The World's Oldest Tea Shop Is Located In Japan

Did you ever wonder why ritual tea drinking is so inextricably linked to Japanese culture? It's a long story. Really long, dating back more than 1,000 years to the 11th century (via Britannica) when tea drinking was likely imported from China by a Zen Buddhist monk who had been studying there, per SenBird Tea. Back then, it wasn't as much of a ritual as a means to help Buddhist monks stay awake during lengthy meditations — and it stayed that way for hundreds of years, eventually catching on among Japan's upper social classes and becoming a means for affluent families to discuss the finer points of tea while admiring one another's well-curated collections of tea bowls (via Japan Guide).

Admiring or one-upping? That's a question for the ages. We do know, however, that tea ceremonies continued to evolve, becoming more intricate, requiring more elegant tools, and eventually taking on a more zen-inspired spirituality. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City showcases an exhibit of tea ceremony utensils tracing the evolution of the ritual from utilitarian clay pots to intricate glazed ceramics. Regardless of the vessels used or its changing social nature, traditional tea ceremonies remain an integral component of Japanese culture — and one tea shop has been at the center of it all for more than a millennium.

A family legacy

Established in 1160 in the Japanese village of Uji, not far from Kyoto, Tsuen Tea is owned and operated by the descendants of the original founder (via Kansai Odyssey). Its story is almost as old as Japanese tea itself. The founder of Tsuen Tea, Furukawa Unai (via Tsuen Tea), was a samurai warrior, an elite soldier, in the service of Gen. Minamoto no Yorimasa during Japan's Heian Period. At the conclusion of his military career in 1160, Furukawa Unai retired to Uji where he opened a tea shop and changed his surname to Tsuen. An interesting choice given his new lifestyle, Tsu means way or path and En means calm. Twenty years later, Tsuen returned to battle one more time, where he died alongside his former commander Minamoto no Yorimasa at the Battle of Uji.

But his family kept the business going. Tsuen's descendants still own and operate the tea shop — the oldest in the world (via Times of India). Currently operated by the 24th generation, the shop is located at its original site, near the Uji Bridge, but it's in a new building. Well, kind of new. The current structure was built in 1672.

A BBC reporter who visited in 2020, found then-38-year-old Yusuke Tsuen managing the family business and protecting a birthright that will, hopefully, pass through many more generations. "When you're little, like in kindergarten and elementary school, you're asked your dream for the future," Tsuen told BBC. "I thought I was taking over the business. It was natural."