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BRITISH TEA MUSEUM

The orthodox way of milk tea

by David Chester

In my search for a pleasant place to enjoy a coffee or tea, I often feel like a detective. Wandering Tokyo’s nooks and crannies, I diligently try to track down havens where weary souls can rejuvenate from harried schedules and the din that seems to accompany us wherever we go.

So it was gratifying when I stumbled upon something I dare say even Sherlock Holmes would have proud to discover: the British Traditional Tea Museum. Here you can commandeer a corner table, slip into a mystery novel and enjoy your tea properly: with fine china, silver spoons and plenty of tea cakes (to throw your diet out the window).

The British Tea Museum in Tokyo is managed by Kohei Mitsuya.

The “museum” is the brainchild of Edward Bramah, a professional tea taster and authority on teas and coffees. The founder of Bramah Museum, Cafe and Shop, located on the Thames River, Bramah has given lectures in the Britain, the United States and Japan, where he is acknowledged as being a “tea master” of traditional English tea.

Bramah’s respect for tea and its traditions touched the heart of Kohei Mitsuya, who had spent his career at the Itochu Corp. buying and selling one of Japan’s most traditional items: kimono.

Sensing the popularity of kimono was fading (mainly due to their high prices), Mitsuya had been looking for ways to provide people with affordable “cultural experiences” on a daily basis. When Bramah, whom Mitsuya had met through mutual friends, suggested a Tokyo branch of his “museum,” Mitsuya felt he had his answer. He rechristened it with its present name opened it in Minami-Aoyama in 1996.

Still an excellent salesman, Mitsuya doesn’t hesitate to offer detailed explanations about anything, especially the tea. He makes it clear that he serves only “genuine British Ceylon Teas.” According to the vacuum-packed bags he brandishes as he makes his sales pitch, the leaves, from the Rookwood Estate in Sri Lanka, are organically grown and produced the “orthodox way”: picked, sun-dried, rolled, fermented and aged up to three months.

A walking encyclopedia, Mitsuya relishes telling the story of Charles Spearman Armstrong, a pioneer in the growing of tea leaves and cinchona (dried bark from the cinchona tree, used to combat malaria). Leaving England when he was 16, Armstrong sailed to Ceylon in 1863, where he planted 300 hectares of Indian tea seeds at Rookwood, a former coffee plantation.

More than a century later, Rookwood is now being cared for by Keiji Shiraki, from ETC (the Ecology Tea Company), who is proud to continue the “orthodox way” of processing the leaves. “That’s why it tastes so good,” says Mitsuya, who not only manages British Traditional Tea Museum, but, with his wife and daughter, also prepares and serves the tea.

Served with milk, not lemon, the tea is delicious. For 1,000 yen you can have tea biscuits and “pot service.” Your teacup, with a logo designed by Mitsuya, will be constantly refilled, allowing you to tend to more important matters (like choosing dessert).

In addition to seasonal goodies, they offer appropriate teatime treats, including crumpets, scones and flapjacks (cookies made from oats and syrup). Sanae Hoshi, a local housewife, prepares the desserts from recipes Mitsuya brought from England.

Occasionally, Mitsuya confesses, he samples them “to ensure their authenticity.”

As for the museum, there is one — of sorts. Originally occupying the shop’s second floor, the museum, due to financial considerations, has been reduced substantially and now only a few of the “exhibits” are on display. Still, the silver-plated tea caddies from the 1800s, teapots in the shape of the London Tower and tea cozies fashioned after Marie Antoinette are worth a gander.

Mitsuya occasionally gives lectures about organic tea leaves, encouraging people to keep the environment safe from chemicals. To that end, he is proud that his shop’s tea is approved by the Foundation for Global Peace and Environment which, with the United Nations Environment Program, annually cosponsors an international contest of environmentally themed children’s paintings.

“Although British Traditional Tea Museum has not really made any money,” says Mitsuya with a smile, “it’s the right thing to do.”

With its soothing classical music, peaceful atmosphere and time-honored traditions, British Traditional Tea Museum proves that, sometimes, detective work pays off. Anyone care to join me for a spot of tea?