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Copying without an original

by David Chester

In the movie “Mr. Baseball,” Tom Selleck’s character complains to his Japanese girlfriend that Japan copies everything. She quickly replies, “We may copy it, but we make it better.” After a visit to Ashbys of London, located near Akasaka-Mitsuke Station, one would have to agree.

Ashbys’ owner Tomoaki Nishiyama in front of his tea shop

Let’s start with the original: Established in London in 1850 by James Ashby, this venerable tea firm has ensured its lofty status with tea aficionados worldwide by selling only top-grade blends of black tea from Kenya, Ceylon and Indonesia.

Now, the copy: Established in 1999, Ashbys of London in Tokyo does in fact serve Ashbys teas, sell Ashbys tea caddies and feature the distinctive Ashbys “A” in its logo. From there, thanks to the imagination of Tomoaki Nishiyama, a businessman who loves his tea, the “make it better” part comes in.

You see, there wasn’t actually an Ashbys tea shop in London — or anywhere else in the world. But with the help of interior designer Miguel Catalan, Nishiyama decided to take Ashbys and, as he puts it, “make it into a British-style tea shop the way Japanese people might imagine it.”

Oddly enough, with its warm amber walls, wood paneling and enough halogen lighting to show off the crown jewels, that is the feeling one gets upon visiting this “copy.”

Perhaps more important, despite its location in Akasaka’s upscale world of movers and shakers, the prices are definitely retro (280-300 yen for a cup). Nishiyama explains: “It’s very expensive to have tea in Japan, sometimes as much as 1,000 yen. Since it’s my favorite beverage, I wanted to provide a place where people could enjoy a high-quality tea at reasonable prices.”

Indeed a sensible idea, one he took to the British Embassy where he asked to be introduced to British tea companies not yet known in Japan. After he was plied with samples from more than 10 companies, Nishiyama didn’t feel any of them would have the success in Japan he envisioned — until he heard from Ashbys.

With its combination of over 150 years in business and award-winning products (its Darjeeling tea is known as “the champagne of teas”), Nishiyama had found his perfect leaves.

Ashbys offers over 34 kinds of tea “on tap” — so to speak. Nishiyama invented a patented system called “the one-shot leaf dispenser,” which exactly measures the correct amount of tea to ensure you brew a perfect beverage.

Yes, you do your own brewing. Unfortunately, Ashbys is self-service, which does distract somewhat from the idea of an elegant tea. But, the teas, including “basics,” “classic blends” and “flavored” (ranging from apricot to vanilla), come with their own gold-colored teapots and timers, with little memos in case you forgot what you ordered. Scones with clotted cream and homemade jam somewhat make up for the lack of silver tea service and waiters with white gloves.

For real iced tea lovers, Nishiyama also designed a “double-cooling system” that creates a chilled, fresh brewed tea in record time. And not to be outdone by Starbucks, they have the system itself available for sale. Ashbys features a world of promotional items, the majority of which were designed by the Ibuki Craft Co.

Nishiyama is quite proud of his inventions, not to mention creating an entire shop based on a quality tea. As such, he’s determined to export Ashbys to London as a tea shop. (So far, the only comment from Ashbys has been that his one-shot leaf dispenser is “too systematic.”)

Though both the shop’s interior and exterior are inviting, Ashbys does have the dubious distinction of being on the surreal Akasaka Esplanade. Filled with restaurants, pachinko parlors and people rushing hither and yon, the street looks as if it was built for a gambling movie (with a subplot about fast food).

Also, Ashbys has no view to speak of (unless parking lots are your thing), and sometimes the background music tends toward rough-and-tumble R&B songs, which could not be said to have the same calming effect as the tea.

Still, it is obvious some care was taken to try and provide busy commuters with a chance to regain their composures before stepping back into the madding crowd. So, though it may not be entirely “original,” Ashbys definitely deserves an “A” for effort.