Japanese teahouse lets patrons drink from $25,000 antique bowls

(CNN) — Take part in an old Japanese tradition, sip from a $25,000 antique bowl, and even find a bit of a 1970’s Austin Powers vibe.

All can be part of the experience at Gallery Okubo in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, where antique dealer Mitsuru Okubo and his family offer the traditional Japanese tea ceremony with a twist – a selection of bowls ranging from new to over 300 years old older museum-quality pieces are worth up to $25,000.

The idea behind the gallery is that the visitor can feel the bowls and taste the drink as the Japanese masters of the tea ceremony would have wished – and at an affordable price. It’s art and history accessible to the masses.

Of course, if you’re breaking a cold sweat and wondering what would happen if you dropped an 18th-century $25,000 bowl, there are some modern alternatives.

Entering the gallery down a quiet side street, visitors are greeted with displays of various cups, bowls and plates on a tiny first floor. Okubo’s daughter Atsuko then emerges from an adjacent room to greet visitors and escort them up a narrow flight of stairs to a second-floor tatami room, the traditional setting for the tea ceremony.

The accommodation has been created for western visitors by placing regular chairs in a lowered floor, so visitors don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor as is Japanese tradition – and which can be extremely painful if you’re not used to it it.

In a small room to the side are tea bowls on a stand with four shelves. These are your choices, Atsuko explains in English, and then highlights some interesting details about each bowl, such as age, origin, and the tea master who supported it.

Atsuko Okubo displays some of her family's antique tea bowls, which customers can select for use during a Japanese tea ceremony.

Atsuko Okubo displays some of her family’s antique tea bowls, which customers can select for use during a Japanese tea ceremony.

Brad Lendon/CNN

Making these ancient bowls available to the public was Atsuko’s idea.

As an antique dealer, her father had collected many, but sales in the gallery were sluggish and most of the bowls were hidden, their boxes collecting dust and bringing no one joy. Atsuko felt that involvement in the tea ceremony would set the family business apart from the dozens of other tea ceremonies available to visitors to Japan.

But her father curated the bowls, and he looks forward to adding details about them. There is a dark, broad one from Belgium that was designed for other purposes, but a tea master found it suitable for the ceremony.

Or a bright bowl with colorful circles, squares and triangles on it. It looks like it was made in the 1970s and you can imagine comic super spy Austin Powers drinking from it.

That’s what makes it so special, says Mitusuro Okubo – it blends the old with the modern. And even though it’s only about 50 years old, it’s still worth about $15,000.

Atsuko Okubo performs the tea ceremony.

Atsuko Okubo performs the tea ceremony.

Brad Lendon/CNN

Okubo shows another bowl that is around 200 years old. To the untrained observer it appears to have several imperfections; it is not symmetrical and there is discoloration.

“Imperfection is human,” Okubo says, and that’s what gives this bowl its unique value of thousands of dollars.

It shows a different, up-to-date day bowl. It’s beautiful but perfect. It’s worth about $100.

“Perfect is for robots. This bowl is a robot,” he says.

And robots are interchangeable. So, if the visitor is afraid of dropping a $25,000 bowl, it is available. Suitable for kids, too, Atsuko adds, so they can share the experience with their parents who don’t have to worry about a multi-thousand-dollar disaster.

Today’s visitors make their choice – a 300-year-old bowl and the bowl from the 1970s. Atsuko, dressed in a kimono, begins the ceremony.

The tea service is preceded by a sweet cake.

The tea service is preceded by a sweet cake.

Brad Lendon/CNN

Kneeling at right angles to the guests, she carefully and methodically prepares the tea.

Using a wooden ladle at the end of a long stick, she takes hot water from a saucepan, pours it into a mixing bowl, and stirs in the tea with a whisk. The only sounds are the water guided by their movements and the birds singing outside.

After visitors are served a sweet jelly and bean paste cake in the shape of a hydrangea flower, the tea is poured into the visitors’ bowl of choice and served frothy hot.

After the prescribed ritual, visitors pick up their precious bowls, one hand by the side, one supported underneath.

The flavor is superb and all-encompassing, so much so that the fact that there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of pottery in their hands is forgotten.

This experiences the best of Japan.

As Atsuko carefully puts away her supplies and the bowls, her father comes up the stairs bringing gifts for the guests – hand-drawn and colored pictures of the bowls each visitor used and the sweet dessert they had, along with explanations of theirs origin and meaning.

Amazingly, Okubo only drew from memory, accurately recreating the design of the geometric figures on the bowl from the 1970s. It’s art on a very personal level.

Antique dealer Mitsuro Okubo presents lucky guests with an original drawing of their teacups and an explanation of their provenance.

Antique dealer Mitsuro Okubo presents lucky guests with an original drawing of their teacups and an explanation of their provenance.

Brad Lendon/CNN

It was about 90 fulfilling minutes, but looking back at the shelves of tens of thousands of dollars worth of bowls, one can’t help but notice that this is earthquake country, and often when earthquakes hit there are images of broken bowls and platters shaken from their posts.


“It’s the first place I go when there’s an earthquake,” says Atsuko.

when you go

Okubo Gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The address is 6-2-40 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, about a 15-minute walk from Nippori Station, which is on several major train lines.

The cost of the tea ceremony is 2,200 yen ($16) per person, and reservations are recommended.

Picture above: Green tea served in a 300 year old antique bowl. Credit: Brad Lendon/CNN