Out of Town | Green Tea Matcha Desserts in Japan

Matcha SnacksMatcha heaven. From convenience stores in the heart of Tokyo to generations of family-owned salons in rural Kyoto, matcha is omnipresent across Japan. The best part is it comes in forms of all kinds. Savants can appreciate powders in their purest form, bought to blend into teas or baked into breads. The gluttonous can find giant green ice cream cones lit up on nearly every street for soft serve or sundaes.

The following is by no means a comprehensive list, but it offers a glimpse into the various dessert shops and marketplaces that play their small role in making this matcha heaven.

Matcha Sundae at Giwon KomoriGiwon Komori: One of the prettiest streets in Gion, Kyoto is away from the main road of Shijo Dori packed with tourists, with most of them likely holding matcha ice cream cones. They’re probably delicious — in fact, I’ll review one of these spots further down in this post — but you won’t want to miss a small tree-lined alley way just three blocks north on Shinbashi Dori. You’ll find men, crouched along the cobble-stone path, drawing the scene, that also contains a streaming brook. Sitting along this brook is Giwon Komori, a traditional Japanese dessert bar. Hazelnut on Matcha at Giwon KomoriWalk in to the smell of incense, remove your shoes and sit at one of their tatami style tables that open up to the creek and the sound of trickling water. A sure sign is its local patronage.  We saw a few visitors come in solo just to sit and enjoy a glass of their matcha ice cream. We ordered what they ordered — one matcha sundae with red bean, mochi and chestnut, and another of the same order but with a hazelnut topping. No frills here. Come for the overall traditional ice cream and wagashi experience.

Shaved Ice at House KibakoHouse Kibako: Deep down a quaint alleyway in Nara’s street market, there’s a series of shops known as the Dream Cube. The very last of those shops is a shaved-ice bar run by a group of women. They were warm and welcoming, asking how we as foreigners discovered their modest, but smart and brightly designed store. It was by chance, and lucky for us, one of the best accidental discoveries of all our time in Japan. The matcha here was obviously in the form of shaved ice, which comes in a dark forest green syrup to be poured over the mountain of fluffy ice. A separate blog post will cover its other unique offerings. But for now, let the images do the talking.

Matcha Soft Serve at Nishiki Market

Sa Wa Wa in Nishiki Market: This marketplace in the center of Kyoto is a must-go anyway, so it makes a stop by matcha mochi specialist Sa Wa Wa a no brainer. The best way to experience it though is with their k-cup-like soft serve. One cartridge goes into the hand compressor, and out comes delicious, icy matcha soft serve. They serve it with two bits of matcha-dusted rice cakes. The herbal flavors are bold. This ranks second in the straight-laced matcha soft serve category.




Matcha Cheesecake at Pablo'sPablo: The all-American dessert is elevated to a whole other level at Pablo. The cheesecakes here are the size of your hand, but somehow, you’ll be able to take one down without a problem. At least, Jay and I each did. He got the traditional and I got the matcha. Cut into the flaky crust and you’ll have this fluffy cheese cake that melts in your mouth. The matcha flavor is light and subtle. We went to the main store in Osaka, but he has eight other locations scattered across Japan. There are lines both for ordering in at the cafe or take-out. They only sell the original for take-out, and you can choose between medium or soft. They recommend consuming within six hours, or by day three if left in the fridge. But eating it in fresh form is what makes it so special because it’s so warm and gooey!


Matcha Tofu in KyotoArashiyama Yoshimura: Matcha doesn’t only have to be for sweets. This lovely tofu shop along the river in northwestern Kyoto is a relaxing place for breakfast with a garden view. Tofu, regular and matcha, can be ordered to boil in a hot pot or cold to dip in various sauces. If you happen to be staying at the Suiran Kyoto Resort, which I would highly recommend, this restaurant is just down the road. Again, it’s tatami style, so you leave your shoes at the door. The matcha is very lightly flavored in the tofu, but just enough to offer a different taste from the regular tofu.




Matcha Ice Cream in Uji KyotoStreets of Uji, Kyoto: So this was my favorite matcha soft serve. It’s probably because this quaint southern suburb of Kyoto is known for their teas. Matcha is the focus here, with several family-owned shops lining the streets, each touting their brand of matcha powder and selling various grades, from those made for baking to those ideal for tea. But don’t miss out on the soft served caked in matcha powder. The flavor is seriously fresh and tea-like.



Nana's Green TeaNana’s Green Tea: How would I not stop at a place with green tea in the name. They have a location on the busy main street of Gion, Kyoto. The menu is painted green. Matcha lattes, matcha frappes, matcha parfaits, matcha soup, matcha cakes, matcha brulee. It’s not the best matcha parfait I had during our 10-day tour, but it has the best, most wide-ranging selection for those of you who aren’t sure what you’re in the mood for. It’s a chain, so there are locations throughout the country. And it offers a fancier alternative to those hole-in-the-wall gems for anyone who’s looking to ease into the scene.



