During a remarkable meal at Chef Nakahigashi's revered restaurant in Kyoto a couple of years ago (read my post about the chef), he served me a cup of steaming hojicha -- roasted green tea -- that was like no hojicha I tried before. It was nutty and delicate and absolutely satisfying. "From Ippodo," I asked? Ippodo is a Kyoto-institution, a generations-old tea shop famous for its top-quality teas. No, the chef replied. He bought his hojicha from a tiny tea merchant named Goshono-e, near the Imperial Palace (I believe "gosho" means "palace" -- am I right?). I made a mental note -- okay, I wrote it down -- to check this place out on a future trip.
Now that I'm back in Kyoto I asked Nakahigashi-san's son to help me locate the shop. He graciously agreed. We found the proprietor, Mr. Motojiro Tekemura, silver-maned and dressed in a traditional indigo samue, standing before a stack of two-foot tall wooden tea chests. Mr. Tekemura has been a tea merchant for forty years; he buys his leaf directly from top growers. I told him what I wanted. He scooped leaves from one of the chests and motioned me to smell. The tea had a powerful, smoky aroma like it was roasted over a campfire. I recognized it as iriya bancha, a Kyoto specialty. Interesting, but the wrong tea. After more back and forth Mr. Tekemura cracked open another chest and scooped some leaves. I took a whiff. That was it! It had a subtle, nutty fragrance -- just like at the restaurant.
I wondered about the difference between hojicha and bancha, though. So tea in hand, I went to visit Nakahigashi-san to ask him. He fetched two metal canisters and tapped a few leaves onto their respective lids. "Take a look," he said. Both teas were roasted green teas. The hojicha looked like the buds of the tea plant, while the bancha was produced from mature tea leaves and twigs. I believe that's the primary difference, the part of the tea leaf - and that associated flavor. Am I right? I'm curious if the roasting styles are different, too? If you know something about Japanese teas, please comment and enlighten me! (Thanks.)
To locate Goshono-e, head to the southwest intersection of Marutamachi and Karasuma Dori (both major thoroughfares), catty-corner to the palace. Walk west on Marutamachi along the south side of the street. After about six storefronts you'll cross a narrow lane. Goshono-e is the second storefront after that lane, an old machiya (traditional Kyoto merchant's house) with picture windows. If you peek inside, you'll see a scene like the photo above -- and you'll know you've found it!