If you’re at all familiar with Asian cultures, you’ve no doubt encountered “the culture of cute”. I like to think the culture of cute originated with Hello Kitty and shoujo manga in the 70s, but honestly its origins are a fathomless mystery. In Japan, the term “Kawaii” is used to refer to people, places and things that are charming, vulnerable, shy or childlike. Love of the aesthetic gave rise to an entire subculture and forty years later no child can be without matching character themed lunch box/cellphone strap/pencil cases and plushies swing freely from Uni student rucksacks the world over. Needless to say, tea shops, a centuries old past time in Asia, have wholeheartedly adopted the craze. Adorable furnishings and welcoming mascots frame the cloying sweetness of boba and grass jelly. So which came first to the West: cuteness or tea?
For a while now I’ve been saying that Toronto is the tea-capital of the Western Hemisphere. It consumes more tea than most North American cities, has a more diverse populace than many and unlike most other metropoli, simply isn’t well-known for its coffee. When i visited Toronto in 2014 for the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival, i was struck by the amount of tea shops, tea vendors and the availability of real bubble tea. Miraculously i was able to convince myself to attend TCAF again this year, and naturally i started putting together a list of tea shops i wanted to visit. Incredibly, during the intervening five years, the bubble tea market in Toronto has simply exploded (helped no doubt by Canada’s lack of bullshit tariffs on imported Chinese goods…). When i searched for tea around the Downtown Core in 2014, i had 7 hits within walking distance. Last month, a cursory search on Yelp revealed over 100 different tea shops, most of which definitely sounded worth visiting. Vacation time and funds being what they are, at most i had four and half days in which to wander the city (and two of those days were spent primarily in the Downtown Core for TCAF). I was naturally therefore relieved when, as i copied down the names and addresses for the most popular and enticing half of those, i noticed an interesting trend. Many of the bubble tea shops seemed to have a “cute” theme and i was quickly sucked in by the dazzling pinks and sparkles. From that impossible list of 48 shops, I pulled out the cutest 27 “The Six” had to offer.
As you might imagine, visiting 27 tea shops spread across 6,000~ kilometers in two or three business days is simply not feasible for one person without a car. Although there were many shops that I’d really wanted to blog about, in the end the deciding factor was location. If they fell within walking distance of the Downtown Core, I tried to squeeze them onto the beginning or end of TCAF events held on Saturday and Sunday. Wednesday afternoon ended up being basically a wash as I was too jet-lagged to push myself out and about. That left basically all of Thursday and Friday for tea hunting, other shopping, bar hopping and vacationy fun (I even managed to squeeze in a three hour tour of the Toronto Aquarium, don’t ask me how). In the end i managed to visit 14 different tea shops.
It would be doing a disservice to those shopkeepers’ efforts if I tried to summarize all 14 stores in one post (plus, I photographed all of these to pieces ;). Instead I’ll be breaking them up into two additional blog posts: one for the Downtown Core and one for Chinatown and everything else.
For now, i give you a photo montage of places I walked passed without reviewing.