Malebranche Tea CookiesMalebranche: They take Uji’s fine-quality matcha, mix it with buttery goodness and offer this luxurious tea cookie. Sandwiched between the two crackers is a velvety slice of white chocolate. Can’t get much more decadent than that. It’d naturally go very well with a pure, bitter matcha tea. If you have room in the luggage, the shop offers packs of these in all different quantities — and of course in beautiful Japanese packaging.



Matcha Waffles at Ten Ten CafeTen Ten Cafe: Another American dish made green with matcha. This waffle house offers a matcha waffle decked out in ice cream and jellies. The matcha flavor is a little overshadowed in all that sweetness, but it’s still noticeable against the crisp outer shell. While the shop in Nara isn’t anything extraordinary, it does carve out a niche with its waffles and I have to admit the colors on that plate were pretty vivid.



Matcha Mochi at Nakatanidou in Nara

Nakatanidou: The matcha mochi in this street-side factory in Nara is pretty well known. There always seems to be a small crowd huddled outside the shop, where workers are busily pounding the rice cake into just the right amount of gooeyness and sifting them into a light peanuty powder. Sometimes there’s a long line, but even when there’s not, there’s a constant flow of patrons handing one of the guys Y130 to walk away with one of these fluffy mochi balls. The red bean paste is a bit sweet, so it’d be nice if there was a little more mochi and a lit less bean paste. Still, it’s a handy treat for your walk through Nara’s marketplace.


Iyemon Salon breakfastIyemon Salon: Downtown Kyoto is home to a whole lot of coffee and tea shops. But if you want a good breakfast to go with it, Iyemon is your place. Their breakfast kaiseki sets are light — a great way to start off a day of walking around town. The matcha latte is pretty basic, but they also offer a carbonated iced matcha beverage. It’s bitter, like any real matcha enthusiast would appreciate.

Fried Matcha in KyotoStreets of Northern Kyoto: If you think you’ve seen enough plastic green ice cream cones pointing tourists toward matcha soft serve shops, then you might want to steer clear of the Ukyo ward in northern Kyoto. The street leading into the bridge that crosses Katsura River is lined with these lighted objects. But then again, it’s probably worth a visit for the sheer beauty of this mountain-side town, where the lush scenery was just about to turn a golden yellow and fiery red when we were there in late October. Plus, there’s a lot more than matcha soft serve. Somewhere a few blocks north of the bridge, you’ll find an irresistible aroma of fried chicken. Follow your senses to that cart, where you’ll find them also selling fried matcha. Literally, matcha, in paste form, battered and fried. While the flavor is pretty one-dimensional, it’s fried matcha — something to try at least one.


Matcha Ice cream sandwich on Philosopher's PathShops along Philosopher’s Path: Just before you trek down Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, there’s a small cobble stone road leading up to Yasaka Jinja Shrine. Among the first of the series of shops along this road sells curly fries and ice cream sandwiches. You’ll easily find this popular dessert across Japan, but there was something about the way they toasted the wafers. They were just warm enough to soften the matcha ice cream. Try to mix in a little red bean paste and rice cake into each bite. They also has a cherry blossom ice cream flavor, that to my surprise, made the whole thing even better.

Matcha Almond Jello at Ichiran RamenIchiran Ramen: Ordering ramen through a vending machine and sitting individually at a dim stall where a faceless waiter hands you your order from behind a wooden curtain may seem gimmicky. But the ramen is legitimate here, at least by foreign standards. But I’ll stick to the point. They offer a new item at the vending machine: matcha jello. This almond jello base, which is a childhood favorite of mine, is slathered in a smooth matcha syrup. It’s a comfort food and offers something a bit lighter if you need a break from ice creams.



Matcha Cream PuffPaths to Kiyomizu-dera Temple: It was a little disheartening to see this once serene hilly road get overtaken by tourists, but the crowd is now part of the awe-inspiring scenery here. And to cater to those tourists, you’ll find yet more matcha soft serve stores and several other types of dessert shops. Matcha Bun in KyotoAmong them: a creme puff shop, which obviously offers matcha among its filling flavors. It’s fresh here, with the chilled matcha creme squeezed into the crunchy shells on order. On a chillier day, a steamed matcha bun might serve you better. The earthy green tea flavor isn’t just baked into the bun, but serves as the inner most filling, wrapped into the pasty sweet red beans for an added gooey layer.

Matcha KitKatKit Kats: It wouldn’t be a complete matcha post without including Japan’s explosion of Kit Kat flavor varieties. The list includes but definitely is not limited to strawberry, red bean, creme brulee, nutella, wasabi, wine, milk tea, pumpkin, peanut butter and jelly and strawberry cheesecake. But green tea is still the classic. And when the season is right, you might be able to find the sakura matcha flavor as well. There’s no subtleness about the matcha, and it’s a wonder to me how this hasn’t been taken up across the world. Anyhow, it’s a great present to bring home.






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