behind. I struck out the “3” next to my name, scribbled in “1”, and tried to kill time as best I could by looking around.
Towering over the courtyard garden was a 6-metre-tall kuromatsu tree, its trunk and branches supported by a large bamboo trellis. A nearby signboard gave its estimated age as 200 years, several decades older than the shop itself.
I also took this chance to head back towards the store’s older front section, which we’d ignored earlier in our hasty pursuit of lunch. This part of the compound included Nakamura Tōkichi’s main tea shop, featuring a wide assortment of tea and a selection of sweet treats made with the same.
After my name was called, a server led me to a small two-seater table set up just outside the café, with a fine view of the garden. For the comfort of diners in the cold autumn weather, each outdoor table was provided with a portable heater and a bin of blankets (mmm, cosy). Patrons lucky enough to be assigned indoor seats didn’t need these little comforts – but then again, those tables were the first to fill up so there wasn’t much of a chance I’d get one.
Now for the meal. The menu was dominated by beverages and desserts – and if you decide to come here I’d suggest focusing on those – but one spread was devoted to a small selection of noodle dishes, most of which featured udon or soba made with matcha. I went with the 茶蕎麦セット (“tea soba set”, JPY 1,100), available either hot (in soup) or cold (on a bamboo tray) at the option of the diner. Considering the chilly fall weather and my outdoor seat, the hot version certainly seemed like the better choice.
A brief wait followed, during which I warmed myself up on the usual welcome beverage…
…and then my tray was served. いただきます!
The set meal included a small dessert, a side dish of tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and a bowl of rice sprinkled with finely chopped tea leaves. The star of the show, of course, was the main dish: a bowl of green tea soba served in a piping-hot broth and topped with tenkasu. Although not labelled as such on the menu, this pretty much fits the description of a haikara soba.
Now it’s important to manage expectations, so bear in mind that the matcha was something of a subtle addition to the noodles (rather than a primary ingredient), one that lent more colour than taste. (Don’t expect your palate to sense more than a hint of green tea flavour after biting into the first mouthful.) That said, the noodles were nicely cooked, the tenkasu topping added a contrast in texture, and the broth was wonderfully light – certainly very different from the rich, meaty soups one normally encounters when eating rāmen. Overall, this was a great dish for a cold autumn day, where no single element overpowered the rest and the food really warmed one from the insides out. Not fantastic, not mind-blowingly awesome, not something I’d make a culinary pilgrimage for … just delightfully simple and delicious, and satisfying to the core.
As I mentioned earlier, the Nakamura Tōkichi Honten café is probably a great place to enjoy an assortment of sweet treats made with tea. Perhaps a slice of matcha cheesecake, or a scoop of hōjicha ice cream, or some chocolate gâteau with a green tea centre…
…but for reasons now lost to me (perhaps having something to do with being full from the meal), I rather stupidly neglected to try any of the shop’s desserts, other than the little bowl that came with my set meal.
This was a “mini” version of the shop’s fresh green tea jelly, served with a dango and a dollop of sweet azuki paste. (Full-sized portions are available separately.) Not a bad way to end the meal.
Between the price paid, the food consumed, and the flavours enjoyed – not to mention the lovely old-time physical setting – I was happy with this experience and will almost certainly stop by again during a future visit to Uji. I tend to agree with some of the reviews I’ve read elsewhere, though: Nakamura Tōkichi Honten is really more of a tea-and-dessert place rather than a restaurant, therefore better for light repasts than full meals. With that in mind, on my next visit I’ll probably have a hearty lunch elsewhere, then come back here to cap off the day with a soothing hot beverage and an assortment of sweet delights.