Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How Not Chinese is Taiwan: Rinbansyo, a teahouse review

Rinbansyo (eighty-eightea) / 輪番所
#174 Sec. 1 Zhonghua Road, Wanhua District, Taipei

From here

I am so happy to finally realize my daydream of blogging while hanging out in my tatami-floored Japanese tea nook - the previous tenants of our apartment turned what was built to be a dining alcove (or, was called one when it ended up that way due to the building's overall floor plan) and furnished it with a large mirror, low table and tatami for a wonderful tea drinking and dining alternative. I'm brewing the very last of a tin of basic Alishan tea that I was given awhile ago - it's time to let that particular cannister go, brewed in an Yixing teapot, poured into a tiny celadon cup (well, faux celadon). 

Nice, yeah? It looks better now - I hung the teacup curio shelf on the wall and got an antique box to hold tea that now sits in the opposite corner.

And what an appropriate blog post to be doing this for!

This past weekend I was happy to be invited to Rinbansyo, a "Japanese style" teahouse in a traditional Japanese house redolent with hinoki wood, situated just inside the park with the Japanese shrine to the west of Ximending along Zhonghua Road (you have to go into the park area to get into the teahouse).

Here's the thing - I don't even feel I need to say "Japanese style". Sure, it was, but more importantly, it was also local style. 

What a lot of people forget about Taiwan is that, while the people are ethnically Chinese and many aspects are derived from Chinese culture (whatever that means - seems like there's more than one "Chinese culture" out there), many other aspects are not. That includes not only home-grown grassroots cultural facets that are unique to Taiwan, but also aboriginal and Japanese influences. 

In terms of tea, food and to some degree architecture and lifestyle, much of Taiwanese culture is as Japanese- as it is Chinese-influenced. So I would not say that Rinbansyo is a "Japanese teahouse in Taipei", I'd say that it is a Taiwanese teahouse in Taipei, which reflects Japanese cultural influence.

From here

Rinbansyo has two seating options: a large, tatami-mat room that you must remove your shoes to enter, where you sit at low traditional tables, or the more modern Western-style tables. Both are lovely, but I recommend the tatami room if your legs can take it (mine tend to fall asleep, and I always feel huge and cellulite-ridden among groups of locals sitting blissfully in perfect poses on tatami - one of the pitfalls of being a Western female expat - but I do it anyway). It's more atmospheric and you get more of the hinoki scent. Which, by the way, is like a combination of cedar and cleaning product, but in a good way, an organic way, like in the way tea tree oil has a bit of an antiseptic smell). 

There are no meals on offer, but there are lots of small snack options - it's a good  choice for meeting people for tea and dessert. We had a Chinese-style flaky bun with a sweet bean filling (green beans, not red), sesame nougat candies and little madeleine-like cakes with a matcha tea paste that was delicious, the perfect combination of vegetal, sweet and bitter. There are more ornate options too - little sculpted flower desserts and the like.

The tea is delicious, pricey by general standards but standard as teahouses go. I got a Sanxia bi luo chun, because I like bi luo chun teas but rarely drink them at home, as my Yixing pot is prepped for oolongs. 

With tea, you can either brew it in a leaf-filled bowl, with a ladle to serve it into cups, or they will cold brew it for you, and you get one large glass (the glasses are of especially fine white ceramic).

It's lovely and peaceful, and smells like my favorite thing in the world. And with all the tatami, matcha and Japanese screens and ceramics, it is very Taiwanese. 

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