Sipping my way to Japan at Sawa Tea Lounge

By Tana Kosiyabong


After finishing a wallet friendly breakfast at Yummy Sushi, I still wanted to hang out in the neighborhood. So I strolled toward Granville Island and spent my lazy afternoon there. Even with the cold breeze, it was a beautiful day. After a short walk around, I went straight to the Granville Island Public Market for some fresh produce and ended up sitting at one of the window seats on the north side watching the water traffic in False Creek. A few hours later, it was time to go home. On my way back, just a block west of Granville Island entrance, I came across a Japanese teahouse called Sawa. I needed a cup of hot tea to thaw myself from the frigid wind.

The front of Sawa was decorated with modern industrial flair – the walls were bare concrete. Yet somehow I felt like I stepped inside someone’s kitchen in Japan. The tea making equipment and cooking utensils were scattered on the kitchen counter and overflowed onto the kitchen island. The lived-in look made me feel at ease in the space. “It would be nice to hang out here for a while,” I thought to myself.


On the lower level inside the teahouse stood an octagonal table with a simulated fire pit in the center. Just above the pit hung an old Japanese kettle. This area brought back the memory of when I visited Japan a few years back. The space was dimly lit and cozy. However, I decided to sit in the front near the window so I could take better pictures.

sawa table

Sawa has an extensive menu–over 30 varieties of hot teas, several hot coffees and cold drinks, a few ice cream flavors, and limited choices of Japanese dishes. But the one that most caught my eye was the ceremonial Matcha (green tea). Up until then, I only had seen them in a few documentaries and some shows on TV. The Japanese tea ceremony is quite an impressive ritual. Although I hesitated to physically go through all the ceremonial sequence, I really wanted to try the tea. At $4.20, the price was a bit steep for my taste. It was one of the most expensive items on the tea menu, but I took a deep breath and went for it. I also ordered a piece of Matcha Daifuku (90 cents) to eat with the tea thinking that it would round up the bill to $5. But I soon realized that I was dumber than a 5th grader. I was 10 cents over budget (tax not included). Dammit.

Shortly after, my ceremonial Matcha was served in a large Japanese bowl. Its vibrant color reminded me of green tea ice cream, one of my favorites. Much to my surprise, the tea was lukewarm instead of boiling hot. The intense flavor transported me to Japan in the blink of an eye. I visualized myself sitting on legs and knees over the tatami flooring in a traditional Japanese teahouse as the host prepared the ceremonial tea. After exchanging bows, I rotated the bowl to the opposite side before drinking. I wasn’t even sure why, but that’s how I remembered watching it on TV. Before long, I got yanked back to reality as the last drop of the amazing tea disappeared down my throat.

The sweet bean paste filling of Matcha Daifuku tasted too sweet. It overpowered the flavor of the tea. My post research revealed that sweets were normally served before the ceremonial tea, not with the tea. Duh.

I had more Matcha latte than I could count, (most of them were sponsored by Bill’s–my boss’–coffee card) but this was the first time I tried the original ceremonial Matcha, the way the green tea as it is meant to be served. It brought me to the place that no Matcha latte ever could. I was so into this experience, I wanted to know more. So I asked the owner if I could talk to her for a while. She happily obliged.

The owner’s name is Ruriko Shimomae. She told me that ceremonial Matcha was made from finely grounded green tea leaves. Unlike the infusion method, the powdered leaves were not removed from the tea, making for an intense flavor. Ceremonial Matcha is preferably served lukewarm at a sitting. It is the only tea in her store she refuses to serve in a to-go cup.



Sawa Tea Lounge and Gallery is located at 1538 W 2nd Ave., Vancouver, BC, Canada. (T) 604.733.7900 (Website)

NOTE: Ruriko Shimomae was a textile artist when she lived in Japan. It was her dream to move to British Columbia, where her mother was born. She is very passionate about tea, and that’s why she opened Sawa as a tea lounge and gallery. Sawa tea products, though not organically certified by a Canadian organization, are recognized as such within the Japanese regulations.

©2009 Tana Kosiyabong and™. All rights reserved.

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30 thoughts on “Sipping my way to Japan at Sawa Tea Lounge

  1. That’s a great little spot. You should go when they have some artists there in the room downstairs, live performance with a good tea, what more could you ask for? 🙂

    1. Shokutsu,
      I’m glad you like Sawa too. I’ve never been there when they have artists and live performance. Sounds very interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for visiting:)

  2. Wow, interesting. I wanted to open my own tea shop but that’s way to far from my plans. You should try my daifuku instead, they’re not too sweet. haha. Just made some this afternoon.

    1. Divina, I’d love to try your daifuku:) Not sure how. I wish you could email me. hehe. Maybe I’ll check out your blog tonight and see if you post the picture on there. I hope you’ll have your dream teashop soon!

  3. Just reading this post transported me back to Japan, thank you! It’s been years and years since I had daifuku.. not sure where I could find some round my parts. I wonder if Divina could make me some 😉

    1. I’m glad the story transported you to japan too. It only cost me $4.20 for the tea. So, I think it well worth the price. Haha sounds like every one want to try Divina daifuku. You have enough customers to open a teashop now, Divina:)

  4. This looks like a really neat place! I never knew Granvilla Island had such a place. I’ve always been intrigued by the Japanese culture. Thank you for the great post, I really enjoyed it 🙂

    1. Hey Raychel,
      It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoy the story:) Sawa is just a blog west of the Granville Island entrance. Shokutsu just told me that they sometimes have artists and live performance there too. That’s great value for the money.

  5. Tea is such a “feel good” beverage. I guess that comes from my childhood. If I wasn’t feeling well, my parents said “here, have some tea”.
    There are so many varieties offered now. You can’t go wrong.
    Looks like a very neat place to visit. Interesting.

    1. I agree. Tea is very comforting. I tend to like asian tea more than european tea. But that’s just me. Sawa is a neat place to visit for sure. Glad to see you hear again applec:) Thanks for visiting.

  6. Dear Friend!
    Always a pleasure to read about “japanese experiences” from other friend foodies!
    Great post!
    incidentally I just post an article on tea a food!

  7. I didn’t realize that I’ve been talked about by a few people here. Congrats you’re #1 on foodbuzz. I was making more daifuku the other day because my sister wants to see how I did it. And the following day, I was making the chocolate truffle mochi. I’m making another batch of the daifuku again this afternoon for a friend. 🙂

    1. Divina, thanks for your and other foodie friends’ support, this Sawa post went to the top spot on foodbuzz today. And oh yeah, your daifuku mochi is quite popular around here. The chocolate truffle one is so awesome just to think of it.

  8. Gorgeous. What a cute place. My boyfriend and I are planning to visit Vancouver in 2010 so I am sure I will be back a lot for suggestions of where to eat. The last time I went I was just a teenager and hadn’t fully discovered my love of food yet.

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